by Ellen Wells, Ball Publishing

Differentiate or die. Peace Tree Farm’s Lloyd Traven has been using that phrase as a wake-up call for the horticulture industry for the last 15 years. But he’s finally changing his tune. If you caught Lloyd at any of a number of speaking engagements this year you’ll know he thinks “differentiate or die” just isn’t enough anymore. “When consumers are looking at your benches or your website, they are asking themselves, ‘How does it make me feel? What does it do for me?” Lloyd says.

The way to truly set yourself apart as a grower or retailer, Lloyd suggests, is to make the answers to those questions evident and in the affirmative. In the matter of plants, “What’s it do?” is closely related to “How does it make me feel?” A plant beautifies my patio or yard and makes me feel happy. A plant feeds pollinators and that makes me feel like a good environmental steward. Let’s not also lose sight of the fact that a plant that serves a function or makes a customer feel good is also one for which retailers can ask a premium price.

Independent garden centers are positioned to offer plants that do something in exchange for room and board in a customer’s patio pot, mixed combo or landscape planting—whether that “something” is just being uniquely beautiful or having a unique function. What are some of those plants? We asked three hort industry plant geeks for their thoughts.

Angela Treadwell-Palmer of Plants Nouveau sees several areas of growth for shrubs and perennials. The first is a genus that is just getting some major attention from breeders: asclepias, or butterfly weed. Other than having a horrid common name, asclepias is a great plant for pollinators, answering that consumer question of what it does and how it makes them feel. Angela says growers are selling anything and everything in asclepias that they can get their hands on. There’s nothing easy about breeding asclepias, she says, but there are more than 100 species to work with—maybe one or two of them still uninvestigated will be the ones to open up the genus.

Another area that Angela sees for growth is fruits—not edible fruits but fruits for color in the garden. Think callicarpa and symphoriocarpos (snow berries). Breeders are looking for bigger and plumper fruits and more compact plants. Plus, ornamental fruiting trees and shrubs provide late-season color and food for birds.

Hedges are making a comeback, according to Angela—and not just the 8-ft. tall thuja hedges. She’s seeing shorter, European-style hedges being planted using roses and some of the new Hydrangea paniculatas. Breeders are aiming for 4 ft. tall and thick habits.

Lastly, Angela loves her company’s Mariachi series of heleniums as a late-blooming crop for fall. “They are great alternatives to mums, they are all natives and pollinators love them,” Angela says. “There’s not much else out there like it.”

Perennial Path

When it comes to breeding, it doesn’t get much more unique and different than crossing two genera. What results is a plant exhibiting characteristics of both—and if the plant is to make it to market, it needs to exhibit each genus’s best features. The mad genius Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries and the company’s breeders did just that when they bred Mukgenia Nova Flame. It’s a cross between a Mukdenia with its red-tipped, jagged-edged leaves and a dark pink-flowered Bergenia. The result is some really cool foliage that gets its fall color beginning in July and keeps it going right through fall—helped along with thick leathery leaves from the Mukdenia parent. What does it do? It gives the garden or a container long-lasting color.

“You’ve finally come up with a variety that looks good in a gallon pot.” That’s what one retailer told Dan in reference to Terra Nova’s new Poco kniphofia series. The good looks are due to leaves that, rather than being the usual long haggard-looking straps, are more like a nice strong grass. Not in bloom? It’s still good-looking, and still sellable.

What’s an interview with Dan Heims without mention of a heuchera? He of course listed his newest favorite—Forever Purple—as a must for garden centers offering something new and different. Saying it’s “the most incredible purple I’ve ever seen” (and Dan has seen a lot of purple heuchera), he also boasted that the variety holds its color steady throughout the season. “It’s different from anything else out there,” he says.

Aces

While “new and different” are always top of mind with the horticulture industry, Lloyd wants us to remember that the operative word is “different.” “It’s all new to the consumers,” says Lloyd. “Show them Nicotiana sylvestris, ceratotheca and stuff that Grandma had and they get really excited. Show them amaranthus, the summer poinsettia, or something like that and they go crazy for it. These are our aces in the hole that we don’t leverage enough.”

Among other groovy things, Peace Tree Farm is growing tea plants, coffee plants and some hard-to-find herbs. One of the most far-out new plants in their offerings is Farfugium Wavy Gravy. “We knew it was different but didn’t know where it fit,” says Lloyd of the market for it. Estimated as a Zone 7 plant, the right fit in the U.S. for Wavy Gravy is as a sizable “thriller” plant in high-end combinations. Lloyd says the European interest in this off-the-wall; farfugium is for the cut flower market, or rather cut foliage.

Begonia Silhouette is another Peace Tree plant that Lloyd thinks is terrific. It’s a black-leaved semi-tuberous begonia for full sun. What’s it do? It gives you a great alternative for fall pots and hanging baskets where you might otherwise have a fuchsia basket. And its dark foliage is a wonderful backdrop for popping brighter colors.

A plant coming on the market soon that Lloyd says will be a game changer is something called Canary Wing, a sport of Dragon Wing begonia. With blush-backed, brilliant yellow foliage and a ruby-colored flower, it will pair well in combinations with grasses and also dark-leaved plants. “Plus it’s a Dragon Wing—you can’t kill it,” says Lloyd. Keep an eye out for where Canary Wing will land.

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