Changing conditions spur product changes

Aaron Dillon, in Fremont, Calif., has combined an interest in horticulture and U.S. history in a graduate degree program focusing on the changes in California nurseries since World War II. “The biggest change was in technology, with geoplastics becoming available and the interstate highway development,” he said. Continued growth and development allowed the movement of nurseries into more remote locations, with plants being trucked to developed areas. With agricultural land disappearing, there was pressure on nursery spots for their land as premium sites. While Dillon’s degree studies focus on California, tree and plant nurseries nationwide have changed tremendously since that era, and changes continue to evolve in plants offered by nurseries.

Crew members perform pre-shipment plant inspections, which include watering and trimming.

These changes are often spurred by natural events that include prolonged droughts, floods and longer, colder winters in areas that normally do not experience extended freezing temperatures. These are only a few of the elements that lead to changes in nurseries and the plant materials they offer. Changes in plant choices are driven by consumer interest, which often is an outcome of promotional material now distributed in glossy print and Internet offerings leading to a quickly developing interest in new plants. Whether it’s flowers, shrubs or trees, nurseries across the country respond to changing consumer interests spurred by various events, and this year those changing interests are spurred, to a significant degree, by the economy and changing weather conditions.

Flowers still a mainstay

Heidi Heath, owner of Heidi Heath Farms Greenhouses, ( in Coloma, Wis., has worked in greenhouses most of her life. She earned a degree in horticulture and has worked with White Flower Farm, Litchfield, Conn. For the past 22 years she has owned greenhouses, currently numbering about 55 in the upper Midwest location. “We have about 100 wholesale accounts, mostly small garden centers and small retail businesses throughout the state of Wisconsin,” Heath said. She said that plant trials in California are one of the major sources of interest, and seed salespeople call on nurseries to provide guidance for new trends that nurseries could expect to see in requests from their customers.

Agave Blue Glow appears to glow as the sun shines through its leaves. It is becoming a popular accent plant in Arizona.

Heath noted that while the economy plays a significant role in landscape design, and landscapers may be focusing more on replacement work with the decline in new construction, flowers continue to be a major source of interest. “Even in a weaker economy, people still buy flowers. They may choose a container or hanging basket,” she said, noting that consumers often want instant gratification, which container plants provide. She also noted that a strong interest in color continues to increase, and even though there’s continued interest in traditional color combinations, there is a growing trend in both container and bedding plants. “People like the unusual combinations, such as orange and purple, with unusual grasses and various textures.” She also said there is a growing interest in black petunias.

Euphorbia milli “Jerry’s Choice” blooms frequently with small red flowers.

“We grow to requirements,” she said. “Customers place their orders with us, and we grow for those orders. We’re already looking at trends in the California trials for 2012.” Heath noted that patented flowers have increased significantly in the past decade, illustrating a trend on the part of plant developers to assure royalties on newly developed plants. Heath listens to the advice of seed company representatives and follows the lead of the California trials; she finds this leads her in the right direction when choosing plant materials to feature in her promotions.

Colder weather and interest in the unusual

At Arizona Wholesale Growers ( in Scottsdale, Ariz., two factors are driving the interest of landscapers, noted Jessica Woelper, sales manager and marketing director. Owned by Bill and Cindy Cox, Arizona Wholesale Growers supplies landscapers, nurseries, golf courses and municipalities throughout Arizona and in surrounding states. Woelper has worked in the horticulture field for a number of years.

Aloe Aloe arborescens has gray-green leaves and blooms of orange-red flowers, and is becoming popular due to its winter hardiness and its ability to survive strong summer sun.

While the warm desert temperatures encouraged the planting of tropical plants in earlier development, a move to more traditional desert plants has occurred since the 1990s. While the mid-1900s brought a strong interest in palm trees to the Arizona desert, palms have all but gone by the wayside. “Palms just aren’t used now,” Woelper said. While some of these changing interests have been in response to serious water concerns, much of the interest has been in keeping with a more native appearance.

“We’ve had two very cold winters,” Woelper said. Temperatures throughout the Southwest were colder than normal, with below freezing temperatures quite common. In addition to the cold winters, the economic slowdown has led to a major decline in new construction and a slowdown of commercial plantings, such as streetscapes. This year, spring brought a major freeze to the valley resulting in the loss of many plants. More recent area development has been in the surrounding foothills, which experience even colder temperatures and loss of tender plants. “The trend is to use more accent plants,” Woelper said. She noted the increased interest in agave and aloe plants, which are much more cold hardy than some previously popular plants that did not survive cold winter temperatures. “Ficus were used a lot, and they’re just not being used now,” she said.

Several plants have become increasingly popular due to their winter hardiness and ability to survive Arizona’s strong summer sun. Euphorbia resinifera (Moroccan mound) has gained popularity and is easy to grow. It takes Arizona’s brutal sun in the summer with minimal water and is cold hardy down to 20 degrees in the winter. It mounds to about 2 feet in height and can spread 4 to 5 feet. Tiny yellow flowers trim each stem in the spring. Euphorbia milli “Jerry’s Choice” is another popular choice now in Arizona as it needs very little water, maintains its leaves year-round, tolerates the full Arizona sun, and has frequent blooms of red flowers. It is hardy down to 25 degrees.

Euphorbia resinifera has tiny yellow flowers on each stem in the spring.

Agave “Blue Glow” has a red edge to its 18-inch-long leaves and has the appearance of glowing when the sun shines through its leaves. It is hardy to 20 degrees. Aloe arborescens has gray-green leaves and blooms an orange-red flower that resembles a torch. The leaves angle down and are lined with soft teeth. Woelper said, “This is a clumping form of a tree aloe. The 2-foot-wide heads are constantly building on top of each other, eventually reaching 8 feet tall. This aloe needs to be planted in the shade in Phoenix.” It is hardy to 25 degrees.

Members of the greenhouse crew transplant dianthus plants.

While an ability to survive in intense sun is needed, the ability to survive cold leads to some plants being even more useful with development moving into the higher elevations among the foothills. With the economic slowdown, and the subsequent decrease in new constructions, most landscape work is in replacement landscapes or upgrades.

With much of the foothills development in upscale residential housing, larger accent plants are very popular. “Desert Mountain, in the foothills, was very hard hit with the freeze, and there’s lots of replacement work being done there. People want the ‘wow’ factor for their lawns,” Woelper said. “They want something different from their neighbor’s landscape, something that really stands out in accent plants. They want frost-hardy plants after having the plant losses in the cold winter temperatures.”

Trends across the country

Some trends are regional, but many trends are similar across the country. Terry Flatt, owner of Southern Nurseries, Inc. ( in Nashville, Tenn., noted that organic soils are a new and significant element in garden excellence, and are particularly important in the development of effective rain gardens. Flatt noted a concern as specific plants gain in popularity. “When something becomes extremely popular, and everybody is planting it, there can be a concern. Right now it’s Knock Out roses, which are really beautiful and require little attention. If a virus develops, or something attacks the plant, there’s so much money invested in one plant, and if it’s lost, it’s a major issue.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.