Serve New Markets: Mixing it Up with Native Perennials

Display gardens are often the ideal way to inspire gardeners with great take-home ideas.
January 20, 2015
Written by John Friel
Grasses are often under-utilized in mixed container designs. Those retailers are missing out on some great sales opportunities.
Grasses are often under-utilized in mixed container designs. Those retailers are missing out on some great sales opportunities.
February 2015 – As key accounts manager at Emerald Coast Growers, a wholesale propagator in Florida, Pamela Straub is comfortable with the business side of the plant business. But she has deep roots in the artistic side, too, and it shows in her combination planters.

Straub studied art history in college, with a background in landscape design. “I’ve designed landscapes, courtyards, and storefronts,” she says. “I’ve also worked in the graphics field, as an account executive.”

Besides school and work experience, she adds, “I’ve always been interested in fine art. Pre-children, I would spend hours scouring art and design books, blogs, and magazines.”

The stock container recipe, “thrillers, fillers and spillers” is not Straub’s preferred approach. “It works, of course; that’s why it’s used so often. But I like to challenge conventional design – challenge the eye with something unexpected, challenge what the majority defines as beautiful.”

How is that done?

“I love texture and contrasting forms,” Straub says. One class of plants gives you both: grasses. “Grasses in containers is a go-to for me,” she says. “It’s not a new concept, but you still don’t see them used often, or in different, interesting ways.”

One challenge retailers face is how to merchandise grasses effectively. Display gardens are the ideal way to inspire gardeners with take-home ideas; but it’s hard to find the room, and maintenance can be costly and time-consuming.

NO NEED TO “LUMP” ALL THE GRASSES TOGETHER
A frequent default is to lump all grasses together on a bench or two somewhere near the alphabetically arranged perennials – the dreaded “ghetto-izing” that garden centre gurus rail against.

And “few displays are duller than a grass ghetto,” Straub says. “Grasses show best when interspersed among other plants. Containers to the rescue! Complements, contrast and inspiration in a compact space.”

Designing for retail settings rather than residential or corporate clients is a disciplined art. Obviously, the best combos incorporate products the garden centre sells.

Naturally, you assign design to your most creative staffer, but their wilder impulses may require curbing. If customers can’t find it in inventory and cart it to the cash register, it doesn’t belong in the pot.

Working in wholesale, Straub’s creative outlet is the summer trade show circuit. The company’s booths always feature her lush mixed containers, starring (naturally) ECG’s ornamental grasses and perennials. Increasingly, customers seek native grasses like Panicum, Nassella and Isolepis.

“I’m always thinking about the targeted market,” she says.

Magazine editors and customers often stop to admire, photograph and presumably clone her creations, so “you have to be concerned with cultural needs and requirements just as much as aesthetics.”

“A CROWDED CONTAINER WON’T LAST”
In the booth, a combination only has to look great for three days. On an endcap or a customer’s patio, more longevity is called for. “Plant health is important, too,” says Straub. “A crowded container won’t last.”

She likes to work in bold strokes. Her large, vividly coloured containers often feature the Pantone colour of the year. The 2015 choice, Marsala, is named for the red dessert wine it resembles.

She feels it will work well with plants, perhaps pairing nicely with rich greens, and “it’s very close to the colours of some grass plumes and the fall foliage of many grasses,” particularly Panicum.

DRAWN TO SUBTLE SHADES AND COOLER TONES
“My POV is forever changing,” says the designer. “I love all colour! But I’m drawn to subtle shades and cooler tones – blues, whites, greens. I don’t fall in love with a pastel palette, but I can design with it. It depends on what/who I’m designing for.” Again, the targeted market is the determinant.

She brings her training, design instincts and graphics sense to bear all year long, but especially at showtime. “My favourite ‘commission,’ ever,” she says, “is mixed containers.”

John Friel is the marketing manager of Emerald Coast Growers. Visit their website at www.ecgrowers.com.

PAMELA’S TIPS
Pick the container first, then select plants that suit it. Keep containers in proportion with their contents. “Generally, your tallest plant shouldn’t be more than twice the height of its container.” Pay attention to more than just flower colour! “I try to keep all the foliage different for more eye appeal – not just blooms. That’s vital at trade shows, where low light and cold, dry air make flowers close or abort. The foliage must hold interest.” Use a free-draining potting medium. “I like bark and soilless peat mixes.” Containers, even large ones, needn’t cost a fortune. Taken care of between uses – don’t let ceramic pots freeze, keep plastics out of the sun – they’re reusable. With plastic and fiberglass, “A coat of paint is as good as a new pot.” For reliable results, build containers with finished or pre-finished larger pots. “I begin with our plugs. Depending on variety or application, I pot them in quarts, or all the way up to a three-gallon. This also gives me hands-on experience growing our products.” For more on perennials, visit the “Crops” section at greenhousecanada.com.


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