Growing in the Green: California Dreaming

June 30, 2009
Written by Melhem Sawaya
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During this spring’s California Breeders Showcase, the average number of visitors to the sites was down by 25 to 30 per cent – it varied between breeders.

Is this the start of the downturn of the California Showcase, or are people in the industry simply applying the issue of “sustainability” to every decision they make in their business?

Whether a greenhouse operation, a broker, a breeder or a consumer, they all strive for sustainability in their own way. However, they all agree they have to receive more than what they put in to end up with a profit margin and remain sustainable.

When the industry was in a boom phase and profit margins were much higher, the decision to take a trip to see the California Showcase wasn’t really a business decision. Instead, it was an opportunity for a change-of-pace and to meet fellow horticulturists. If they learned something new or found a new variety, that would be a bonus.

In addition, the California Showcase used to be the California Pack Trials. They encompassed actual trials of the different varieties from various breeders of the same genus. However, since 2000, the genus trials are gone and so are the packs. Almost 75 per cent of attendees now are either:

• The exhibitors themselves.
• Employees sent by their company.
• Growers attending because their buyers would be there.

The other 25 per cent are hoping to see and learn something so they can justify the time they are taking from their busy season.

Yes, there were many new colours of a certain variety, or improved habit of a variety, and the odd totally new breeding.

Impatiens the driving force of industry boom in ´70s and ´80s
Still, the breeders are missing the point by producing too many cultivars that look good at the store/garden centre level but are a total disaster for the consumer. I have mentioned this before: the boom of the horticulture industry in the ’70s and ’80s was, in part, due to excellent breeding and the introduction of the genus impatiens, with which production was comparatively easy and the displays were a good selling point. More importantly, this genus left the ultimate consumer/gardener/homeowner thoroughly satisfied with the purchase of a plant that looked good the whole season long.

Many buyers visit the Showcase to get their hands on something new and hopefully the exclusivity on that cultivar. The problem with this is that the breeders themselves don’t always have enough information on how to produce the crop commercially.  They’re not always sure the cultivar has consumer appeal, and – most importantly – how it is going to perform in the garden or landscape. In cases like this, everybody is losing. The worst outcome is that some of those consumers are turned off and won’t buy plants any more, leading to a shrinking of our potential customer base.

With the recent flurry of amalgamations by breeders, hopefully the race will now be to increase the consumer base, rather than come up with a new cultivar to put on the market before we know how to produce it, what is the consumer appeal for it, and its garden performance.

Here is an overview of some new cultivars and a few “not so new” varieties that still show promise. These are plants that you can try and see how they perform in your production area. If your customers like what they see and, most importantly, how they are going to perform in the garden, there is a much higher chance of being successful with those cultivars.

Sampling a few highlights from this year’s showcase
Most of the plants will be more floriferous when the flowers are smaller. ‘Petitunia Pink Splendor Dream’ (1) is a mid-size flower that puts on a tremendous show with its multi-tone pink flowers and bushy habit that make it a garden standout. It is excellent in 6" pots, hanging baskets and combinations.

Looking to grow fuchsia in 4" pots? Then pick the varieties that are suitable for 4" production. ‘Fuchsia Stand Up’ (2) is an excellent 4" variety. As you guessed from the name, it has an upright habit and is full of flowers. It is good for 4" and 6" pots, as well as in mixed containers for the shade.

Many breeders now carry ipomeas. ‘Ipomea Bright Idea’ (3) is one standout in this series. Ipomeas are a good percentage of the 4" pot program and are in almost every large mixed container.

I still think that seed geranium, when grown to its full potential – and properly spaced and not overly treated with growth regulators – is a great garden plant. ‘Geranium Nano’ (4) is one of many seed geranium series that is much more floriferous than any zonal geranium and definitely stands the rain much better. It is excellent in landscape mass plantings. In our trials (Sawaya Garden Trials – Aug. 12) last summer, we had a good selection of seed geraniums to compare with the zonal geraniums.

Gerbera is increasing in demand with every bedding season and also as a pot plant. ‘Floriline Gerbera Florist Maxi Eye-Catcher’ (5) is one line that has unique colours and multi-blooms per pot for a longer pot life. The main reason it is increasing in popularity is its large mixed containers.

‘Sanvitalia Yellow Sun’ and ‘Little Penny’ (6) are two cultivars that fulfil different pot size requirements. They can also match different mixed container sizes and growth habits. Definitely, the sanvitalias will outperform any other species in garden trials.

‘Gerbera Revolution Mega,’ mini and micro (7), is a series trying to cater to different markets or packaging, or to different size mixed containers. Different sizes and colours make Revolution fit into many programs.

Viola are getting more popular every spring. If you need to set yourself apart, try the ‘Viola Frizzle Sizzle’ series (8). This is a double flower with excellent foliage that will melt snow faster because it is so hot!

Here’s ‘Osteospermum Astra’ in a 4" pot and a container (9). While it’s the same variety, one is treated with growth regulators and grown cool, while the large pot is grown without growth regulators and warmer. This results in a significant difference in size and habit and shows the flexibility of one variety just by changing the growing method.

‘Supreme Pink Morn’ (10) is a trailing petunia in the Opera series that trails controllably, has a full top, and doesn’t fall apart at the centre. It is early to flower. This cultivar provides an excellent show in hanging baskets and mixed containers, patio pots and large mixed hanging baskets.

‘Petunia (Hedgiflora) Cardenza Rose Red’ (11) is the same type as ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Vista Petunias’, which are, by far, the best types of petunias any garden can have. They have vigorous growth habit, are extremely floriferous, and there is excellent green foliage retention throughout the season. I have first-hand experience with the ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Vista Petunias,’ and this year I am going to try the ‘Cardenzas.’ Don’t start these varieties early. Market them as if they are a ‘Hedgiflora Petunia,’ with samples in large pots to show their potential. Sell these varieties in a 4" pot or, better yet, a 6" pots. They are also excellent in 14" and 20" baskets or large window boxes.

Gerbera Royal Mix (12) is another series with vibrant colours and large flowers. Ideal for 4" production and 6" for summer production, it also adds vibrant colour to any mixed container.

If you are looking for a colourful accent plant, ‘Houtuynia Chameleon’ (13) is an excellent variety. Very colourful, it does not overpower mixed containers. When leaf colours are matched to flowering varieties, we end up with a premium mixed container.

If you are looking for a variety that will jump out at you from any plant display, ‘Petunia Happy Boutique Red Shades’ (14) is a floriferous bloomer. It is also excellent in hanging baskets, alone or in mixed containers.

‘Vienco Lavender’ cuphea (15) features  multicolour blooms that start with a light fringe colour before moving to a dark lavender throat. It is excellent by itself in large containers and it enhances any mixed container.

Every culture has a favourite herb mix, so why not capitalize on what consumers want and offer distinctive herb mixes? The ‘Latin Salsa’ collection (16) is a great example. There are also favourite Italian, French and Oriental herb selections.

You want something different, even if it is a tomato. ‘Tom Allio Sweet Raisin’ (17) is more than a gourmet cherry tomato; it can be dried in three hours in an oven and mixed with your favourite meals.

Yes, every breeder has an ipomea. The ‘Ipomea Sidekick’ series (18) comes in three varieties of different leaf shapes and colours. Now you have a choice and there are more to come.

‘Bracteantha Starburst’ (19) is a brightly colourful flower. Its clean, green foliage does not lie flat on the soil. This means it will stay clean from leaf deterioration and avoid disease problems for the whole season. Also, it is an excellent branching variety where one liner will fill a 10" hanging basket if given enough growing time.

‘Calliope Dark Red’ (20) is new, and is probably the most robust red zonal geranium you will find. What I like about Calliope is its vigorous growth habit that will have an excellent garden performance. It is not for 4" production. It is excellent, however, for 6", 8", or 10" pots with one cutting per pot.

‘Bandito Rose’ (21) is a bicolour compact lantana that is excellent for 4" production. Like any other lantana program, the Bandito is best suited for late May and early June sales. It is hard to produce a good lantana in low light/short days and it will not take low temperatures.

The ‘Sunpatiens Spreading’ series (22) is a true sun-loving impatiens with a larger flower and vigorous growth habit. Compared to other impatiens, it puts on an excellent garden performance the whole summer.

‘Super Calpetchoa Vanilla Blush’ (23) is the crossover of petunia and calibrachoa. Yes, you guessed it … its flower size is between petunia and calibrachoa with different colours that look great from three or 30 feet away. It is excellent in baskets, alone or in mixed containers.

‘Mara’ (24) is a unique colour of osteospermum that is especially attractive. Excellent in 4", 6" and even 10" containers, it is just a matter of growing time or the number of cuttings per container. With colours like ‘Mara,’ and the ability of the new osteospermum to flower in hot days, selling osteospermum is not limited to an early-season crop any more.

‘Campanula Champion Lavender’ (25) is one of the excellent performers in this series. With its trumpet of colourful flowers, it is a true winner. Plus, not only is it different, but it has not yet been exploited in our area. Try some and seek out consumer feedback; then decide if you will increase or drop this crop!

The ‘Confetti’ is Dummen’s marketing of a one-liner with different cuttings that will grow into a mixed container from one mix or multiples. Pictured here is ‘Petunia Cascade Confetti Peppermint Surprise’ and ‘Surprise Neon’ (26). (We are trying these mixes in our trials this summer; make sure you look them over and give me some feedback.) ‘Confetti’ is an excellent labour-saver but try them on a smaller scale first so you can decide on the number of liners per container and proper timing to avoid extra labour.

‘Petunia Potunia Cappuccino’ (27) is an interesting colour of Potunia. It is upright in habit, with creamy chocolate colour that is not usual in a petunia – or any other plant! Therefore, this will open up new colour mixes with other plants. Do not over-program ‘Cappuccino Potunia’ or any other Potunia because the whole series flowers easily in short or long days and it looks best when just getting full. It is excellent in 4" and 6" pots.

‘Bacopa Bahia Lavender’ (28) and ‘Bahia White’ are two new bacopa on the market. These two cultivars looked good in the trials because they have a nice ratio between flower power and foliage. Bacopa is a good addition to most mixed containers.

‘Phloxy Lady White’ (29) is one colour in this series. It looks great and I can’t wait to see the performance in our garden trials. Vegetative phlox is underused because we try to produce it in 4" pots for early season sales, which do not look good at all. Try 10" or larger containers for June sales and, of course, it is excellent in combinations.

‘Summertime Lavender Swing’ (30) is a cascading osteospermum with a controlled habit. Cascading osteospermum are excellent in combinations that grow better at cool or warm temperatures. As we said before, osteospermum can be grown for the regular sales season and it doesn’t have to be treated as an early cool crop. ■

This is the first instalment of the coverage of the California Showcase. Next month, I will share more varieties and the following month will cover some garden display ideas, combinations, and marketing ideas – all from the California Showcase 2009. For all the pictures from the trials, go to www.focusgreenhousemanagement.com and you can browse.

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome, please e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ,  or visit www.focusgreenhousemanagement.com or www. sawayagardentrials.ca .

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