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Growing in the Green: Are your combos profitable?

November 21, 2012  By Melhem Sawaya

It’s December, there’s a chill in the air (and hopefully no snowstorm),
and you’re wondering what will be hot in the 2013 container season.

It’s December, there’s a chill in the air (and hopefully no snowstorm), and you’re wondering what will be hot in the 2013 container season. Here is an outline of the different factors you will need to consider when planning your combinations.

Some varieties work better in mixed combos than they do on their own.  PHOTOS COURTESY MELHEM SAWAYA



Perceived understanding of mixed containers:

  • Making use of leftover liners.
  • Sticking a couple of trailers in hanging baskets the week of shipping.
  • Seeing a picture in a magazine for decks and patios.
  • Utilizing a favourite cultivar and anything goes with it.
  • Having a surplus of a cultivar and combining it with other cultivars.

What’s your definition of a good mixed container? For me, it’s a group of three to four cultivars (varieties) that look better in a combination than they do on their own.

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There are many types of mixed containers. Some feature three to four cultivars of the same genus, while others have three to four genera skillfully mixed together. Containers can be colour coordinated, or be designed to bring out the best of different leaf textures.

Some consumers prefer monochrome combos, while others will match their planters to house colours or lawn furniture!

  • Check soil pH and EC, and adjust if necessary.
  • Water liners or 4” plants with a fertilizer of 1.5-2.0 EC before planting. Water the media before planting to avoid overwatering after planting. Water lightly after planting until the plants are established.           
  • Fertilizer: acidic  (18-9-18), alkaline (14-0-14, 12-0-44), and
  • neutral (17-5-17).
  • Light: ensure there is sufficient light all around the pot – the higher the light levels, the better for the plants.
  • As for temperatures, start things off a little on the warm side (20 C) before finishing up a little cooler (12 C). Keep in mind that varieties have to be temperature compatible.

And with pest control, whether you’re applying chemicals or biologicals, make sure you know what you are targeting; otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

With liners, all varieties should be rooted in the same media. Constantly check that the plants are active and not yellow, and that they’re not overdosed with PGR treatments. Give them room to thrive, and finish the liners in full light.

There are many expenses to consider when assessing profitability.

Direct costs include pots, soil, liners or 4” plants, labour, the growing area per square foot/week, watering, pinching, fertilizers and pest control measures. Indirect costs include the overhead fixed cost per square/foot/week, bank charges, management fees, accountants, consultants and fixed wages.
Shrinkage is a major factor impacting profitability. This could include crop failure, lack of customers, delayed sales, plants sold but not paid for, pay-by-scan, customer returns, and simply bad accounts.

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Don’t forget shipping costs. Included are fuel, the driver’s time, truck depreciation and insurance.

Expenses aside, however, there is money to be made in great looking containers!

  • For starters, always plant live plants! Check plant material carefully.
  • Experiment to determine the minimum number of liners needed to make a shippable container by your target sale date.
  • Eliminate any variety that tends to disappear about four to five weeks from planting or that fails to survive long in the garden. It is waste of greenhouse space and only leads to gardening disappointment.
  • Fertilize regularly and check EC and pH frequently. Use high calcium and potassium EC fertilizers for height control. Use different fertilizers for minor pH adjustments.
  • Start warm and finish cool to acclimatize the plants for outdoors.
  • Grow plants at maximum light levels for outdoor acclimatization.
  • Combinations are not stock plants!
  • Three cultivars (varieties) are all that is needed most of the time. Don’t go overboard.
  • Seed varieties are just as good, if not better in some cases.
  • Use only the best cultivars.
  • Proper planting time is essential for cost management and quality.
  • Treat vigorous varieties with PGRs before planting.
  • Expensive empty containers should only be used for upscale plantings.
  • Do not grow plants that cover the whole pot if the container is expensive.
  • You do not sell all of your containers in one week, so they should not all be planted the same week.

Ten-inch hanging baskets are too small for successful combinations: the shelf life is much shorter and they are usually not profitable for growers. The smallest container size should be 12”.

The suggested number of cuttings should be four to five for 12” and 14” containers, and five to seven for 16” and 20” containers.

■ A crop has to make a minimum 20 per cent net margin if any net profit is to be made.

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Always calculate margin profit, not dollar sales.

Only grow what is ordered or at least spoken for.

Supply and demand is the only force that will dictate pricing.

Our success is directly connected to that of the store, garden centre, and more importantly, the ultimate consumer.

This is an outline for combination planning. I am going to expand on this in my next feature. If you have any suggestions on what to discuss or what else to cover, feel free to e-mail me:

Our goal is to help you produce combinations that will satisfy consumers and have them (and their friends) coming back for more, throughout the season, and year after year. So the question is…
…are your combinations profitable?

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, or visit .

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