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Features Crops Flowers
Recapping the sixth annual Sawaya Gardens Container Trials

January 28, 2008  By Melhem Sawaya

Calibrachoa has become quite popular with consumers, thanks to its exceptional range of colours and unsurpassed garden performance. It’s also relatively easy to grow and is quite energy efficient. Calibrachoa was well represented at the sixth annual Sawaya Gardens Container Trials. 

It is hard to believe that what started out six years ago as a 150-variety vegetative trial now encompasses 2,000 varieties. What is more surprising is that those previously mentioned 150 varieties covered 95 per cent of the vegetative varieties on the market at that time. Now, the 2,000 varieties also represent about 95 per cent of the vegetative varieties on the market, an increase of 1,333 per cent. The increase in consumer demand and the increase in varieties fuelled the market, resulting in a major increase in sales.

Large container and vegetative potted plant sales increased by about 1,000 per cent over the past five years, while at the same time bedding plant flats decreased by more than 25 per cent. With the increase in the large containers that have new vegetative material and good variety performers, the need for greenhouse and field trials is an essential ingredient for the continuous growth of this sector.


For a trial to be beneficial for the whole industry (consumers, growers, brokers and breeders), certain things have to be done without any deviation.

The whole range of varieties has to be at a trial and not just selected items. What the breeder, broker and grower want to sell is not necessarily what the consumer wants. So, a trial of the whole range of varieties gives consumers, buyers, breeders and growers a better idea of cultivars that are more in demand and will translate into increased sales.

Display gardens that represent one line are only beneficial for half of the equation that will promote the breeder’s line and that of the broker, but it cannot give a true picture for the grower of which varieties to grow, and more importantly, it will never ultimately tell the consumer which cultivars will perform well in their own gardens. Good plant performances at the consumer level will definitely increase sales, because they will buy more.

However, plants that don’t perform well at the consumer level will decrease sales in the long run, because no one wants to waste his or her money on a commodity that gives little or no enjoyment.

Breeders and brokers trying to create programs for chain buyers defeat the purpose when their only interest is to sell their own varieties, whether they are good or not. More importantly, when these varieties are not put through the test of greenhouse production, consumer appeal and garden performance trials, the result is a slowing of any growth trends in the horticultural industry.

Programs for the introduction of new varieties should be in place and encouraged by breeders, brokers, buyers and growers in greenhouse trials and field trials.

The Sawaya Gardens Trials are designed to fill the gap between the consumer and the breeder by not ignoring any aspects in the process. The majority of breeders, brokers, store buyers, growers and consumers are part of the process of increasing the awareness of gardening enjoyment, which will translate into a flourishing business for all.

The success of the Sawaya Gardens trials is only possible with the help of many participants: Allcover Portable Systems, Greenhouse Canada, JVK, Ball Superior, Yoder, George Sant and Sons, Linwell Gardens, Ed Sobkowich Greenhouse, Greenfield, Northern Innovators, CF Greenhouses, Creekside Greenhouses, Dosatron International, Vanderhoven Greenhouses, MacGregor, Plant Products, Specialties Robert Legault, Sonnyside Flowers, C. Frensch Ltd., VRE and ITML. These are in addition to all the breeders and trademark companies, namely: Ball Flora Plants, Simply Beautiful, Proven Winners, Flower Fields by Ecke, First Class, Fides North America, Sakata, PanAm, Bodger, S&G, Fischer, Goldsmith, Garden Performer, Natural Selection, Oglevee, Takii, Dummen, Danziger, Suntory, and Vanden Bussche Irrigation.

With a 2000-plus plant trial, the different flower colours, leaf shapes, textures and plant habit will give any person visiting the trial [1] a sense of amazement of the huge versatility of garden plants. At the same time, it will only take the imagination of the grower to come up with a product mix that is unique for their operation and, most likely, not duplicated by every other grower. If a grower depends on a salesperson to finalize their product mix, the chances are that a number of growers will have the same product mix and that will take away the advantage of uniqueness.

I had the chance this past July to visit England on a holiday. Many commercial buildings decorated the outside with window boxes, large hanging baskets and jumbo patio pots. By far, the number one plant used was Illumination Begonia. In this summer’s trials, as in every trial for the past six years, Illumination Begonia [2] never fails. It is the best looking performer with its vibrantly large and mainly double flowers. And except for picking the big blooms off the ground, it’s maintenance-free. If you don’t have Illumination Begonia in your program, especially if you are a grower-retailer, then you are not capitalizing on a good opportunity.

You can see from this month’s cover that calibrachoa rules! Visitors look at the calibrachoa [3] and compare it to other cultivars, and they wonder why they shouldn’t grow only calibrachoa.

If you are looking for a crop that is relatively easy to grow, this meets your needs – as long as you know a few culture points on how to handle this crop, which I will share with you in the near future. Calibrachoa is also energy efficient, has excellent consumer appeal at point of purchase, and has unsurpassed garden performance.

Vegetative petunia is one of the first genera that started the vegetative garden plant material trend. The Surfinia series is the first vegetative hybrid petunia that started the success of vegetative petunia. Surfinia Patio White [4] is from the same breeders, but with a more mounded habit that is suited for patio pot production where trailing petunias might not be suitable unless the patio pot is placed on a stand or high off the ground.

Another petunia form includes the double-flower trailing varieties, where the flowers are small but numerous. Double Wave Blue Vein [5] is one of the series that has excellent performance for a double petunia. It is almost self-cleaning, very floriferous, and will flower in May for northern growers.
Easy Wave White [6] is a more compact petunia than the other Waves and flowers in a lower-light climate. Easy Wave is like all other single-flower Waves, as it is propagated from seed. Double Wave petunias are vegetatively propagated. They have very good garden performance, flower uninterruptedly, are self-cleaning, and the flowers don’t go brown.

Many other petunia varieties are on the market, in addition to the Waves. Plush Lavender [7] is one of the Plush Petunia series, which has a similar habit to the Waves. Plush Lavender is a trailing, large, single-flower variety that is in bloom throughout the summer. It has great foliage, is self-cleaning, and the flower colour does not fade too much with high temperatures.

If you are looking for plants with lots of flowers, small, single-flower petunia varieties are the answer.

Petunia Blue Dream [8] is one variety in a series that fits this description. It is an excellent garden performer and has very good flower recovery after a rain.

Crossovers are in plants as well as cars. Petunia Blanket White [9] is one colour in the Blanket series that grows vigorously with good foliage, and is covered with tiny flowers that are the size of calibrachoa. In our trials, Blanket White was by far one of the best garden performers.

Whisper Bright Pink [10] has loads of single petunia flowers, a trailing habit with good, green foliage, and is self-cleaning.

Fortunia Trailing Light Lavender [11] has medium to large flowers. It vigorously grew 1.2 metres in our trials, has good foliage, and is an extremely bright colour.

Looking for a different colour? Supertunia Raspberry Blast [12] is your answer. Raspberry Blast is a new addition, with other bi-colours, to this series; they are a breakthrough in the trailing single-flower petunia lineup. It is very floriferous and self-cleaning, recovers quickly after rain and, most importantly, it stands out among other petunias.

With the increased demand for combinations of differently coloured foliage, fillers of both trailing and uprights are a must.

Plectranthus Necodemus [13] is a vibrant plant with good garden performance. Its greenish leaves with white edging work well in combination with any flowering plant. Although a very vigorous grower, Necodemus is quite responsive to growth regulators – including B-Nine – and even low ppm of Bonzi will definitely dwarf this plant.

Lophospermum Great Cascade [14] is a trailer with red, velvet trumpet flowers. This vigorous plant can be trained to be a climber. Its flower power decreases with high temperatures.

Plectranthus Nicoletta [15] is somewhat more vigorous than Plectranthus Necodemus. It has silver-greyish foliage that offers an excellent background to blue flowers in a combination. It is also good in large patio pots on its own.

Phlox Astoria Lavender [16] is a good garden performer in large pots. Vegetative phlox varieties, namely the Astoria and Intensia series, have excellent presentation and consist of many unique flowers that seem never to die back. They feature excellent self-cleaning, are very heat-tolerant, and are not bothered much by rain. Vegetative phloxes do not put on a good show in small pot sizes, but are excellent in large containers.

Setcreasea Purple Heart [17] is an excellent filler plant, thanks to its colour and well-mannered growth habit. It offers an excellent contrast colour in combinations, and is a durable, quality plant in all weather conditions.

Alternanthera Purple Knight [18] is a nice filler or stand-alone plant from seed. It is a very vigorous grower, and is excellent in extremely large combinations where one plant fills a large space. It grows well in various weather conditions. While it can even be grown in the shade, the vibrant deep colours need full sun to maximize their potential.

Looking for a deep-black plant? The Ornamental Pepper Black Pearl [19] is an excellent candidate, especially in full sun. It is a good grower, with excellent foliage colour that enhances other flowers in a combination.

As mentioned earlier, calibrachoa was the highlight of the trial. From trailing, to trailing mounding, and to mounding upright varieties, they are all super-floriferous with full foliage that looks perfect throughout the trial. Calibrachoa recovers instantly after a rain, is self-cleaning, and is excellent in different pot sizes and combinations. Try two or three colours as a combination, but you have to experiment to get cultivars with the same habit.

Here are some examples of the calibrachoa varieties in our trials. Due to space limitations, I am only showing a few samples.

Calibrachoa Cabaret Pink Hot [20], Calibrachoa Calimor Violet Blue [21], Calibrachoa Spring Fling Lemon [22], Calibrachoa Mini Famous Sun Pink [23], and Calibrachoa Colourburst Pro Rose [24] all looked great. The Pro series varieties are the most compact. Calibrachoa Callie Deep Yellow [25] has the nicest yellow colour. Other strong performers included Calibrachoa Colourful Expression White [26], Calibrachoa Superbells Light Pink [27], and Calibrachoa Million Bells Trailing Blue [28].

Another series that continually performs well in the trials, year after year, is angelonia, which is sometimes called Summer Snapdragon. A new series is on the market vegetatively and from seed.
Angelonia Angelina White [29] is a new series that looks great the whole summer. Just like other angelonias, the flowers are long-lasting and seem like they never fall off because the new florets are continuously forming. It is super self-cleaning.

Serena Lavender Pink [30] is one of the colours in the Serena series, which is from seed. It has excellent branching habit and flower power, in addition to the other characteristics we mentioned about the vegetative angelonia.

Angelonia Angel Mist Pink [31] is one colour in this series known for its exceptional growing habit. It is grower friendly and wind flexible, with flowers that stack over 12 cm on every branch of a very freely branching plant. This was a favourite with trials visitors.

Acalypha Chenille Red [32] is a very old plant, but it never loses its charm. There’s nothing else like it. It is an excellent summer plant in full sun. Featured are long, red, fluffy and bushy tails that last a long time on a slow trailing to semi-mounding habit. Acalypha loves heat and does not like continuously cool, wet feet. It has excellent show in large pots.

Euphorbia Diamond Frost White [33] is a fairly new variety that is quite different from other plants. It looks great by itself in large pots. Growers should also try mixing it with more than just spring plants; how about poinsettia, gerbera and potted mums! This should only be done on a trial basis. While there is not a lot of information on such combinations, it is worth a try on a small scale.

Gomphrena All Round Purple [34] is a very floriferous plant. It features round, purple balls on stems that have a vigorous growing habit. It works well in large containers or landscape beds, and is an excellent performer the whole summer. No deadheading is required, and it is not affected by rain. It is a seed variety.

Chrysocephalum Flambe Yellow [35] is excellent in combinations. Its silvery leaves and yellow blooms enhance any combination without overpowering its neighbours.

Begonia Solenia Salmon Coral [36] is one of the few Reiger begonias that performs well in full sun. Solenia flowers the whole summer, is mildew-resistant, and has excellent flowers that last a long time. It can be grown alone in large containers, in flowerbeds, or in combinations.

If you are fed up with Canna rhizomes that are full of diseases or virus, now you can have Canna from seed. Anna Lily Tropical Rose [37] is one of five colours in this series. It branches nicely and can easily be grown in 15 cm pots. In the summer, it performs very well in large containers, flowerbeds, or combination containers as a centre.

Inferno Apple Blossom [38] is another begonia that is excellent the entire summer in full sun. No deadheading is required. It has an upright growth habit. Fibrous begonia varieties, such as Inferno, are versatile enough to use in containers or landscapes.

Mandevilla Sunparasol Crimson [39] is fairly new to Canada. It has a smaller, waxier leaf than other Mandevilla. It has many flowers and, like other Mandevilla, is an excellent heat-loving plant that thrives in full sun and looks fantastic all summer long. This was another favourite with trials visitors.

Nemesia Aromatica True Blue [40] flowers the entire summer, even when it gets quite hot. Nemesia is excellent in combinations because of its fragrance and non-overpowering habit. It enhances the combination and makes other flowers look better.

If the native habitat of hibiscus is Jamaica and other hot climates, why don’t we use them more in our gardens? Hibiscus Tropical Montego Wind [41] is one of those new to us that does very well in hot weather and full sun. As an extra benefit, hibiscus can be taken indoors in the fall, put in full sun, and enjoyed year-round!

Cleome is not new genera, but Cleome Senorita Rosalita [42] is a new addition to the cleome lineup. It features more branching and is quite floriferous. It performs well the entire summer. It is excellent as a centre plant in combinations in extra-large pots (16″ and larger), on its own in large pots, or in large landscapes.

As I mentioned last year, we are trialing some perennials and many performed especially well. Here are a few that caught my eye.

Achillea Apricot Delight [43] is a unique plant of different colour shades. The flowering starts early in the season and lasts until after frost.

Heliopsis Bressingham Doubloon [44] features early flowering and is definitely perennial for Zone 5. It is said to be good for Zones 3-9. It has large double and semi-double flowers, and flowers from mid-June to frost.

Perovskia Atriplicifolia [45] is a Perennial Plant of the Year award winner. It has long spikes with blue-violet flowers accented by aromatic silver foliage. It is an excellent performer in large containers and landscape beds.

Verbena Bonariensis [46] is a seed variety that is an excellent performer in containers, landscapes or combinations. It was a favourite among trials visitors.

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research co-ordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome by e-mailing him at

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