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Trends & trendy

October 23, 2014  By John Friel

Defining trends is as tricky as predicting weather – maybe trickier. Weather obeys the laws of physics. Trends don’t even have to be logical.

Nonetheless, the urge to link disparate phenomena, to impose order on chaos, is a strong one. Here’s a snapshot of today’s perennial scene.

Dr. Allan Armitage calls new plants “the engine of our industry. Nobody walks into the store and asks, ‘What’s old?’”


True. But, once burned, gardeners become wary of new varieties that don’t live up to their hype – or that don’t live, period. Perhaps the most exasperating newcomers are those gorgeous, expensive Echinacea hybrids. Growers and gardeners report unacceptably high losses. Even Armitage recently advised, “You can’t go wrong with straight E. purpurea.”

Will anyone heed those doctor’s orders? Heck, no. The new colours are simply too sexy to ignore. To enhance survival odds, experts recommend that you:

  1. Count the crowns. The more low breaks, the better.
  2. Don’t sink crowns below the soil surface.
  3. Plant early. Well-established plants overwinter better.

There’s always a market for plants that deliver the goods. Take Heuchera “Palace Purple,” Perennial Plant of the Year way back in 1991. It still sells because it still works, holding its own against myriad newcomers.


Lewisia Rainbow Mix  
Andropogon Rain Dance  
Bouteloua Blonde Ambition  
Carex EverColor Eversheen  
Heuchera Palace Purple  
Panicum Hot Rod  
Muhlenbergia Fast Forward  
Sedum Candy Raspberry Truffle  
Stokesia Divinity


From towering grasses to tiny Lewisia, North American natives are hot. There’s ample irony in this phenomenon: indigenous plants, long dismissed as wild weeds, are retaking the landscape – not via windblown seeds or stealthy rhizomes, but in branded pots from the garden centre or in great swaths by government fiat.

Purists grumble about “nativars,” like those Echinacea hybrids and countless crosses of Monarda, Coreopsis, Phlox and Gaura. Others are miffed by the vague, vogue belief that natives are by definition superior. The industry is better served when we expand, not restrict, our palette.

The aforementioned Lewisia is an under-appreciated, tough little customer if given good drainage, especially in winter. Its mountain heritage makes it a classic rock-garden candidate or long-blooming pot plant. And it has a great story: Collected by the Corps of Discovery in 1805, the genus was named for Captain Meriwether Lewis.

After the Victorian era, ornamental grasses became scarce in America’s gardens. Nearly a century later, two European immigrants, the late Kurt Bluemel and Wolfgang Oehme, revived them. Now, grasses are an expected and respected part of the scene.

At opposite ends of the grass spectrum are the petite Carex Evercolor™ series from Ireland, and the skyscraping Miscanthus xgiganteus. In between are the usual genera – Calamagrostis, Cortaderia, Festuca, Hakonechloa, Pennisetum, etc. – plus a growing number of natives, especially Nassella, Panicum, Schizachyrium, Andropogon and Boutelloua.

Delosperma, Sedum, Sempervivum, Aloe, Echeveria, Crassula and cacti are flying off shelves. Why succulents, why now? They’re attractive, low-maintenance, versatile and hard to kill. They make terrific combo containers, indoors or out.

No one does Sedum like Terra Nova Nurseries, whose selections earned the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Elsewhere, the SunSparkler® series performs admirably. And Intrinsic Perennials’ “Thundercloud” is worth growing just for the foliage.

Sempervivum and Delosperma have emerged from relative obscurity, with the oddly named Jewel of Desert series raising the profile of “ice plant.” Which segues nicely to…

Launching new varieties singly is nearly passé. As has long been true of annuals, groups of perennials – Gaillardia, Echinacea, Sedum, Aster, Delosperma and more – with similar habits and different flower colours are trendy. The obvious advantage for introducers and finished growers is the chance to colonize retail shelf space.

No genus is safe from the pressure to make perennials ever more compact. We tell ourselves it’s for a good cause: people are planting smaller gardens, or container gardens, so small plants add versatility.

True to an extent, but let’s call it what it is: we do it for us. We love fitting more plants on the bench, maximizing every square foot, cramming more pots onto cages without damage. All honourable motives, but must we breed or PGR everything down to dense little flowering meatballs? Uniformity makes boring borders. Give us our sprawlers, trailers and scramblers, give us some soaring verticals. Good design demands those, too.

At the Farwest Show, speaker Leslie Halleck reminded her audience that when Gen Y and Millennials – the entry-level gardeners we’re all wooing – hear the words “garden centre,” they picture a big-box store. Not what IGC owners want to hear, and too large and touchy a topic for this space; but it’s a trend, and a fact of life, that must be factored in.

Like perennials, trends appear seemingly out of nowhere, flourish for a while and often mysteriously perish just when you think you have them figured out. Don’t worry: there’s another one on the way.


John Friel is marketing manager for Emerald Coast Growers, one of North America’s largest liner producers. For more information on perennials, specialty plants or ornamental grasses, call 877-804-7277, email or visit

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