7 Steps To Create Great Combos

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Bermuda Skies combo

The numbers and range of combination baskets and containers grown for spring sales have increased tremendously in in the past 10 to 15 years. An explosion of new genera and improved genetics from breeders and suppliers over the same timeframe contributed to this trend, and consumers have reacted positively. Although single variety baskets and containers are still produced in large numbers, combinations are now the primary focus at retail.

With the continuing realignment of production into combination plantings, a number of factors need to be considered when planning, planting and growing these crops. Such factors include color combinations, plant vigor, plant habit, planting design, container size, cultural requirements and flowering time. Follow these seven tips to ensure success with each factor.

1. Get Color Combinations Right

Color combination refers to the designing and blending of a certain mix of colors in the finished container. This combination can be as simple as mixing two or more shades of a particular color. A bolder combination might contain contrasting but compatible colors like red, yellow and orange. Color wheels are available to help growers design combinations of colors that relate to or contrast with each other. While plant suppliers and breeder companies have promoted many popular combinations, most growers have also created or discovered combinations that grow and sell well for them.

2. Consider Plant Vigor

Matching plants that have equal or compatible vigor is crucial when planning any combination. There is nothing worse for a grower, retailer or consumer than offering or purchasing a combination that soon becomes a monoculture container. Part of the attraction of many combinations is their consistency in appearance throughout the gardening season, especially if purchased to provide a specific “look.” Many people also enjoy the gradual transition of combinations as they mature throughout the gardening season.

We grade plant vigor on a 1 to 4 scale. In most cases, it’s best to combine plants with the same grade score or one grade higher or lower. For example, a combination could be designed mixing plants with 2 and 3 vigor scores. I don’t recommend mixing plants of a 2 vigor score with plants scoring 4, however, there are some steps that can be taken to allow for flexibility of this vigor rule.

Plants per variety can be increased or decreased to compensate for vigor differences. Also, more vigorous plants can be drenched or dipped with a plant growth regulator before planting to help even out the vigor. The plug size of the various plants within the combination can be altered to allow for vigor differences as well.

3. Make Growth Habit Compatible

Other attractive combo qualities include their flexibility and multiple color and form possibilities. When planning combinations, the various types of growth habit should be considered for producing the desired size, shape and texture.

One term often used in describing a given plant’s habit is “thriller,” which usually refers to the focal plant of the combination. Often the “thriller” is the taller center plant in upright containers. The “spiller” plant usually rounds out the combination and may trail within the combination. The “filler” plant simply fills in the open spaces and ties the combination together. Within most combinations, there are at least two, if not all three, of these growth types. Explore the varied looks available and see how widely your customers’ tastes vary.

4. Use Interesting Design Concepts

Another topic to consider when planting combinations is the alignment of each plant within the combination. Usually an even flow of plant growth and color is desired to achieve the proper look. This is important whether the combination has two or three plants per variety, a mix of two and three or more. An even flow of planting is necessary for uniform combinations.

We usually plant in opposing triangular designs or triangles and opposing cross patterns.

For upright containers, you may choose to follow the “hanging basket approach” of evenly flowing plants and color throughout the entire basket. Or, a more floral design concept can be used to highlight specific plants in certain areas of the combination. With this technique, there is less of a consistent flow of plants throughout the container, but both looks are very successful.

5. Match Container Size To Customer Expectations

Container sizes are as varied as the possibilities of the combinations themselves. Sizes are determined primarily by input costs, container selling prices and perceived value at retail. The most common size hanging basket sold is the 10-inch, 12-inch as upright. Often times these combinations are sold as a “premium” item. If the quality of the combination container and the perceived value by the customer are high, a larger container and higher retail price is easily justified.

6. Provide Proper Culture For All Combination Varieties

Fail to consider cultural requirements when designing combinations and you risk damaging one or more of the plants in the combination, which ultimately damages the overall appearance. Growing temperatures, light and watering levels, fertilization and soil pH requirements of each plant must be addressed. Devise a plan to supply these basic needs for each plant within the combination. Generally, plants with extremely varied cultural needs should not be mixed together in combinations. But, as with vigor considerations, plants with mildly different needs can be mixed successfully if the cultural requirements of each are known and addressed.

7. Remember To Time For Flowering

To ensure that all plants are in color and retail ready for a scheduled sell date, consider the flowering time of each plant in planning. Select varieties that bloom in the same time period and continue to flower well throughout the gardening season. In many cases, slower-to-flower plants can be mixed with earlier-blooming plants and perform as desired. This can be achieved through the use of day-length extension or night-interruption lighting of the slower flowering plant in the plug tray– or by using an older/larger plug of the given plant.

By following these suggestions growers should be able to plan, grow and deliver top-quality combination containers more consistently with less stress and without additional labor.

Dennis Crum is the director of growing at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Mich. You can reach him at dcrum@pwfourstar.com.

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