Nearly 15 years ago as a retail grower I was troubled by the fierce competition among retailers for the standard fall offerings. Garden mums, flowering cabbage and kales, and pansies were the only crops we grew. As a perennial grower we offered quarts for early spring sales, gallons for spring and a small number of 2-gallons for late spring and summer sales.
We were almost always finished with perennials by July 4. Yes, we may have had some sedums and ornamental grasses, or perhaps a crop of late-planted rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm,’ but that was it.
That scenario worked great for production and the space the mums needed to be planted. Starting around Memorial Day my first rooted cuttings for poinsettias had to be planted, but was there opportunity to have other offerings in the fall? How about a nice-looking container with fantastic-looking foliage and blooms that would last through late fall and take on more beauty after a frost? It worked in Europe for years before. So why not in the New York City suburbs?
I had seen pictures from Europe and even got my hands on a catalog from Kientzler, a German breeder. We grew many of their crops in spring but never thought to offer them for fall with the standard crops already on our tables. So we embarked on a trial of a few hundred containers for the fall.
We used sedums, lavenders, plumbago, euphorbias, heucheras, lamiums, salvias and incorporated grasses, ivies and creeping Jenny. We would add violas, snapdragons and, yes, a mum or cabbage as well to some of the containers.
Customers were very intrigued and excited this container could last for a very long time. They were excited they could plant these in their gardens and enjoy many of the plants for years. A year or so later, Proven Winners introduced Fall Magic and had similar varieties in its offerings.
At industry events I spoke to other growers about our success. Most thought the phenomenon was odd, arguing that perennials in containers are more textured than flowered. Secretly, I was happy this was a unique item for our garden center and that the big growers would not bite.
After a few years, we started these containers earlier and offered many sizes, as well as the individual species in quarts for our customers who had their own containers or window boxes to refresh at home. As this program grew so did our creativity. We used small shrubs and tall ornamental grasses for our larger containers. We took this same idea and built sedum and succulent gardens, or a combination of cold hardy culinary herb gardens.
We found that these were much more profitable than our standard fall offerings. The bonus was we could grow these outside and they were almost all quick crops, say four to eight weeks from transplant to finish in a quart. Being a small grower was also an advantage because we could quickly assemble the combinations using the quarts to create our containers, so they were fresh and different.
Now, as I have moved on from a small retail operation to a larger operation, I continue to believe it is vital to offer the consumer something different for the late season. A few low-input additions can make the difference and help differentiate the grower. The challenge now is how we can demand a higher price for our 10-inch containers when all they can compare it to is a mum. Value-added signage and proper placement in the store are keys. Scream out the fact this container is a perennial and will overwinter, and they should sell well.