Consumer Education On Plant Care

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If gardeners are broken down into segments, one segment will try to get as much information about the plants they purchase as possible. They are the customers who purchase gardening books, participate in Master Gardener workshops or check for further information on your Web site.

The second (and probably much larger) segment of gardeners don’t ask any questions or don’t know to ask questions. They just buy the basket or pot and walk out the door. For this second segment of gardeners, the plant tag becomes their primary or only source of care information. As an industry, we therefore have a problem (and an opportunity)!

Consider most plant tags. The goal of the A side of the tags is to attract the consumer to purchase the plant, identify the plant name and brand and show how the plant can work well in the landscape. The goal of the B side is to give cultural information. However, often the information is too generic to be of much use. To quote tags from a typical company: "Fertilizer: monthly for best growth" or "Water: as needed during dry weather." Advice to apply water or fertilizer "as needed" or "regularly" or keep media "semi-moist" is meaningless to a novice or inexperienced consumer.

Consumers who are knowledgeable about plant care are more likely to succeed with large potted plants and their success will increase future sales. We encourage you to evaluate whether the B side of your tag gives your customer the best chance of success. The exact wording you use to describe this information will depend on the size of the tag and the amount of space allocated to cultural information (generally around 80 to 100 words).

Enough detail is needed on the tag to provide useful, specific information. For example, after the purchase is made, what are the most important decisions we want to influence? The biggest priorities (and therefore number of words) are to put the pot in the right place and then water it correctly. If the pot is to last more than a few weeks, fertilization may be needed and, depending on the cultivar, deadheading spent flowers. 

Put It In The Right Place

Should the plant be placed in a sunny/partial sun/shady spot? Will the plant be killed by frost? How long can the consumer reasonably expect blooms to remain (taking into account heat, cold and day length)?

Terms should not be overly technical. What proportion of our new consumers understand "cold hardiness" or, worse, an undefined zone? There is not much room to describe temperature tolerance, but can this information be distilled down to clear instructions, such as "Bring indoors during frost"? 

Proper Watering

Water relations in a 10-inch hanging basket could be described in detail. For example, a finished 10-inch basket plant uses 16 to 32 fluid ounces of water per day. The "average" root media in a 10-inch basket will retain about 60 fluid ounces of plant-available water. Finally, a dry basket weighs 2 to 4 pounds, and a thoroughly irrigated basket weighs 6 to 8 pounds.

However, most greenhouses grow a large number of pot sizes so getting specific about the amount of water that needs to be applied to the pot may be impossible. The key information the consumer needs is: "Water when soil feels dry and basket feels light (every three to five days in gray cool weather or every one to three days in dry summer). Water until some water drains out the bottom and the pot feels heavy." You may be able to come up with a better description.

Extra watering details may not fit onto most currently sized tags, but can be helpful. If the media in the pot or basket has become excessively dry and has shrunken away from the sides of the pot, extra care is needed when applying water. Remember, just because water is running out of the bottom of the pot, it does not mean the media is fully moist. One method of reapplying water to a dry pot is to water multiple times over a few hours. If the basket or pot is small enough, it can be placed in a bucket and allowed to soak for 10 to 20 minutes. For a large pot or basket, it may be best to place it under a lawn sprinkler for an hour or more to rehydrate the media.

Vacations are the time when containerized plants die due to lack of care (usually lack of water). Before leaving, the plants should be watered thoroughly and then moved to a sheltered area with less sun. For example, the north side of the house, under the shade of a tree or even inside a garage or house. Upon returning, move the plants back to their normal location. Flowering may be reduced for a couple of weeks, but the plants will still be alive and should recover. 

Proper Fertilization

Fertilization is clearly a challenge, and label advice depends on whether the grower/retailer has pre-applied nutrients. An ideal approach for home performance would be for the grower to surface-apply slow-release fertilizer immediately before sale, although we recognize this adds additional labor, time and cost. Assuming the grower has applied little if any slow-release fertilizer, the consumer should purchase slow-release fertilizer and surface-apply it themselves at label rates.

With 17-6-12 slow-release fertilizer (four to six month), one tablespoon (about 18 grams) applied to a 10-inch pot at the end of production was sufficient to maintain a number of different species for three months with some additional water-soluble fertilizer applied at the end of the summer. A 2 tablespoon rate (about 36 grams) lasted through the summer without any need for additional water-soluble fertilizer. Because of the wide variety of pot sizes sold by most greenhouses, a recommended surface-applied rate would be to use the medium to high rate for the slow-release fertilizer product, or if a lower rate is used, additional water-soluble fertilizer applications may be required. An alternative strategy is to purchase a water-soluble fertilizer, and apply it at medium label rates every one to two weeks as a regular watering.

Traditional water-soluble fertilizers sold to consumers typically contain between 15 and 25 percent nitrogen, along with phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients. Using 20-20-20 as an example, 1 to 2 teaspoons (about 0.2 ounces or 6 grams per teaspoon) put into 1 gallon of water will supply about 300 – 600 ppm N. This solution can be applied to a container as a thorough watering every one to two weeks to maintain active growth and flowering through the summer. If applying fertilizer with every watering, cut the rate in half (0.5 to 1.0 tsp/gallon).

Liquid fertilizers typically have much lower concentrations of nutrients in the formulation, so the rate should be increased accordingly. For example, a liquid fertilizer containing 8 percent nitrogen would require 2 to 4 tsp/gallon, giving a solution with a concentration of about 250 to 500 ppm N. With organic-type fertilizers with very low concentrations of nutrients, follow directions on the label. 

Deadheading

Some species require grooming on a regular basis. For example, geraniums, fuchsia and Nonstop begonias are three cases where the presence of dead or dying flowers can cause disease problems and the formation of seed pods may reduce flowering. Removing dead flowers or seed pods on a weekly basis improves the appearance of many plants and may help the plant bloom more vigorously. Cultivar selection for minimum care is more likely to succeed than requiring the consumer to deadhead.

Growers and retailers work hard to produce a quality hanging basket. However, inexperience or neglect by a consumer can quickly ruin months of growing a quality plant, making them hesitant to purchase a similar container next season. We encourage you to check your labels and overall approach to consumer education.

Bill Argo is technical manager of Blackmore Co. You can eMail him at bargo@blackmoreco.com.

Paul Fisher is an associate professor and Extension specialist in the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida. You can eMail him at pfisher@ufl.edu.

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