Foliage Offers Texture And Interest To The Garden

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Sedum ‘Beach Party’

It is no secret that American consumers want it all, and that sentiment is true in the garden as well. Despite smaller property sizes and dwindling free time, consumers still want their homes to look like the homes and estates they see highlighted in Better Homes & Gardens and on HGTV.

They also want all the beauty without all the work. Consumers don’t have the luxury of putting a great deal of time and effort in garden design and upkeep; and generally, they don’t have the desire to do so. As a result, consumers are looking beyond colorful annuals to fill their
containers, garden beds and borders.

The Perennial Foliage Trend

One trend points to the fact that consumers are using more perennials with colorful foliage to provide texture, interest and unique appeal. It is not to say that plants known for their blooming and colorful flowers are used less frequently or have lower value. Foliage, however, is an equal partner alongside flowering color that consumers are appreciating in new ways.
“Consumers enjoy foliage much more now because they are learning what works and what holds up; what lives and what does not,” says Lloyd Traven, co-owner of Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa. “They have figured out that foliage, whether in the garden landscape or the pot, lasts a lot longer and is a better value as something they can use again and again. For example, some pull flowers out of a combo and rebuild it around the foliage.”

Blending the beauty of flowers and the structure and texture of foliage is ideal for consumers, and that’s what Terra Nova Nurseries is trying to accomplish with its perennial offerings.

“If flowering plants represent the beautiful faces of the horticulture world, then foliage plants represent the great bodies. One doesn’t often run into the combination of both, but when you do get both, it’s magic,” says Chuck Pavlich, Terra Nova Nurseries’ director of new product development and product licensing.

Consumers Want Interest And Value

With home values tanking and no clear end in sight for real estate market turmoil, homeowners don’t have a lot of options other than to stay put right now. Consumers are seeing a benefit in placing a longer-term investment in their beds and borders with perennials because they know that landscaping increases property values. The perennials allow them to enjoy their gardens for as long as they stay in their homes, without the annual expense, and they’re adding curb appeal. Yet, today’s consumers want plants that make their homes look memorable, unique and special, not status quo.

“Shrubs and perennials with interesting foliage provide texture along with color. This gives you a depth of shape and pattern and a length of usability that flowers alone can’t give you,” says Traven. “With foliage, you can provide frilly and lacy, broad and dramatic, huge and tiny in ways that flowers cannot.”

Plants like colocasias and alocasias provide incredible drama, ranging from small, textured leaves to “leaves the size of a Volkswagen,” jokes Traven. They can provide beauty with a bang for a relatively small price. Others, like musa, are showpieces that capture attention, and heuchera provides a broad range of colors and leaf sizes. Even more unique is heat and drought-tolerant heucherella, combining the best parts of both parents: heuchera and tiarella. Terra Nova’s heucherella breeding program targets certain characteristics from both parents and enhances them through a thoughtful selection process.

“Heuchera is available in every color from black, yellow, red, orange — any color you can think of,” Traven says. “Breeders like Terra Nova are doing an amazing job creating plants with wonderful foliage to the point that leaves are all you need at times.”

Think Foliage First

To respond to growing demand for interesting foliage, growers like Traven are turning more attention to offering plants that generate attention and excitement and make customers feel special.

“We are gravitating heavily toward foliage, perennials, texture and color as opposed to flowers,” Traven says. “Our rule at Peace Tree Farm is foliage first, with an objective to show consumers something different and provide them with new ideas. We want to get consumers excited about plants again, and new foliage with interest is one way to accomplish this.”

The company’s 2012 OFA Short Course booth followed this edict, with virtually no flowers displayed, opting rather for foliage and texture. Peace Tree debuted its Garden Geek line at the show, which is all about foliage.
According to Pavlich, growing foliage is often simpler than flowering plants and provides an extended sales window. Growers can profit from growing perennial foliage by marketing plants for their fuss-free attributes and year-round color and interest.

“Foliage plants generally require less maintenance than flowering plants. Fewer things go wrong during production, and they are less demanding,” he says. “The same is true for garden performance. Many flowers are fleeting in length of bloom time, whereas foliage may last months to years, depending on the species and climate.”

A good example is Terra Nova’s line of sedums, which have filled a gap in sales time by adding foliage color, making them more attractive to consumers, along with superior habit and performance. This gives more weeks of salability to the product.

“Terra Nova Nurseries’ sedum breeding program has transformed this genus into a garden and container star,” he says. “Our line is shorter with much more basal branching and gorgeous foliage colors of velvety maroons, bright turquoise blues and elegant gray-blues. We’ve turned them into a high-value, easy-grow, easy-sell ornamental plant.”

Focus On The Consumer

Pavlich and the team at Terra Nova Nurseries have introduced more than 700 new varieties to the global market, many of which were specifically bred for their foliage. The research and development team’s advancement of heuchera, tiarella, sedum, heucherella and other plants has given rise to a new way of using foliage in the landscape. This involves the opportunity to sell larger plants with longer shelf lives, as well as ones that offer multiple seasons of garden worthiness.

Price and value play important roles. Pavlich adds that the industry has reached a critical point with consumers’ expectations that everything should be low cost, making it difficult for plant breeders to invest in research and development for new product. “The focus should instead be on quality and value and the consumer,” he says.

“The industry is shooting itself in the foot if quality and value are not part of the money-making equation,” he says. “When faced with obvious quality choices, consumers will pay more. We just need to have consumer education in mind at all times. They know what they want, and, ultimately, they control what we breed. If we listen to them, everyone gets to see success.”

Don Eberly is president and CEO of Eberly Collard Public Relations, an agribusiness and home/garden-based firm that specializes in public/media relations, marketing, advertising and branding for garden centers, professional nursery and greenhouse growers, grower consortiums, plant breeders, horticulture product companies and landscape designers. He can be reached at 404-574-2900 or doneberly@eberlypr.com.

Jeff Collard is vice-president of Eberly Public Relations, a PR and advertising firm specializing in the home, garden, design and agribusiness industries. You can eMail him at jeffcollard@eberlypr.com or call 404-574-2900.

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