Kelly Norris Says There’s Great Potential In Landscape Plugs

A new installation at a school, while the one on the right shows the difference in the same area just eight months after plantingAs turns-of-phrases go, plugged in and plugged up just might be the newest references for the future of landscape horticulture, without need for additional lighting or decongestants, of course.

Puns aside, plugs and liners are obvious staples of production horticulture, the least divisible unit of living material bound for market consumption. But that consumptiveness is changing, as plugs start to look more like a final product instead of merely a component in the process. Though not a recent innovation, deep-rooted plugs previously used only for habitat restorations or green infrastructure projects may introduce consumers to new plants and design ideas at an affordable price as the motivations for making landscape changes.

Planting For The Future

If you had to imagine the average consumer in 10 years, what do you think will motivate their purchase decisions? What do you see them buying? I struggle to envision a Millennial in 2026, by then in their mid to late 30s or older, ecstatic about the latest breakthrough in petunia breeding. I know, there I go again, beating up on petunias (all $263 million worth sold in 2014, per the USDA Census of Horticulture Specialties).

At those numbers, there will always be petunias sold to someone somewhere. But philosophically, I want to consider the future of landscapes and gardens, what they look like, and how they come to exist.
Here’s a prediction (would-be shamers of 2026 take note): The future of our marketplace is increasingly perennial, finished at a smaller size, and with demand poised for significant growth in the next decade.

Increasingly Perennial

Perennials are approaching annual sales of $1 billion, up nearly 12% from five years ago (USDA). That’s no surprise to award-winning landscape designer Sabrena Schweyer, FAPLD (Fellow, Association of Professional Landscape Designers), of Salsbury-Schweyer, Inc., who says, “Nationally, what I’m seeing is an interest in nature-based designs, and gardens designed for wildlife and with more resiliency.”

Schweyer says she believes these designs have the potential to bridge horticulture and permaculture.

“Clients want heavy duty, longer-lasting, longer-lived perennials. That’s going to be an important shift for our industry.”

Perennial categories will continue to flourish as sustainability becomes a relevant part of our horticultural conversation.

“This shift is happening in both residential and commercial markets, particularly given the demand we’re seeing for green infrastructure,” Schweyer says. “These plants have to be workhorses. Ecosystem services are more important than showy flowers.”

In the spirit of gardening with purpose, I predict retail consumer demand will be driven by versatility of the product as much as its application. I don’t think we have to give up showy flowers, exactly, as long as there is more to the package than that. The bottom line is that robust value propositions equate to greater relevance in the market, across a range of economical to ecological benefits.

Perennials have perennial value that has the potential to amplify with time, both in terms of ecosystem services and the emotional value they have to gardeners. This verges on a paradigmatic change for plant breeders in our business, where consumer wants and needs often fall silent to the dull grind of the production pipeline.

Plugged For Growth

But what kind of growth forecast do small plants with deep root systems have? Would consumers embrace them? Could a product with such modest, if almost menial sales numbers nationally right now, ever tilt the balance as 4-inch annuals did from packs in the bedding sector? The setup reminds me of the advent of e-books, which began selling at fractions of a percentage just five to seven years ago to now occupy around 24% of the marketplace with regard to total books sold. Are plugs poised for similar growth?

“Our team at North Creek Nurseries has seen exponential growth in demand for sustainably grown Landscape Plugs in the last five years,” says Claudia West, Ecological Sales Manager at North Creek Nurseries, who along with co-author Thomas Rainer, published a new book from Timber Press last fall called “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” which advances the conversation about ecologically conscious design at the interface of horticulture and ecology.

“Claudia has focused on educating our clients, and we have really seen an uptick in the acceptance and use of Landscape Plugs,” says Steve Castorani, President of North Creek Nurseries.

Of course there is the waiting game.

“Clients are often impatient with newly installed landscapes,” West says.

“Combining Landscape Plugs with larger size containers leads to higher age diversity in planting, which has positive effects on the ecological and functional quality of a landscape and often increases the aesthetic value of a new planting shortly after installation.”

Castorani is quick to point out that this idea has seen little traction in the retail marketplace, yet, saying: “We’ve seen consumers not get the ‘buy the whole landscape’ concept. But it would work for retail mail order since the consumer cannot touch the product, and they understand what they are buying.”

There are details that need to be sorted out, but none of these limitations are structural, in my mind. They are opportunities for innovation. The greatest commercial success we can enjoy as an industry will happen when plants truly connect with consumer lifestyles and not simply accessorize them. If she can brag about dinner on Instagram, why can’t she boast about planting combos, too? For too long, we’ve sold plants (and the garden concept) piecemeal. If fashion companies can succeed with $99 sock-drawer makeovers (yes, that’s a thing), we can find a formula for cost-effective, plant-diverse gardens that have a greater impact on the landscape and people’s relationship with it.

Topics: , , ,

Leave a Reply

4 comments on “Kelly Norris Says There’s Great Potential In Landscape Plugs

  1. Britsh garden catalogs already sell plugs. I do not know enough about British retail gardening but assume they also sell pligs. Of course Dutch consumers can vuy plugs.
    I found the article confirnongi trends I too hsve noticrd.

More From Perennials...

April 25, 2018

March Was a Month of Awards for Spring Meadow Nursery, Proven Winners

After taking home a best new variety award at a Belgian horticulture event, Proven Winners held its always-popular Shrub Madness tournament to coincide with the annual NCAA Championship.

Read More

April 25, 2018

Armitage Scholar’s Final Thoughts on the People and Plants of California Spring Trials 2018

"This trip solidified my desire to breed plants. Every time I was able to have a discussion about plant traits, genetics, and germplasm, I felt a thrill of excitement."

Read More
Gomphrena Truffula Pink (Proven Winners)

April 24, 2018

Armitage Talks Favorites From Danziger and Proven Winners

From annuals that look like they came out of a Dr. Seuss book to breeding marvels in perennials and shrubs, the visits to Danziger and Proven Winners at California Spring Trials were exciting, to be sure. Here are some of Dr. A's favorites.

Read More
Latest Stories
Bloomify Rose lantana cultivar

April 21, 2018

How Researchers are Building Better Lantana Plants

Genetic sterilization being used to help keep these prolific perennials in place.

Read More

March 27, 2018

Online Classes Offer Pointers on Herbaceous Perennials

The courses, presented by Allan Armitage, can help growers, retailers, and landscapers learn more about plant origin, characteristics, bloom time, flower structure, and optimum growing conditions.

Read More

March 2, 2018

How to Keep Your Perennials Healthy and Disease-Free

Disease control through scouting, chemical rotation, and disease-resistant plants is essential to keep your perennials in top-notch shape.

Read More
Helleborus Frostkiss Penny's Pink

February 24, 2018

Allan Armitage on Hot New Perennials for 2018

Here are some of the perennials Armitage thinks may increase in value in 2018.

Read More

October 17, 2017

14 New Shrubs With Fringe Benefits

What’s popular with shrubs? Consumers want varieties that will give them more return on their investment, in terms of long-lasting blooms and multi-season appeal that lasts from spring until fall and at times stretches into the winter months. Here are 14 new varieties of shrubs and sub-shrubs to consider for your product mix in 2018.

Read More
Azalea Encore Autumn Bonfire

October 4, 2017

Big Changes on the Horizon for Woody Ornamentals

The future looks bright for the woody ornamentals market, with exciting new varieties in the pipeline that will offer greater disease resistance, cold hardiness, bloom capacity, and more.

Read More
Hydrangea 'Berry White' (Bailey Nurseries)

October 2, 2017

Woody Ornamentals Market Set for Growth

The woody ornamentals market is looking up. Now, out-of-the box thinking about product offerings and consumer education will keep things moving in the right direction.

Read More

July 20, 2017

New Perennials, Trial Gardens, and Merchandising Were H…

Darwin Perennials Day has steadily become one of the must-attend perennial events of the summer. This year, even the weather cooperated.

Read More
Jonathan Babikow, Emerald Coast Growers

June 9, 2017

New Head Grower at Emerald Coast Growers is Excited abo…

Jonathan Babikow, Emerald Coast Growers’ new general manager/head grower for its Lancaster, PA, location, talks about his favorite perennials, the advantages of growing in Pennsylvania, and his future hopes for his career.

Read More
Eason Horticultural Resources Hot New Perennials Booklet

June 6, 2017

Eason Horticultural Resources Releases New Perennials B…

“Hot New Perennials for 2018” is a compilation of information shared with Eason from a broad range of perennial young plant producers, breeding companies, and breeder representatives.

Read More
2016 Perennial Plant Of The Year Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

May 24, 2017

What to Expect at the Perennial Plant Symposium in Denv…

The Perennial Plant Association’s annual Symposium takes place July 23-28 in Denver, CO, and features 28 educational sessions, six local tours, and a trade show.

Read More
Asclepias tuberosa

April 29, 2017

Greenhouse Growing Tips for Asclepias tuberosa

Madeline Maynor, Growing Operations Manager for Landenberg, PA-based North Creek Nurseries, shares greenhouse growing tips for Asclepias tuberosa, the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

Read More
Hydrangea paniculata First Editions Diamond Rouge (Bailey Nurseries)

March 28, 2017

Shrubs, Subshrubs, and Groundcovers from California Spr…

We asked breeders to share with us pictures and information on some of the shrubs, subshrubs, and groundcovers that you'll see at California Spring Trials 2017. They didn't let you down.

Read More
Spin Top Gaillardia Series (Dummen Orange)

March 22, 2017

New Perennials and Tender Perennials for 2018 from Cali…

We asked breeders to share with us pictures and information on some of the true perennials and tender perennials that you'll see at California Spring Trials 2017. Here's a sampling of some of the varieties hitting retail shelves in 2018.

Read More
Pennisetum First Knight Feature

March 11, 2017

Now is the Time for Growers to Plan for Fall Perennial …

If you haven’t already put in your orders for the items you’ll sell this fall, it’s time to start now.

Read More

January 9, 2017

Growing Tips for Craspedia ‘Golf Beauty’

Laura Robles of Mast Young Plants offers advice on ‘Golf Beauty,’ a novelty plant with can’t-miss yellow flower heads and silver foliage that blooms throughout the summer.

Read More
Coreopsis 'Madras Magic' (Terra Nova Nurseries)

October 17, 2016

New 2016 Perennial Introductions For Zone 6 And Up

Some perennials are at their best in warmer climates, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used in colder areas for season-specific containers or grown with cool-crop annuals to add some unique offerings to a product mix. Here are 11 new introductions hitting retail in 2017 that are hardy in Zone 6 and up.

Read More
Bees on flowers

October 13, 2016

45 Pollinator Friendly Perennials Sure To Attract Bees

Pollinator friendly perennials are the foundation of a well-rounded pollinator garden. Check out this list of 45 perennials that are sure to attract bees.

Read More