Kelly Norris Says There’s Great Potential In Landscape Plugs

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.

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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.