Sixteen different combinations are available in Four Star Greenhouse’s Streamliner program, but head grower Dennis Crum and his staff didn’t settle on those combos overnight. Instead, Four Star trialed more than 100 combinations before ultimately finding the 16 genera combinations that grow well together and bloom into beautiful finished products.
“There are a number of things we have to look at,” Crum says. “One is rooting time. For the third genus, we’ll pick a scaevola or an ipomoea that stays in propagation longer. But it means if the one genus stays in an extra week, another one is going wild. It’s hard to even everything out without a lot of hand labor and plant growth regulators.”
Still, despite the work that goes into producing combination baskets and planters, growers are finding there’s a market that’s becoming increasingly receptive to them. Growers have been producing combos for decades, yes, but the three-varieties-in-one-liner trend has picked up arguably more than any other industry movement.
The combo liner trend has reenergized a number of growers on a simpler level, as well. Some growers are trialing their own combinations in house to have their own, original combinations.
“We have seen more demand for premium hanging baskets,” says Roger Esbenshade, head grower at Esbenshade’s Greenhouse. “We can’t meet our current demands on them. We’ve had so many baskets in that we can hardly grow anything underneath them.”
Esbenshade’s Greenhouse, located in Lititz, Pa., is one of those operations that’s mixed and matched varieties in house to find out which ones works best together. Esbenshade’s sister, Linda Bomberger, conducts her own combo trials over the summer to give the business a few new options the following spring.
“Linda makes all the designs and color coordinates items so it doesn’t just end up being random,” Esbenshade says. “She really has an eye for what looks good together. Sometimes, I don’t think things will work out, but in the end she can prove certain genera work well together.”
Unlike many combo liner programs, which Esbenshade says are designed in part so varieties react similarly to plant growth regulators, his operation will try combining certain genera from which other growers might stray.
“We’ll put a geranium and a calibrachoa together, but it’s not an easy thing to grow,” Esbenshade says. “One should have a high pH, the other should have a low pH. The growth regulator is a little challenging because you have something that can be very challenging and something that can tolerate a lot more.”
But if growers are willing to trial those harder-to-grow-together varieties, they just might find a golden nugget of a combo.
Combo Liner Concerns
If three different genera are too difficult to produce, growers may find equal success with three varieties of the same genus.
“One thing we’ve had great success with is three calibrachoa,” says Jim Monroe, CEO of Hort Couture. “It can be challenging when you’re doing multiple genera in those plugs, like a verbena, petunia and a bacopa. You have three different rooting times, three different cutting sizes.”
To Monroe, the combo liner concept is a great one. Still, he wonders if growers know everything they need to know about them–and if the industry rushed into the idea too fast.
“The concept is great for the big box grower and their mass production,” Monroe says. “But I’m still not totally sold on the mixed liner thing. I see shortcomings with it. One thing we’ve toyed with is maybe combos ought to be grown in 4-inch pots that go to the grower to finish. That way, there’s more space between the plants and the arrangement is more sophisticated.
“Still, I think this mixed liner thing will stick around.”
The bottom line with combos, Crum says, is growers should produce them in a manner that makes them feel most comfortable.
“I really think it comes down to whatever works best for that individual,” Crum says. “There are a lot of people who want to create their own combos, or they just have a lot more confidence doing these from 84s or 100s–or whatever cell sizes.”
Since Crum began working at Four Star in 1992, Proven Winners combinations have always been a part of production. Lately, Four Star has seen growth in its monocrop containers, of which 85 to 90 percent are combos.
“Some combos were up this year,” Crum says. “It really varied on the container size and look. Probably one-third of our combos are totally new or adjusted to take into account new varieties.”