Despite well-documented cases of impatiens downy mildew, impatiens still tops the list of bedding plants in terms of flats sold. Based on the 2011 Floriculture Crops Summary, 8,353,000 flats were sold in the USDA’s 15-state sample. In the potted plants category, impatiens are in fifth place behind vegetative geraniums, pansies, petunias and seed geraniums (in that order). They’re fourth in quantity sold among annual bedding plants in hanging baskets after petunias, vegetative geraniums and New Guinea impatiens.
Impatiens walleriana is clearly still a mainstay crop for many growers. The dilemma that many face is what to do this season. In general, consumers are not very aware of the disease and will still be expecting to purchase impatiens this spring. Many retailers are aware, and some still want to provide what their customers are looking for. Landscapers in affected states will probably stay away from impatiens, since damage is most severe in landscapes. At the top of this chain are growers, who are leery of selling a product to retailers that may develop the disease and produce unhappy customers. And, even if growers do decide to grow impatiens, how many should they produce with the uncertainty in the marketplace?
We went straight to the source, Greenhouse Grower’s Fresh Air Forum, to see what growers were planning to do this year.
Paul Westervelt (Saunders Brothers): We expect to sell many, many less. Our primary sales region (the greater Washington D.C. area) was hit pretty hard this year (spring and fall), so we expect it to be a huge issue for landscapers, retailers and homeowners. We’re struggling now with how many to grow. We think we’ll sell out, but how responsible is it to sell something that is expected to fail? We’re offering alternatives and have a preventative spray program planned for the few we do grow. We’ve also talked with our vendors about their spray programs to make sure our program meshes well with theirs.
Erik Friedli (Flamingo Road Nursery): South Florida was hit last year, and our planting season is just starting again. We are not selling impatiens this year. We’re telling our customers that seeing them available in the box stores and elsewhere is an indication that they are not concerned with their success as gardeners. We are trying to switch customers to alternatives, but it is too soon to say how well we are succeeding.
Pamela Johnson (King Farm Inc.): We haven’t gotten hit hard yet with this problem, but we are cutting back this year by 40 percent and adding torenia to our program, along with more begonias and New Guinea impatiens. This year is going to be tough by far. Where’s that crystal ball?
Michael Pawelek (Farmer and Consultant): I am concerned that the few alternatives will not come close to selling like single impatiens. There are literally whole neighborhoods in the Houston, Texas, area with 100-plus-year-old live oaks shading most yards and esplanades where hundreds of thousands of single impatiens are planted every year.
This is a sad situation. I have been saying for years that breeders need to quit trying to come up with every flower color under the rainbow for every species of plant and instead concentrate on new offerings that were more disease-resistant and required less PGRs at the wholesale level. A good example of a job well done are the newer roses that have been produced in the last 15 years.
Begonias far outsell impatiens for us, so that’s an easy substitute in our region. Then [there’s] coleus and SunPatiens. We’re also offering other items in smaller numbers (unless customers book them in time to change production) — torenia, porphyracoma, oxalis, caladiums, browallia, ipomoea and anything else I’m confident I can finish.
Does it stink that one of our best selling annuals is being sabotaged by a super- contagious disease? Absolutely. But let’s focus on proactive solutions rather than the sky falling. Let’s get out in front of it so our customers and their customers are informed and have realistic expectations. I think quietly continuing to sell impatiens as if nothing’s wrong is like leading a blindfolded customer to a cliff and hoping they don’t fall off it. GG