Photo: Leslie F. Halleck

Annual bedding color trends ebb and flow, just as most trends in business do, no matter the industry. Flower color and form preferences move with fashion and design trends, while economic factors impact spending on plant size and volume. These days, the hunt for added value and benefits is driving annual bedding demand.

Small opportunities

Pre-recession, landscape contractors were still planting big swaths of traditional annual bedding color and often doing a couple of major change-outs a year. Customers were willing to spend readily to keep up with the Joneses. On the flip side, garden center retailers were able to push bigger bedding plants with bigger price tags without too much resistance, dependent of course on their market demographics. Customers increasingly wanted instant gratification, which meant a willingness to start with bigger and more expensive specimens (quarts and gallons versus 4-inch pots). In hot climates, a push for bigger plants was also a logical one, as small bedding plants often fail to thrive when planted during the heat, leading to customer failure and returns.

The big color change-outs, and the bigger plant and price tag push, became tougher sells post-recession. Since the recession, the only plant category that has steadily clocked measurable sales growth is that of edibles. Despite the economic recovery, and positive outlook for green industry sales, many customers are still applying caution and thought to their annual bedding purchases. Therefore, smaller bedding plants, which come with a smaller price tag, have regained some of their appeal.

Garlic Chives Allium schoenoprasum as an attractive addition to the landscape.
Photo: Leslie F. Halleck

DIFM

Budgetary caution aside, many consumers are still valuing their time and plant benefits over the price tag, leading to an increase in DIFM — Do It For Me. According to Chris Ricci, vice president of sales of outdoor products at Green Circle Growers in Ohio, “The biggest shift in bedding has been from do-it-yourself to having it done for you.” Ricci asserts that it’s just easier for consumers to buy finished color planters than assembling the combos themselves. “We can put combinations together and know what goes well together in them,” Ricci says. Green Circle customers are also willing to spend more on more expensive brand name plants, as they perceive these offer more variety and color.

Less is more

In hot and dry climates, where drought has had a significant impact on planting trends, landscape contractors have been asked to trade out seasonal color plantings for perennial, water-wise plantings. Johnette Taylor, owner of Roundtree Landscaping, Inc. and immediate past chairman of the Board for the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association, notes significant shifts, but also opportunities.

“The main trend with our customers is fewer annual color plantings. But that is actually playing out in two different ways,” Taylor says. “Firstly, some clients are cutting out annuals for more perennials and others are choosing more blooming shrubs and groundcovers.”

While Taylor acknowledges that customer demand has shifted away from the desire for large swaths of annual bedding color, she also points to emerging opportunities. A secondary effect of planting smaller pockets of color is that of more frequent color change-outs. “What used to just be one begonia planting in spring and pansies in fall has become three, four or five changes per year, so color is always new and fun,” Taylor says. In her words, less can become more.

Top and bottom photos: Annual succulents displays in the landscape.
Photos: Leslie F. Halleck

What’s popular?

When it comes to which annuals are now most popular, Taylor says vinca, geranium, begonia and caladium still top their customer favorites list. However, that is often dictated by what growers are offering. Even so, less “tight” annuals such as angelonia and pentas have become much more popular with Roundtree’s customers. They’re also now more open to less traditional tropicals, such as plectranthus, cordyline and alocasia.

Carol Allen, horticulturist and designer in the Washington, D.C. area also highlights the demand for tropicals as bedding color. “In the hot, humid mid-Atlantic, I’m seeing more tropicals for back of bed or as focal points. Many are deer resistant, too,” Allen says. Another trend she notes is an uptick in the use of perennial salvia varieties as the mainstay for spring, summer and fall bedding color in place of more traditional annuals.

Succulents and foliage plants are also coming into their own as bedding color. “Consumers are looking for something different. [They] are looking at foliage, tropicals, edibles, succulents and almost anything [except] the same thing they see every day for so many years,” says Lloyd Traven, owner of Peace Tree Farm. “Differentiate or die,” Traven says.

Who does it feed?

As edible landscaping, or foodscaping, has continued to grow over the years as a favored and accepted gardening approach, and planting for pollinators continues to dominate the media, consumers are asking more and more of their “bedding plants.” Do they have to be just for color? Or, can they serve a greater purpose in terms of feeding both the home dwellers and the local wildlife, whilst still offering beauty?

While many of us in the industry have been practicing edible landscaping, foodscaping or urban farming (call it what you will) for quite some time, it’s still a growing market with consumers. While my own edible landscaping approach used to seem very foreign to my neighbors, and city officials, it’s now becoming a landscape style many homeowners aspire to. However, many city authorities and homeowner associations still do not approve. Local laws and homeowner association rules can make it increasingly difficult for edibles to be grown street-side. Even so, both home gardeners and the industry are still pushing the edible and plants-with-benefits movement forward.

(Left) An edible strawberry plant brings an ornamental flair in its own right.; (Right) Pentas Lanceolata Pink, a less "tight" annual that is picking up in popularity.
Left photo: Brie Arthur; Right photo: Leslie F. Halleck

When it comes to the classic flat of annual color, why can’t that color come from edibles? Re-purposing compact edible plants as border color has a lot of potential in the market place. It’s also a great way to “sneak” in edibles as part of a more conventional looking color planting. By using edibles with significant ornamental value, consumers can get the most for their money and offset neighbor and city concerns. When it comes to bedding breeding, that’s where there is a huge opportunity: plants that are so attractive it’s not obvious they’re also an edible crop. Some of the large-flowered strawberry varieties hitting the market over the past few years are stunning ornamentals in their own right. The fruit becomes an added bonus.

When it comes to bedding breeding, that’s where there is a huge opportunity: plants that are so attractive it’s not obvious they’re also an edible crop.

While landscape contractors may be a bit slower to dive into the edible bedding market, and selling it to their customers, some are coming around. “I have been thrilled by the interest of North Carolina landscapers to include seasonal edibles in entryways and commercial plantings,” says Brie Arthur, a green industry communicator based in the state. “Rice has been a big hit as a replacement for annual pennisetum; peanuts and strawberries are being used as bed edgers with traditional annuals mixed in like coleus and begonia.” In her market, Arthur feels foodscapes are finally starting to take off as local food production becomes a more important issue for residents. Read “Think outside the (raised) box” in the May 2016 issue of sister publication Ornamental Breeder at magazine.ornamentalbreeder.com to learn more about her efforts to support the foodscaping movement.

As always, boosting such sales comes down to good customer education and marketing. Most retail customers might not even think of using colorful lettuces or strawberries as a bed color border, unless you sell them the flats of such plants in that context. As a grower, are you identifying the edible crops you go that also serve well as bedding plants for your retailers? As a retailer, are you merchandising edibles in your bedding areas?

Bee beautiful

Crystal Cady, owner of Sunflower Acres Farm & Garden in Salem, Ore., offers up her customers’ desire for color with a purpose. “As a grower-retailer, the two biggest trends I have seen in my area that are driving annual sales are consumers want plants that: 1) provide value and 2) offer benefits to the visitors to their garden beyond them and their pets.” That is, pollinator visitors.

Chives, which are edible, are another option to sneak in some color into a garden bed.
Photo: Brie Arthur

As consumers become more pollinator savvy, they aren’t looking just for a pretty petunia to frame the garden. They’re starting to ask if that petunia has value to pollinators and how it was grown. “Each year we have been growing more and more annual varieties that are pollinator-friendly,” Cady says. “We have always used beneficial insects, no pesticides, and organic [fertilizers] on our veggies and herbs.”

Not all cultivated varieties offer up the same foraging potential as “native” plant species. When choosing varieties for your bedding assortment, keeping a focus on good pollinator plants can help your retailers and contractors boost bee-friendly bedding sales.

Mix it up

It’s not just retail customers who want to buy ready-to-plant mixes. What Roundtree Landscaping is really looking for from growers these days are bedding mixes that are already put together and share similar growing needs. “I want pre-grown mixes for a ‘plop and drop’ in landscape planting,” Taylor says. In addition to mixes specifically grown for shade, sun, dry or wet conditions, Taylor is also seeing a demand for a more “native look,” which is right in line with the trend of landscapes becoming less formal. While that type of product assortment has become more common for containers, we have yet to see it translate into the landscape bedding category.

It’s not just ready-to-plant mixes that would benefit your home gardening and landscape contractor customers. Combinations that flower in a succession are also in demand. “The best help we could get from growers would be pre-made mixes and ideas on annuals that bloom in succession, but can all be planted same time,” Taylor says.

The clear message here is that variety itself rules, and it’s time to think outside the conventional bedding box. The palette of plants that can now be considered for use as bedding color is expanding. As long as the plants serve the purpose of the buyer and offer up the added benefits they want, there’s a lot of room for experimentation.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, marketing strategy, digital content creation, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com