Avens (Geum spp.) are certainly not counted among the most common perennials, despite having been cultivated in gardens for many years. Evocative of miniature roses, their brightly colored flowers bloom freely for many weeks in late spring and early summer. Avens are without doubt extroverted perennials—Graham Stuart Thomas fittingly proclaimed avens to be “one of the gayest of early summer plants.” And yet, avens have been uncommon in contemporary gardens until recently.
Avens in Great Britain far surpass what’s commercially available in the United States based on a review of the Royal Horticultural Society’s online plant finder (rhs.org.uk/plants/search-form) and the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Plant Information Online (plantinfo.umn.edu/). Developments in plant breeding and selection has drawn these lovely and tough perennials out of obscurity. Much of the enhancements to avens in the past few years can be attributed to Brent Horvath, plant breeder and owner of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens in Hebron, Ill. His Geum Cocktails series has re-imagined avens, offering gardeners a variety of flower colors ranging from soft pastels to fiery tones of red, orange, and yellow. As gardeners discover or rediscover avens, they will find that the offerings are greater than ever before.
It’s not surprising that the single to semidouble flowers resemble small roses, since Geum is in the rose family. Single flowers are saucer-shaped with five broad, showy petals and a central boss of stamens; whereas, semi-double flowers possess many more petals and fewer stamens. Red, orange, and yellow are the standard flower colors, but color intensity ranges from soft to deeply saturated, and may be blushed with other colors or bicolored, too. The flowers are held above the foliage on wiry stems and each blossom may be up-, out-, or down-facing depending on the species or cultivar. While the majority of avens show off their petals, the nodding flowers of water avens (G. rivale) and prairie smoke (G. triflorum), hide their understated corollas within cup-shaped coronal bracts. The feathery plumes of ripening fruit aid in seed dispersal but can also be exceptionally ornamental as in the case of the ethereal prairie smoke. Avens form rosettes of large hairy green leaves, which are comprised of a prominent terminal lobe above pinnately arranged pairs of smaller leaflets. The true leaf form and size is often masked since only the large terminal lobes show, while the small lateral leaflets are well hidden within the congested crowns and are often misshapen. Due to the hybrid nature of many cultivars, foliar shapes can be highly variable, thereby making taxonomic verification challenging. Leaves may be evergreen to semi-evergreen in mild winters.
There are about 50 species of Geum indigenous to cool regions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, although only a handful of species are commonly cultivated. Many species, such as Chilean avens (G. chiloense) and scarlet avens (G. coccineum), grow naturally in moist, rich soils in meadows or woods; whereas prairie smoke (G. triflorum) is native to dry prairies and rocky places. Avens generally prefer moist, well-drained soils in full sun to light shade but do not like wet winter soils. They flourish in full sun gardens in cooler zones if ample water is provided but will appreciate afternoon shade in hot and humid climates. Avens are generally hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9.
The evaluation study
The Chicago Botanic Garden (USDA Hardiness Zone 5b, AHS Plant Heat-Zone 5) evaluated 49 Geum taxa between 2007 and 2015. Forty-six taxa completed at least two years in the trial, although the majority of the taxa were evaluated for four years. Three taxa were excluded from the final results because they were evaluated for one year only. The goal of the comparative trial was to identify outstanding avens for upper midwestern gardens. Five plants of each taxon were grown in side-by-side plots for easy comparison of ornamental traits and landscape performance. The evaluation garden was openly exposed to wind in all directions and received at least ten hours of full sun daily during the growing season, which averaged 181 days per year for the trial period. The clay-loam soil had a pH of 7.4 throughout the evaluation term. The site was normally well drained, but at times the soil retained moisture for short periods in summer and winter. G. canadense was planted in a partially shaded site that had a similar soil type and alkaline pH as the full-sun garden. Maintenance practices were kept to a minimum, thereby allowing the plants to thrive or fail under natural conditions. Trial beds were irrigated via overhead sprinklers as needed, mulched with composted leaves once each spring or summer, and regularly weeded. Moreover, plants were not deadheaded, fertilized, winter mulched, or chemically treated for insect or disease problems.
The performance report
In the spring of 2007, 26 taxa were planted in the full-sun trial garden; the remaining 23 taxa were added to the trial between 2008 and 2012 as new introductions became commercially available. All plants were evaluated for their cultural adaptability to the soil and environmental conditions of the test site; disease and pest problems; winter hardiness or survivability; and ornamental qualities associated with flowers, foliage, and plant habits. Final performance ratings are based on flower production, foliage and habit quality, plant health and cultural adaptability, and winter hardiness during the trial period.
Sixty percent of the taxa received five-star excellent or four-star good ratings for their overall performance in the trial. Top-rated plants displayed superior flower production, attractive foliage, robust habits, adaptability to the growing conditions of the site, and winter hardiness.
The outstanding five-star rated avens included Geum ‘Mai Tai’, ‘Sangria’, ‘Totally Tangerine’ and G. triflorum. ‘Mai Tai’ is one of the new avens with Midwestern roots—bred by Brent Horvath in Hebron, Ill. Apricot-flowered ‘Mai Tai’ is a delightful departure from the hot-color palette so typical of the group. Flowers open a muted red, fading to apricot with striking burgundy sepals and flower stems. The outward-facing, semi-double flowers bloomed generously from late April to early June and then again sporadically later in the summer. ‘Mai Tai’ averaged 24 inches tall and wide with flowers; without flowers the rounded foliar mound was 10 inches tall.
Like ‘Mai Tai’, ‘Sangria’ is also part of the Geum Cocktail series and was one of the last avens to begin blooming, typically in early to mid-June. Its dazzling scarlet flowers—semi-double and upwardfacing—were borne profusely for more than a month and then rebloomed in August. The robust mounds topped out at 16 inches tall and 30 inches wide but the flower stems extended the height to 30 inches.
‘Totally Tangerine’ (synonym ‘Tim’s Tangerine’) shared an exuberance of bloom and plant size with ‘Sangria’. The branched floral stems, to 29 inches tall, were crowded with upward- and outward-facing tangerine-orange blossoms from late May to mid-July, and sometimes a bit longer due to the sterile nature of the flowers. We described the floral form as semi-double because each blossom had a few more petals than a typical single flower but far fewer than other semi-double cultivars. A robust mounded habit and an exceptionally floriferous nature set ‘Totally Tangerine’ apart from most other avens. G. triflorum, prairie smoke, is often characterized as a native plant, but its superior ornamental traits and cultural adaptability make it a great garden perennial. Its curious flowers—in groups of three—nod like a shepherd’s crook with the creamy white petals hidden beneath rosy pink spurred caps. The distinctive fruits developed while flowers were still blooming strongly; long feathery tails on maturing seeds turned silvery and pink, looking like puffs of smoke above the plants. The ferny foliage, strongly dissected into many leaflets, stayed attractive as long as the plants were kept moist. Prairie smoke is known to go dormant in severe drought conditions.
Ornamentally, avens offer an array of flower colors and forms, generally prodigious flower production, attractive albeit somewhat coarse foliage, and variably mounded habits. Floral forms ranged from single to semi-double, and nodding to upward- and/or outward-facing; flower size ranged between 1-2 inches wide. Among the taxa exhibiting colorful calyces and stems were ‘Alabama Slammer’, ‘Cherry Cordial’, ‘Cosmopolitan’, ‘Mai Tai’, ‘Spanish Fly’, ‘Tequila Sunrise’, ‘Wet Kiss’, G. rivale, and G. rivale ‘Leonard’s Variety’. The plumose fruits of G. triflorum and G. montanum were the most ornamental among the avens; whereas, the fruits of G. coccineum, G. rivale, and G. urbanum were not as strongly feathered nor as colorful. Although seedlings were infrequently observed in the trial, G. urbanum was a consistently vigorous reseeder.
The majority of taxa were determined to be winter hardy with some exceptions noted. ‘Banana Daiquiri’, ‘Coppertone’, and G. montanum were winter-killed after growing successfully for two years. Plants of ‘Mrs. Bradshaw’ lived for three years before dying in the winter of 2011-2012. All plants of G. urbanum died during two consecutive winters (2008-2009 and 2009-2010) but vigorous seedlings replaced the plants in each of the following springs. Only in the winter of 2010-2011 did all plants of G. urbanum make it through winter without injury—seedlings were also present in spring 2011. Geum ‘Blazing Sunset’ was never successfully overwintered despite being replanted in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Geum ‘Feuerball’, ‘Lady Stratheden’ and G. quellyon ‘Double Bloody Mary’ died the first winter (2007-2008) but were not retested. Incidentally, ‘Lady Stratheden’ is also known as ‘Gold Ball’, but plants sold under that name were not included in the trial. The greatest plant losses and crown injury were observed during the winters of 2007- 2008 and 2013-2014, although winter injury was noted in every year of the trial between 2007 and 2015. In addition to the losses noted above, the highest attrition or crown damage was incurred by ‘Cherry Cordial’ (first attempt failed, second attempt succeeded), ‘Pumpkin’ (first attempt failed, second attempt died in third winter), ‘Sunrise’ (severe crown injury in first winter, complete plant loss the second winter), and G. coccineum (severe crown loss in multiple winters). Avens with no winter losses or crown injury observed during the trial period included ‘Beech House Apricot’, ‘Borisii’, ‘Citronge’, ‘Cosmopolitan’, ‘Fire Lake’, ‘Fire Storm’, ‘Flames of Passion’, ‘Georgenburg’, ‘Gimlet’, ‘Limoncello’, ‘Lisanne’, ‘Mai Tai’, ‘Rijnstroom’, ‘Spanish Fly’, ‘Summer Hummer’, ‘Totally Tangerine’, G. canadense, G. coccineum ‘Eos’, G. coccineum ‘Werner Arends’, G. × intermedium ‘Diane’, G. rivale, G. rivale ‘Album’, G. rivale ‘Leonard’s Variety’ and G. triflorum.
A strong case for avens
Avens are not common garden plants but their performance in the trial demonstrated that they should be grown more widely. The avens of old are being supplanted by a new crop of contemporary hybrids with a wider range of flower colors. Just over 60 percent of taxa in the trial received good or excellent ratings—‘Mai Tai’, ‘Sangria’, ‘Totally Tangerine’, and G. triflorum were the highest rated plants. In the end, there was a good mix of old and new varieties among the top performers. Avens are notably ornamental, exhibiting a range of flower colors and forms, bountiful floral displays, bold-textured foliage, and robust habits.
The introduction of so many new and unique avens in recent years is exciting for gardeners. Avens are proven to be tough plants that require minimal maintenance and offer a variety of flower forms and colors. Gardeners looking for something different need look no further than vibrant spring-blooming avens. For the entire trial report, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/research/ornamental_plant_research/plant_ evaluation.
Richard G. Hawke is the plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Hawke and his team evaluate herbaceous and woody plants in comparative trials.
Features - PLANT MARKETING AND BRANDING
Your company’s brand should reflect what your consumers want.
In 1970, consumers saw an average of 500 advertisements per day. In 2015, that number was more than 5,000. Digital viewing passed TV in 2013 as the primary way consumers see these ads, and unsurprisingly it is smartphones that are driving the change. Now, brands are competing with each other for the consumer’s attention and cash.
“Choice and power has moved to the consumer, driven by today’s on-demand culture,” says Jonathan Pedersen, director of business development with Monrovia Nursery Co.
A few years ago, Petersen took an in-depth look at Monrovia’s customers. The California-based grower works with breeders and plant hunters around the world to acquire, trial and promote new plants. Monrovia wanted to learn more about what drives its business. So it began studying the demographics of consumers more closely, looking for clues to the purchasing puzzle and opportunities to reach beyond its typical consumer base.
He found that digital marketing is the best way to reach customers under the age of 45. And citing his company’s research, noted that a consumer is 30 percent more likely to buy from a company if he or she has already interacted with that company online already. So Monrovia began to focus on improving its brand awareness.
After poring through the research, the No. 1 takeaway was that plants were seen as too complicated. Shoppers were overwhelmed not only by garden center workers whose explanations, though well-meaning, went straight over the heads of the shoppers who were not looking for a horticulture lesson.
Monrovia is acting on this information by changing its tags and labels to rely more heavily on icons that describe plant features like watering guidelines and sun requirements, instead of lengthy written descriptions.
The company has also ramped up its social media presence in an attempt to reach the younger demographics. Pedersen hired a social media professional who has increased Monrovia’s social media presence by an unfathomable amount. In 2010, Monrovia barely had 100 Facebook likes and 500 Twitter followers. Now, the company has 121,000 Facebook likes and 13,800 Twitter followers – a robust social media presence, which translates to brand awareness.
Branding has a track record of making a difference to consumers. Like Monrovia, Ball Horticultural has done its own consumer research on what matters to consumers. For example, they know which demographics are the biggest fans of PanAmerican Seed’s Wave petunias and Cool Wave pansies. Through its research, Ball knows the Wave brand is especially valued by two primarily female audiences. Dubbed “the Colorful Gardener” (age 45-55) and the New Homeowner (age 28-32), by Ball, these demographics are the strongest consumers of the Wave brand.
Wave packaging outsells similar products in plain black pots six to one. The distinctive pink branded pots, packs and baskets promote greater sell-through and maintain a premium product image.
The first Wave petunia was unveiled in 1995, and within four years became the no. 1 selling petunia in North America. In 2011, Wave created a massive addition to the brand with Cool Wave pansies. These gave retailers selling opportunities for spring and fall seasons.
Branding continues to be important to growers. Bailey Nurseries recent rebranding effort (as detailed in last month’s Nursery Management cover story) updated the Minnesota-based company’s corporate identity and logo to simply “Bailey.” Several business units will operate under the Bailey brand, including plant and development from Bailey Innovations, and the unifying tagline of “Growing What’s Next,” a theme that frames the company’s drive to constantly evolve and innovate.
Spring Meadow Nursery also recently rebranded itself. The Michigan wholesale grower debuted its new logo in December, ahead of the MANTS trade show, and launched its new website in June.
The previous logo consisted of a sprig of three green leaves which represented Spring Meadow Nursery’s shrub propagation heritage. This is still reflected in the leaf of the new design, however, the addition of a colorful flower bud expresses a dedication to the development and introduction of new, colorful, flowering shrub genetics.
The streamlined presentation also edits out the words “Nursery Inc.” from the branding, reinforcing a reach that extends far beyond nursery work.
“What we do at Spring Meadow has been continuously evolving to meet the needs of our customers and bring new plant varieties to the market,” says product development and marketing manager, Tim Wood. “We felt a need for our identity to match that evolution and this new logo does that.” (Logos provided by respective companies)
Put your marketing dollars where the consumers are: their phones.
However, don’t think that the young are the only ones you can reach with mobile-friendly marketing. Although the younger generations led the way (and still may help with troubleshooting), consumers age 55 and older are the new leading group of smartphone adoption. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Consumer Mobile Survey, consumers in that age group have a compound annual growth rate of 8 percent compared to roughly 2 percent for 18- to 34-year-olds.
That survey, which measures responses from 2,000 U.S. consumers ages 18-75, found the average smartphone user looks at his or her phone 47 times a day. That’s fairly similar to the last three years. But the youngest generation measured in Deloitte’s survey, age 18-24, checks their phones an astounding 86 times per day. That’s up from 82 times a day in 2016.
This demographic group also leans heavily on their phones as a resource when making a purchasing decision. A stunning 93 percent of 18-to 24-year-olds in Deloitte’s survey use their phones while out shopping.
If these statistics aren’t clear enough, you need to improve your website to reach consumers where they are: on their phones. Kerstin Ouellet, president of Pen & Petal, a horticultural marketing communications agency, says growers need to focus on mobile optimization.
“If your website isn’t mobile friendly, your potential customer is unlikely to return,” she says. “Research also shows 57 percent of users say they won’t recommend a business with a poorly designed mobile site. Your website isn't just about looks. It is about accessibility and experience.”
In Pen & Petal’s Profit Pointers newsletter, she provides several tips to make your website more mobile friendly.
Make it snappy. The time it takes your page to load is pretty important. The average time it takes to fully load a mobile landing page is 22 seconds—and one study suggests your site should only take 3 seconds to load. Clearly, this means there is room for growth. If you can speed up your site enough to get it to load for mobile users in 3 seconds or less, you’ll smoke the competition. That means more website traffic, more leads and more sales.
Be sure 100 percent of your site works on mobile. Your site should be responsive. That means it should respond to whatever device or platform it is read on. Check to see if pages can be shared on social media, orders can be made and the display stays the same or is consistent.
Vary content formats. Some visitors will read the content on your site, but most customers enjoy other forms of content, such as videos, interactive tools, infographics, or even clickable slideshows. It's safe to say that customers use the internet more on their mobile devices than any other device. If you want to gain more customers, make the change. You won't regret it.
Understand your customers
Different demographics have different priorities.
Yes Lifecycle Marketing recently published a guide to reaching each consumer generation, including results of a survey of 1,000 adults that received a marketing email in the last year. Here are some basic facts about the consumer demographics. The youngest group of purchasers, “centennials,” are consumers under the age of 21. They are digital natives who don’t engage in the traditional marketing channels. Phone and even email don’t mean much to these consumers. They value email less than mobile apps and display advertising. They are 12 percent more likely than the average non-Centennial to value social media in their research.
Their purchases are driven by quality, moreso than any other generation. Half of the survey respondents based their purchase decision on quality, and 57 percent say quality drives their brand loyalty.
Millennials (age 22 to 37) stick with the companies they know and trust, demonstrating the most brand loyalty of all the generations. This means they are most open to marketing messages – assuming their interactions are personalized, brands stay true to their promises and their customer loyalty is rewarded.
Millennials care about loyalty rewards more than other generations, with 15 percent saying points influenced their most recent purchase. Millennials are more likely than any generation to find email (67 percent, compared to an average of 58 percent) and mobile apps important when making a purchase decision.
Generation X are the deal seekers. They want good buys on quality products, and they expect a convenient path to purchase. This group of consumers is most likely to be influenced by price and cares less about brand loyalty than other generations. While price matters to all generations, it matters most to Generation X, with 85 percent reporting that discounts influenced their last purchase. They split the difference between the older and younger generations, placing a high value on low prices, but nearly 50 percent also reported recently making a purchase based on quality.
Baby boomers are the most traditional consumers, shopping with brands that offer wide selections at discounted prices. They are not motivated by loyalty programs or unique brand experiences, but members of this generation want to see a variety of well-priced products that meet their immediate needs. Boomers rank direct mail higher than any other generation (59 percent), while 59 percent also say they value email. Only 19 percent say they value social media as a marketing channel.
Millennial consumers like to spend their money with good corporate citizens.
In 2015, Nielsen published its annual Global Corporate Sustainability Report. It indicated that, globally, 66 percent of consumers are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. Millennials gave an even more impressive showing, with 73 percent of surveyed millennials indicating a similar preference.
Additionally, 81 percent of millennials even expect their favorite companies to make public declarations of their corporate citizenship. According to Horizon Media's Finger on the Pulse study, these declarations can take the form of charitable or philanthropic endeavors, like Toms shoes’ mission to give a pair of shoes to a third-world child for every pair purchased, or General Mills’ Box Tops for Education initiative.
That means that this generation feels an imperative to spend its money on products from companies that do good, not just companies that make good products.
Plant brands can benefit from being sustainable and generating goodwill, too. American Beauties Native Plants is a brand that has been experiencing growth due to its proximity to the pollinator issue. Mark Sellew, president of Prides Corner Farms in Lebanon, Ct., co-founded the brand with Steve Castorani, who is also one of the founders of North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pa. The brand added “Save the Pollinators” to its point-of-purchase material, and published fact sheets listing the best plants for bees and butterflies, or how to design different types of native plant gardens.
American Beauties partnered with the National Wildlife Federation, and the brand has donated more than $270,000 to support the federation’s Wildlife Habitat Program.
“It was a collaborative partnership, and it was a really good fit,” Castorani says. “They not only promote native plants, but they have this potential customer base that didn’t know where to buy native plants.”
As the American Beauties Native Plants brand strengthened, it broadened its ability to support other like-minded organizations. American Beauties has donated $12,000 to the Pollinator Partnership, $1,000 to the National Audubon Society, and $3,500 to Doug Tallamy at the University of Delaware. The brand also donated $5,500 to Catherine Zimmerman to support the production of her film, “Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home.”
Fertility regimes for producing containerized nursery crops typically begin by amending the substrate (i.e., growing medium) with lime and/or micronutrients. The lime rate used depends on the desired pH that ensures mineral nutrients are readily available to the plant. If using a sulfate-based micronutrient fertilizer and dolomitic limestone, these routine amendments also supply plants with ample amounts of sulfur, calcium, and magnesium. The remaining macronutrients, [i.e., nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)], and possibly micronutrients, are commonly delivered as controlled-release fertilizer. A complete or incomplete liquid fertilizer is sometimes used to supplement controlled-release fertilizer when substrate electrical conductivity values—a proxy for nutrient levels—are low.
Numerous controlled-release fertilizer products are available for containerized crop production. These products offer a variety of fertilizer coating technologies, nutrient sources (e.g., N as urea vs. ammonium nitrate), longevities, and N-P-K formulations. Choosing an appropriate fertilizer for your production system will ultimately ensure healthy plants reach saleable grade as quickly as possible. Fortunately, many of the available controlled-release fertilizer formulations can achieve this goal. As long as all macro and micronutrient levels remain at or above the sufficiency threshold (“A” in Fig. 1) during active crop growth, plants will thrive. Nutrient toxicity or salt burn (“B” in Fig. 1) is uncommon if plants are fertilized according to the product label and is easily avoidable with proper monitoring of substrate electrical conductivity.
Although many controlled-release fertilizers can produce a salable crop, not all result in a high nutrient use efficiency (i.e., the percent of applied nutrients used by the plant). This is particularly true for P; often, less than half of the P we apply to a container-grown plant is actually used by the plant. Over the past five years we set out to better understand where P goes and how much is needed to produce a marketable crop.
A closer look at phosphorus
Pine bark- and peat-based substrates have little ability to retain P, causing P fertilizer to leach from containers during irrigation. In terms of plant needs, conventional controlled-release fertilizers often provide P at levels well beyond the minimum necessary amount to maximize crop development. While these excess P levels result in maximum growth, a consequence is that much of the fertilizer is wasted—it leaches from the container before being absorbed by the plant. Nursery research has repeatedly shown that healthy containerized woody crops fertilized with a conventional controlled-release fertilizer formulation (i.e., 6% P2O5) absorb between only 7% and 57% of the P applied. The proportion of applied P that is used by the plant can be increased by decreasing the P supply within the “adequate” range depicted in Fig. 1. Doing so not only improves fertilizer use efficiency and reduces the amount of bought P wasted, it can also help minimize P runoff from nursery sites to surface water. Excess P in surface water from non-point sources is a serious issue in the US. Proliferation of toxic algae and cyanobacteria species induced by elevated nutrient levels in aquatic ecosystems causes species-biodiversity loss, contamination of drinking water, and widespread fish kills. Improving fertilization management to minimize P leaching from containers could help the nursery industry avoid potential future restrictions on P fertilization and keep the green industry “green”.
Over the past five years, the Horticultural Research Institute, Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association, Virginia Agricultural Council, Center for Applied Nursery Research, and a USDA-NIFA funded grant (CleanWateR3), have provided the means to support both basic and applied research to yield answers to two questions: 1) how low can we go when applying phosphorus (i.e., the minimum amount of phosphorus applied that produces a salable plant) and 2) how do routine lime and micronutrient amendments influence phosphorus availability and leaching.
In our first experiment, we utilized various low-P liquid fertilizers to determine the minimum P concentration needed to maintain maximal growth of containerized (#1 gal.) ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, ‘Helleri’ holly and ‘Karen’ azalea. Current best management practices suggest 5-15 ppm P be maintained in substrate solution when producing nursery crops; however, the majority of previous research did not adequately investigate plant response to P concentrations less than 5 ppm. Therefore, plants in our research were constant-liquid-fed with five liquid fertilizers that contained a range of 0.5 to 6 ppm P and non-growth-limiting levels of N and K. Plants were potted in a lime- and micronutrient-amended pine bark substrate and grown for 80 days. Although P needs depended on growth stage, minimum P fertigation concentrations that sustained maximal growth were 5 ppm for ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, 3 ppm for ‘Karen’ azalea, and 1 ppm for ‘Helleri’ holly. Foliar P concentration increased (i.e., luxury consumption) when applied phosphorus exceeded the minimally-sufficient amount for maximal growth.
In the next experiment, 9-month controlled-release fertilizer formulations (blended by Harrell’s) with 1 to 4 percent P2O5 were applied to #1 gal. ‘Helleri’ holly and Bloomstruck hydrangea to compare growth response to plants fertilized with a conventional nine-month, controlled-release product (15-6-12). This experiment was conducted in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 (Blacksburg, VA) and 8 (Virginia Beach, VA). Our results for ‘Helleri’ holly were inconclusive since holly growth increased with increasing P application rate in hardiness zone 8, but responded minimally in hardiness zone 6. Conversely, Bloomstruck hydrangea responded similarly in both Zones 6 and 8, with maximal growth attained when fertilized with 18-3-12, a 50% reduction in P compared to a conventional 15-6-12 controlled-release fertilizer. The prospect of a 50% reduction in P fertilization could have major implications since hydrangea is the second leading deciduous shrub produced in the U.S.
Concurrent with our applied research, we conducted several laboratory experiments to better understand the effect of dolomitic limestone and a sulfated micronutrient fertilizer on P leaching and plant-availability when applied as controlled-release fertilizer. This was accomplished in two studies, first in fallow containers, then in substrate of containerized crape myrtle. In both studies, pine bark substrate was either non-amended or amended with dolomitic limestone, micronutrients, or both. Results of both studies indicated that amending pine bark with both dolomitic limestone and micronutrients can reduce P availability and leaching by over 60%. Phosphorus reductions were attributed primarily to the presence of dolomitic limestone; however, the addition of a micronutrient package incorporated at the time of potting provided some short-term P retention and was necessary to maximize growth and P uptake of crape myrtle. The short-term P reduction by the micronutrient fertilizer is attributed to the fact that it contained a small amount of dolomitic limestone in addition to P-complexing micronutrient cations (i.e., Fe and Mn). Although dolomitic limestone and micronutrient amendments reduced the immediate plant-availability of P in the pine bark substrate, total P uptake by crape myrtle was unaffected by these amendments. Hence, when growing containerized crape myrtle, amending the substrate with dolomitic limestone and micronutrients can maximize growth and P uptake while reducing P leaching from containers to the environment. Further investigation is needed to determine if the P associated with these amendments can serve as a slow-release P supply for plant uptake.
In summary, P fertility should be targeted to a particular species’ needs and can be affected by production location, substrate, fertilizer source, and watering practices (which was not discussed herein). Additionally, greater amounts of P may be absorbed by the plant than is needed to improve crop growth. Hence, current foliar P sufficiency ranges for many ornamental plants may be anecdotal if determined when luxury consumption was occurring. When fertilizing with liquid alone, applied P concentration can be less than or equal to 5 ppm for hydrangea, holly and azalea. When supplementing controlled-release fertilizer with liquid feed, additional P is most likely unnecessary; therefore, consider a nitrogen-only or incomplete (nitrogen and potassium) supplemental liquid fertilizer. Our experiments on using low-P controlled-release fertilizer formulations suggest 4% P2O5 can be used across containerized ornamental crops. However, P content may be further reduced to 3% P2O5 when growing some shrub rose and Hydrangea macrophylla taxa. Additionally, amending the substrate with lime and/or micronutrients reduces P availability and subsequent P leaching. We strongly urge growers to experiment with low-P fertilizers to ensure these fertilizers can be successfully integrated in their unique production systems before widely adopting a low-P regime. The benefit of not putting dollars or P down the “drain” can keep our industry proactive to possible future regulatory pressure and preserve our industry’s title as “green.”
Dr. Jake Shreckhise (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recent graduate and technical writer in the Department of Horticulture at Virginia Tech. Dr. Jim Owen (email@example.com) is an Associate Professor of Horticulture and Nursery Crops Extension Specialist located at the Virginia Tech Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach. Dr. Alex Niemiera (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Horticulture, Horticulture Undergraduate Program Director, and Assistant Dean of Student Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. This research was made possible by the agencies, associations, and allied suppliers mentioned in the article and the many nurseries who graciously donated plants: Bailey Nursery, Bennett’s Creek Nursery, Hermitage Farms, Lancaster Farms, and Saunders Brothers Nursery.
The Amazon effect
Features - Cover Story
From live plant sales to hard goods, Amazon.com and online commerce are changing how consumers shop and how brands and growers sell.
When Amazon representatives hit industry trade shows in 2016, rumblings about the e-commerce giant’s move into live plant sales swept the industry. Reactions ranged from warnings to welcomes. That ambivalence deepened with the recent launch of the Amazon Plants Store, adding a designated live plant space to the company’s already extensive lawn and garden offerings.
Whatever your position on Amazon, understanding how this massive dotcom functions — and how online sales by brands, growers, independent garden centers and other sellers fit in — can help you position your nursery for the new world ahead.
Putting Amazon in perspective
Amazon isn’t the only retailer affecting the nursery industry, but it’s hard to ignore its impact. In an annual shareholder letter released to media on April 18, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos reported the company’s 2017 revenue hit $178 billion, a 31 percent increase from 2016. E-commerce analytics provider One Click Retail translates that figure to 4 percent of all U.S. retail sales and 44 percent of all U.S. e-commerce sales.
Bezos also confirmed that paid Amazon Prime memberships passed the 100-million mark in 2017. For an annual $119 fee, Prime members enjoy perks such as free two-day shipping — even on live plants — plus everyday deals and exclusive sales.
Along with Amazon’s general sales, the company’s lawn and garden sales are growing, from lawn equipment and grills to pruners, fertilizers and live plants. In an early 2018 whitepaper on Amazon’s effect in the category, One Click Retail noted that lawn and garden sales by first-party, brand-manufacturers on Amazon.com topped $2 billion in 2017, with a year-over-year 25 percent increase in gardening products leading the charge.
Amazon sales and sellers simplified
To appreciate the scope of Amazon.com, understand that Amazon is not the only company selling on the site. In addition to items retailed by Amazon itself — noted as “sold and shipped by Amazon” — consumers shop from 2 million independent sellers that comprise the Amazon Marketplace. Amazon’s platform seamlessly integrates Marketplace offerings with their own retail offerings, while listings advise attentive shoppers which parties offer and ship the items being sold.
Amazon.com spells out basic Marketplace selling fees in “Make Money with Us” links at the bottom of its pages. Professional marketplace sellers list unlimited products for $39.99 per month plus “referral fees” on sales — 15 percent for Home & Garden products as of June 2018. Amazon handles all credit card payments, deducts referral fees and deposits the remainder directly into seller accounts every two weeks.
Amazon Marketplace sellers can handle their own shipping, known as Fulfillment By Merchant (FBM). Or they can ship unperishable product to Amazon warehouses and let Amazon do the work, called Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA). FBA sellers pay additional fees based on warehouse space and other factors, but their items qualify for Amazon Prime, a proven selling advantage with Amazon’s loyal shoppers.
Amazon’s Marketplace sales have grown as more businesses, including many live plant and hard goods sellers, capitalize on the retailer’s reach and close-to-perfect logistics.
As noted in Bezos’s letter, more than 300,000 small and medium U.S.-based businesses became Marketplace sellers in 2017. In a first, Marketplace sales accounted for half of all items sold on Amazon.com for the year.
Amazon plants from a grower perspective
Marketplace sellers have offered live plants on Amazon.com for more than a decade, but the launch of the Amazon Plants Store signals a new era. Amazon itself now sells live plants ranging from bonsai, succulents and houseplants to annuals, perennials and shrubs. Several prominent plant brands were featured in Amazon’s initial plant sales launch, and more have joined since the Plants Store’s introduction.
According to an Amazon spokesperson, all live plants are sold through the Amazon Plants Store, regardless of who the seller is. As many as 100,000 live plants or seed items may be offered on the platform at any given time, depending on the season.
Four Star Greenhouse, the No. 1 supplier of Proven Winners, serves as an Amazon fulfillment center for “sold and shipped by Amazon” Proven Winners stock, from annuals to shrubs. But that doesn’t equal an exclusive. Independent Marketplace sellers can and do still sell Proven Winners plants, along with plants from virtually every major plant brand.
For Tom Smith, founding member of Proven Winners and Four Star’s president, brand integrity and plant quality were major considerations in the decision to sell to Amazon.
“We wanted to do the best we could for the brand,” he says. “When Amazon came to us to be a fulfillment center, we knew either we do it or someone else would. It makes us nervous. If they ship a poor-quality plant from another source, that wouldn’t represent the brand well. Your reputation can be based off a poor grower that just puts plants online,” Smith explains.
As an Amazon fulfillment center, Four Star ships plants direct to consumers in packaging designed in-house to ensure they arrive in optimal condition. The grower negotiated wholesale pricing based on the cost of shipped product. Four Star and Proven Winners have no control over Amazon’s retail pricing on the plants.
All the Proven Winners line will be represented on Amazon, though items will list as “not in stock” at times.
“They don’t commit to any numbers. It’s a wild card on Amazon, so it’s basically what we have available,” Smith says, adding that availability is a challenge.
“You have to get people out there counting plants, pot by pot, because that’s what you’re selling now — not cases — and you better be dead-on right,” Smith explains. “This isn’t something you can do once a week. It’s a daily process. If you don’t deliver or you deliver bad quality, you’re gone.”
Smith believes Amazon plants won’t compete with box stores on price, even with Amazon’s efficiencies. “I’m not even sure if they’re making money at their current prices, which are higher than the average garden center now,” he says. “[The appeal of] online is convenience; it’s not pricing.”
With growing facilities, three retail garden centers, and a thriving wholesale business, Pennsylvania-based Esbenshade’s Garden Centers began selling on their own website in 2005.
“We were looking at opening new stores or creating a new revenue stream, and we decided to start offering the products we sell in our stores to customers online,” says second-generation owner Terry Esbenshade.
The grower-retailer’s online business expanded to the Amazon.com Marketplace in 2013. They also sell on Walmart.com, eBay.com and Jet.com. Pricing strategies vary by selling platform. “Once you get into the marketplaces, the rules totally change,” Esbenshade says. “Typical retail profit margins go out the window.”
Factors, fees and competition in each marketplace demand unique strategies and tools to track true margins and sell profitably. Local retail customers use Esbenshades.com as a shopping tool, so prices there stay equal to those in-store plus shipping. In support of local stores and customers, the website’s shoppers can view store-by-store inventory, buy online, order delivery or pick up in-store. These costly features aren’t readily available in out-of-the-box e-commerce shopping solutions, but Esbenshade finds that local customers increasingly pre-shop online.
Hard goods constitute most of Esbenshade’s online sales, though plants are a focus. One challenge is compliance with plant regulations in all 48 contiguous states — something Esbenshade feels many online sellers ignore.
“We’re playing by the rules, and we’re up against competition that, at this point, is doing whatever they want,” he says.
A search on Amazon supports those concerns.
Like Smith, Esbenshade emphasizes the stringent requirements tied to Amazon selling privileges, but business has been robust. The company plans to expand on Amazon and other online sales channels, including a new dotcom of their own by year end.
“The goal is to continue growing our online presence through an omnichannel perspective. We don’t want all of our eggs to be in one basket,” Esbenshade says.
(Editor's note: In May 2019, Esbenshade Greenhouses partnered with Bower & Branch. Now, if a customer is looking for a tree or shrub that is not available in one of its three retail locations, they can purchase online from Bower & Branch and have it delivered directly to one of those store locations.)
Online retailer Garden Crossings in Zeeland, Mich., started as an online mail-order business in 2002, and then added a brick-and-mortar retail garden center as business grew. In addition to its own online plant sales, Garden Crossings fulfills e-commerce orders for several leading plant brands and independent retailers with online storefronts, including ProvenWinners.com. Garden Crossings does not do business on Amazon.com or any other online marketplace.
Several factors influenced that decision, but concerns about quality and customer success keep the retailer focused on their current business.
“One primary reason we don’t do business on Amazon is that you can’t take orders in winter for spring shipment,” says owner Heidi Grasman. “I’m not going to ship when it’s inappropriate for a zone. Amazon is ship-on-demand.
“Our main goal is we want the customer to have success in what they’re growing. If they don’t, it’s ultimately a reflection on us,” Grasman continues. “Quality and customer success are our No. 1 things, so we prefer to do it solely through our website and not to do business on Amazon at this time.”
Selling restrictions and independent-only promises
As online sales grow, concerns about brand integrity and exclusivity build among brands, growers and retailers.
“Brand manufacturers don’t know how to navigate it, and they’re extremely concerned with protecting brand integrity,” Esbenshade says.
Vendor polices about marketplace sales of their products change frequently, with little notice, sometimes leaving online retailers with product they can no longer sell online.
As a local store and online seller, Esbenshade is concerned about brands that offer independent-only products, which then end up sold directly by Amazon. While he’s seen this more with hard goods than plants to date, he’s worried the practice may spread.
“If we’re selling it, it’s always going to be cheaper in-store. But if Amazon is selling it, that’s different,” he says. “We kind of like Amazon, and we kind of feel like we don’t like Amazon. It’s a really weird relationship. The manufacturer can keep it out of Home Depot or Lowe’s, but what are they going to do about Amazon.com? I’m talking about products Amazon is able to obtain and directly sell themselves — not third-party sellers,” Esbenshade continues. “My question is, how is Amazon.com as a seller any different than Lowe’s and Home Depot? I think there’s going to be more manufacturers policing that, but it’s only going to happen when IGCs put pressure on them to do so.”
What does it mean for your nursery?
As Amazon advances in live plants and other categories, views about online sales as threats or opportunities for nurseries and brick-and-mortar IGCs continue to differ.
Industry consultant Sid Raisch, president and CEO of e-commerce tree brand Bower & Branch, expects consumer acceptance of online retail plant sales will continue its strong upward trend.
“Convenience buying is leading this and creating new and well-entrenched habits among consumers,” he says. “Once someone buys a plant successfully online, they will repeat over and over again just like all the other products sold online today.”
Raisch suspects that this year’s delayed spring may lead growers to turn to Amazon sales, whether to eliminate surplus stock or establish a new path to consumers. Amazon’s extensive customer base is one advantage he sees for growers that make that move.
“There is more traffic in any category on Amazon than in any retail store. And unlike brick-and-mortar retailers, they are open 24/7/365, accept all forms of payment, and already have customer relationships of trust with accounts set up, including Prime,” Raisch says.
Even so, he advises caution for those considering Amazon sales.
“I only know what I hear from others and read because [Bower & Branch is] not selling on Amazon. What I hear is that sellers of all types are continually and progressively squeezed by Amazon as volume builds,” he says. “Amazon is relentless in extracting cost from their sellers, and at building profit for themselves. When they get to the bottom dollar a seller can operate at, they squeeze further.”
That’s not Raisch’s only concern. “The main con is the race to the bottom that Amazon facilitates on their platform. They pit seller against seller and empower the consumer with easy comparison prices. Unbranded and unprotected brands are most vulnerable,” he says. “This is disruptive to the supply chain because it puts brick-and-mortar sellers of those items at a huge disadvantage.”
(Editor's note: Raisch left Bower & Branch in January 2019)
Smith hopes that Amazon sales will benefit nurseries and traditional garden retailers in the long run. He believes that plant listings with extensive, accurate plant information — covering hardiness, dormancy, container size, seasonal appearance and life cycle — will serve as both shopping tools that generate local garden center sales and educational tools that reach a new pool of non-gardeners where they shop.
“I’m optimistic,” Smith says. “I don’t see this as displacing independent garden centers at all. I see this as an opportunity to continue to grow with garden centers and build [a larger] consumer base. I’m hoping this is the kind of gateway that helps people become gardeners, especially millennials and people always on their phone, and brings them into gardening and garden centers.”
Jolene is a freelance writer, former hort professional, and frequent contributor to GIE Media publications. Reach her at email@example.com.
Features - Consumer behavior
Consumers value water source during production and plants’ water use while in the landscape.
In 2011, Springer reported that the average U.S. household used approximately 69 gallons of water per capita daily. Some of that water is likely used to install and maintain landscape plants. However, future water shortages may literally change the American landscape if enough water is not allocated to ensure plant survival. Installing and maintaining landscapes can have real environmental and well-being benefits to homeowners; landscapes provide an aesthetically beautiful backdrop, as well as areas for recreation and relaxation (Hall and Dickson, 2011).
Research has shown that better educated homeowners are more likely to adopt conservation measures such as turning off the tap when washing dishes or buying plants that need less water (Gilg and Barr, 2006; St. Hilaire et al., 2010). Households using less water had more concern for conservation issues and future preservation of water resources (Gregory and Leo, 2003). With diminishing fresh water resources, alternatives to irrigating residential landscapes will be in greater demand. Some reductions in the fresh water landscape use might come from using recycled water.
Recycled greywater from washing machines, bathtubs, showers and sinks (but not toilets), constituted approximately 60 percent of the total wastewater from households. This can equate to about 30,000 gallons of greywater a year for a family of four (Al-Jayyousi, 2003; Cabrera et al., 2013). If greywater is treated, it can facilitate groundwater recharge, and may play a substantial role in the reuse and total reduction of fresh water usage by households (Al-Jayyousi, 2003; Eriksson et al., 2002). In the same way, water could also be recycled from nursery production facilities and reused to grow plants. We were curious to learn how consumer perceptions about the source of the water used for plant production and how much water plants used to become established in the landscape affected their decision to buy a perennial or a small tree.
Building on the findings we reported in the June issue (from Knuth et al., 2018, using the same survey, same data, same methodology), we developed two question groups: one for small woody trees and one for herbaceous perennials. We photographed plants and then incorporated additional information about the plants including: (a) price at one of three levels, (b) production with one of three water sources using either fresh water, recycled water, or a blend of fresh and recycled water, and (c) use of irrigation only for the first season to help the plant to become established or use of irrigation for most seasons after establishment1 (Figure 1). The herbaceous perennial plants included were coral bells (Heuchera americana), English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia'Munstead’), and perennial verbena (Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’) with prices of $6.99, $9.99, and $12.99 per container. The small trees included were golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro Low’), and redbud (Cercis canadensis) with prices of $19.99, $29.99 and $39.99 per container.
To compare respondents in different water/drought situations, we used the three categories based on whether they accurately perceived if the region in which they lived was experiencing drought (Knuth et al., 2018). The three categories were based on whether the survey participant accurately perceived if the region in which they lived was experiencing drought and included the following:
They did not perceive drought even though they were in real drought (NP/R),
They did not perceive drought, but they were not in real drought (NP/NR),
They perceived drought correctly since they were in a real drought (P/R).
Survey results for perennials showed the major influence on the decision was made based on the plant, which is consistent with prior research. Consumers preferred the perennial verbena more than the English lavender, which was more desired than the coral bells. The second most important factor in the decision to buy the perennial was the water source. Plants grown with fresh water were preferred over plants grown with recycled water and the blend of fresh and recycled water was the least preferred (Figure 2). Lastly, their decision to buy the plant was equally weighted on price and water use in the landscape. So water source was, in the decision process, more important than water use in the landscape. In terms of water use in the landscape, respondents most preferred plants that required irrigation but only for the first season. Lower prices were preferred to higher prices.
In the decision to buy perennials, we found several differences between the drought perception/realization groups. Figure 3 shows the relative utility (or value) placed on the water sources and water uses. A higher score shows the consumers valued that characteristic more while a negative score shows they did not value that characteristic. The water used in the landscape was slightly more important for the NP/NR group compared to the other two groups, both of which had experienced a real drought. In addition, the utility score for “grown in the nursery with fresh water” was lower for the NP/NR group compared to the NP/R group. We also found that the NP/NR group valued less (had a lower utility score) “requires irrigation in the landscape but only for the first season to help the plant become established” compared to the NP/R group.
For small trees overall, plant type was the most important attribute, followed by price, water use in production and least important was water use in the landscape (Figure 4). There was good consistency between the decision-making process for the perennials and small trees. Redbud was the most preferred plant, followed by goldenrain tree and fragrant sumac. Lower priced trees were preferred over higher priced trees. Trees grown with fresh water or grown with a blend of fresh and recycled water were preferred over grown with recycled water (Figure 5). Requiring irrigation until establishment was preferred over requiring irrigation for most seasons. The exception was for the NP/R group who preferred plants that did require irrigation for most seasons. This group had experienced a drought but had not perceived it. For these small trees, this group preferred to irrigate the small tree each season, which would likely require more water. Recall that all three trees appear in the “low” category need minimal irrigation during years of normal rainfall (Costello and Jones, 2014). This would suggest that education about the real water needs of this plant may contribute to changing the consumers’ attitudes about irrigation each season.
The results of this survey help the green industry understand the relative importance of water source and landscape water use from the consumer perspective. The novel insight is that water source during production and water use while in the landscape were at least as important as price. This finding suggests that there may be some benefit to describing both water source and water needs for plants expected to last more than one season (e.g. herbaceous perennials and woody perennials) in point of purchase information. St. Hilaire et al. (2008) showed educational programs about public water conservation influenced landscape choices from present landscape plants to more water conserving landscape plants. Promotion of low water use plants and the use of recycled water in plant production of those plants may become marketable benefits.
Consumers placed greater relative importance on water source during production over water use in the landscape for both herbaceous perennials and small trees. They preferred fresh water over recycled water and least preferred a blend of fresh with recycled water for perennials and recycled water used for woody perennials. Additionally, the NP/R group, who incorrectly assessed they were not in a drought when they actually were, placed a higher value on nursery plants grown with fresh water compared to those who were actually not in drought and did not perceive one (NP/NR, the comparison group). This finding parallels with what St. Hilaire et al. (2008) found in that, despite scant evidence of the increased risk of disease, recycled water has become more popular only among water conservationists who seek to achieve more efficient ways to use water.
Hurd (2006) suggested that with a focus on consumer attitudes, changes in landscape plant selection could reduce overall water use and reduce future water demand. The attitude that recycled water was not as valuable (lower utility score), especially for the NP/R group shows a great need for education. Consistent with other work, our participants may have preferred fresh water due to concerns about or lack of information regarding the safety of recycled (greywater). Clearly, this is a point for future education, especially for nurseries striving to conserve water resources in other work has shown sustainability concerns by consumers often translate into substantial willingness to pay price premiums. Perhaps the use of recycled water could be more socially acceptable if it were marketed as a means to produce a high-quality product while conserving an important natural resource on the farm or production site.
Our study was the first to combine production water source and landscape water use and show that water source in production and water use needs in the landscape are relatively similar to price in terms of relative importance. This is helpful information for the green industry in that efforts to communicate water source and water needs may be favorably received by consumers.
Hall and Dickson (2011) reported that consumers “have, however, exhibited a willingness to purchase and, in some cases, pay a premium for products and services that enhance their quality of life in terms of social well-being, physical well-being, spiritual well-being, and environmental well-being.” Marketers would argue that consumers buy benefits, not product features or attributes. Plant water use in the landscape and the source of water used when producing plants could potentially be marketed to show the consumer environmental benefits.
Funding for this study was provided by USDA SCRI Clean WateR3 – Reduce, Remediate, Recycle Grant Number 2014-51181-22372; USDA NIFA Hatch Projects MICL 02085, MICL 1011569, and TEX0-1-7051; Michigan State University AgBioResearch, and MSU Project GREEN and Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
Melinda Knuth is a doctoral student, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; Bridget Behe and Tom Fernandez are professors, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University; Charlie Hall is a professor and Ellison Chair, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; and Patricia Huddleston is a professor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University.
1 The landscape water use categories were derived from the University of California-Davis Water Use Classification of Landscape Species IV (Costello and Jones, 2014). These categories were based on the rate of evapotranspiration expressed as a percentage in reference to evapotranspiration rates in maintained, well-irrigated tall fescue turf. Plants classified in the “high” category need frequent irrigation in during normal rainfall years, plants classified in the “low” category need minimal irrigation during years of normal rainfall, and plants classified in the “very low” category need no irrigation except during years below average rainfall (Costello and Jones, 2014). However, all six plants used in this study appear on the list for low water use plants.