March 1 2001 12:00 AM

by Janie Franz

Color is good business. Ask Joseph Burns, who created Color Burst, a division of Triple A Lawn Industries, over thirteen years ago. He?s been happily planting color and grinning all the way to the bank.

When the elegant Bellagio Hotel opened in Las Vegas in 1998, the Las Vegas Sun reported that the five-story-tall conservatory within the hotel would offer a dramatic display of plants and flowers changing every four to six weeks. Usually planted in a color theme, the cost for flowers alone was expected to run $6 million, with a $2 million in-house labor bill to maintain it. Though the new owners today are changing out the displays more conservatively, you wonder why business owners would lay out that kind of cash (or any amount, for that matter) for displays of plants and flowers that aren?t permanent and may not even have reached their full blooming season. Are they crazy? No, it?s just good business.

The Bellagio Hotel is not unique, except maybe in its grand scale and the fact that it?s an interior landscape. Resorts, theme parks, planned residential communities, corporate offices, and academic institutions are using color more often and changing landscape beds throughout the seasons. Using a color theme and planting annuals in large beds has been a standard among landscape contractors and designers for years. However, for the past five to eight years, Laurie Saunders, director of marketing for the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, has been observing a trend to use more color in mass plantings.
Wouldn?t it be easier, though, to just plant shrubs and perennials? There would only be the initial cost of plant materials and installation, and the continued costs for maintenance. So, why are businesses opting for color?

There are several reasons. First of all, color is dramatic. Secondly, because cost is always a factor, you can give your client a great look through the use of color at a lower cost than perennials. Trees, shrubs, and perennials are the most expensive plant material. A flat of annuals costs a fraction of the price of perennials or shrubs, and can produce drama in a landscape design.

There?s nothing quite like masses of annual color to attract the eye and create curb appeal. Realtors, like RE/MAX in Greater Atlanta, have always known that curb appeal is often the sweetener that will close a deal. In their selling checklist, they urge homeowners to add color to the landscape. Putting in a bed of cheery petunias in a single color by the front steps to greet potential buyers adds drama, but doesn?t clutter the view. Color, then, has a very positive impact on your home or your business.

Marketing engineers know the value of color, and use its psychological effects to give customers that come-hither-look to get them to buy their products. Interior designers for large facilities paint walls specific colors to make employees happier and more productive.

Customers are choosing to plant their properties in masses of annual color because of its curb appeal. Color is dramatic, it attracts the eye and can have a positive impact on one?s business or home. That?s why Fortune 500 corporate offices don?t skimp on their landscaping, knowing that the potential customer flying in from France will judge the company not only by its portfolio, but also by its appearance.

Landscape contractors are no exception; their residential and commercial customers find that curb appeal increases property values and attracts people to their businesses.

Although landscape contractors always consider maintaining a certain consistency within a residential area or corporate park, Joseph Burns found that his customers use color ?as a way to set their property apart?. This is yet another way to attract people to your premises and give customers a positive feel about what you do in your business.

Creating curb appeal, though, involves more than just deciding to put in a bed of pink impatiens. Cheryl Steelburg of Environmental Care, Inc., Calabasas, California, says, ?The three main factors in the strategy of using color are cost, climate, and placement.? Cost and planting environment are factors in any landscape design. Placement, however, is the key to using annuals effectively in mass plantings.

H. Bruce Hellerick, regional horticultural specialist for the Brickman Group, Ltd., goes beyond considering traffic patterns and the use of a flashy accent planting. He boils down placement into four main types, depending on how the property will be viewed.

The first is the fast drive-by. This could be the grounds of a corporate office or shopping center seen from an interstate highway. Because the property is seen from a distance, usually from a fast-moving car, the landscape designer uses bold colors and only one or two color choices. Sometimes, the whole landscape design consists of the same or similar plant materials.
The slow drive-by can have more color choices or have different plant materials. In this case, the property might be the driveway of an estate or the entrance to a resort hotel.

The walk-by is more intimate. Because these planting areas can be seen by someone walking by, they are viewed close up. The landscape designer can then choose three or four colors and more visual detail. A variety of plant materials can be used, as well as other design accents like small fountains or boulders. Walk-bys are usually found at building entrances, along paths and walks, or sometimes in shopping mall interiors.

The last placement area is the window. Like the walk-by, the window display is limited to what can be seen from the window and may be full of detail. A variety of colors can be used to lead the viewer?s eye to specific parts of the design. Sometimes, though, the window is open to the larger grounds of a hospital, spa, or corporate park. Here, the elements of the fast drive-by or slow drive-by may have to be used.

Once the landscape contractor has determined how placement will effect color choice and type of plants, decisions have to be made about specific plant materials. The main factor, as always in plant choice, will be what is durable and what will thrive in the conditions in which it will live. Hellerick says, ?Plants that are tough, durable, long lasting, and have low maintenance are the most desirable. You don?t want to have to deadhead every week,? he adds, though he admits he?s had to do that for some properties.

?You do whatever the customer wants,? Hellerick says. Sometimes a customer insists on using a favorite color all of the time on the property or only wants begonias and lots of them. Hellerick has seen some companies plant their grounds in the company?s colors, or a school or university put flowers in the school?s colors in all of their entrance beds. Saunders says, ?The increase in the use of color has been due to customers being educated about it.?

That must be why contractors like Burns have gone out of their way to please customers. His company tries to match trendy interior decorating colors in floral beds. And he adds, ?The popular flowers are whatever is new.? Blue Wonder Scaevola aemula, an Australian perennial used as an annual, and the deep purple Purple Wave petunia have been hot items. But old favorites aren?t neglected. ?Wax-leaf begonias in red, pink, and white in both the green or bronze leaf versions are an incredible standby,? Burns adds. ?They?re versatile and bloom steadily.? This year, he notes that bright colors (reds, purples, and yellows) in almost any plant type seem to be in.

Hellerick also is seeing deeper colors this year. Along with the standard pinks, purples, and blues, there?s a tendency to see more reds, and purer colors. He claims that this may be a factor of the political climate. Hellerick quoted a study by a university not long ago that compared popular landscape colors with political parties. What they found was that when the Democrats were in power, there were more pinks and pastels used; and more reds and blues when the Republicans were in.

Whatever the case, Hellerick has noted a change in horticultural trends. Ten years ago, there were only one or two colors of Vinca, for example. Today, there are 25 to 30. Flowers, in general, are larger and bolder in color. Growers are producing true pinks and real scarlets.
Greg Crook, vice president of planning and product development at Color Spot Nurseries, agrees that the industry is growing brighter, bolder colors now. ?The demand [for specific colors] changes by fashion. Consumer magazines have a lot of impact on that. People look at Better Homes and Gardens or Martha Stuart Living and get ideas.? That?s why he?s not seeing a demand for yellows this year. Pentas and Lantanas are very popular now, especially for desert areas.

Another horticultural trend that Hellerick has seen is a change in propagation. In the past, almost all flower stock was seed grown; e.g. petunias, impatiens, etc. Today, there are more flowers grown from cuttings like Scaevola, and there?s also more demand for tropicals and other exotics. Plants like these just weren?t available to commercial growers before.

Burns is also using unusual plants in his designs. He uses subtle color in annual ornamental grasses for summer plantings and in the yellows and golds of some conifers for winter color. Yuccas, with their whites and yellows, are also popular in his business.

Greg Fracker, on the other hand, doesn?t use a lot of unusual plant materials at Colorscapes by Design, Inc., a design and install business in Newark, Ohio. His customers tend to want a more professional look that imparts the image of stability yet beauty.

?Not too many commercial properties tend to want to experiment,? he says. Therefore, he uses a lot of reds, whites, and pinks to create that eye-catching, but clean look that his customers want. However, like Burns, he?ll sometimes use flowering shrubs like sun-gold cypress, as well as maroon and burgundy junipers, for winter color.

Adapting a design to a property?s conditions is always the most ideal plan. The most unusual property that Fracker has done was at Ye Olde Mill, which is owned by the Velvet Ice Cream Company. Since there is a grist mill on the property, they wanted an 1800s look. Fracker could bring in a lot of detail for this job because this was a property that would see a lot of foot traffic. He used old, weathered containers, and a lot of old standbys like the reds and pinks of geraniums and begonias, the yellows of marigolds, and the purple of trailing Vinca vines, and lots of green foliage.

Environmental conditions are often the reason many landscape contractors choose to do a change-out of annual beds. Fracker only changes out when weak plants spoil the look of a bed. He?ll change out six plants or several flats; whatever is necessary to maintain a fresh look. Sometimes this is due to heat, dryness, or disturbance of the beds.

Hellerick says, ?Color is part of the whole package. Your eyes will go to the negative spots, so it?s important to manage the whole picture.?

Burns will do two major change-outs; one around the first of May and one in mid-October. Some of his customers will want a third, partial change-out in mid-August.

Color used effectively in a landscape design enhances properties and produces the good-time mood people want to have when folks come to visit.

Mar 2001