March 20 2019 12:00 AM

Discover this year’s most popular plants and the trends influencing them.

Incorporating new plants in your palette not only keeps your landscapes looking fresh to customers but keeps your job new and exciting too. Each year, new plant varieties with unique, vibrant colors, eye-catching patterns and sweet fragrances are introduced to the market.

And while plant genetics are getting better with each passing year, growers are constantly having to respond to ever-changing factors like water restrictions, pests and plant diseases. Having to forecast production months, even years, before the plants come to market also creates real challenges.

That’s why the relationship between the landscape industry, growers and garden centers is oh-so important. It’s one built on lots of listening and good communication. There’s always going to be bumps along the way, but when we work together to provide customers what they want, it’s amazing to see the results. The nursery industry is filled with brilliant plant experts who have dedicated their whole careers to horticulture. What better way to learn about this year’s top plants and the trends that are influencing them than to go straight to the source?

Market overview

George Wolf is one of these plant experts, getting his start in the industry as a college student and continuing to work with plants his whole career. Today, he is the director of nursery category management at SiteOne Landscape Supply, Roswell, Georgia, where he works with senior leadership at the company to develop its strategy to grow its nursery segment with the ultimate goal of adding value to contractors.

Right now, 83 of the company’s 500-plus locations have nursery yards, but all branches technically sell nursery products through the company’s Nursery Direct Program. Wolf says there’s always a team of SiteOne folks in place to deliver or ship nursery products regardless of location.

A couple of considerations go into SiteOne’s offerings. “The first part of it is the basic palette of that market that we’re in,” says Wolf. “Then we’ll also look at what the customer mix is of that individual branch — whether the customer mix is primarily contractors that focus on doing renovations for existing residential homeowners or if the contractor base is primarily geared toward builder work.”

SiteOne continually seeks input from contractors in the markets it serves as well as its brands and growers. One trend Wolf says is influencing Site- One’s nursery products is the increasing number of homeowners who have smaller yards, which means offering more compact varieties of plants and shrubs.

Wolf also says that tropical foliage plants seem to be making a comeback, and SiteOne has seen an increase in demand from contractors to stock more of these colorful species. Another popular trend he’s seeing stretch beyond the traditional South and Southwest regions is the use of succulents and natives in landscapes.

Ultimately, says Wolf, “The biggest trend right now that we continue to see is anything that is a substitution for boxwood blight issues. That pretty much hits the eastern U.S.”

Baby Jade Boxwood

Boxwood blight is why SiteOne is promoting Garden Debut’s Baby Jade Boxwood this year, as well as the Gem Box Inkberry holly from Proven Winners, which Wolf describes as a subtle substitute for boxwood. A bright, colorful ground cover opportunity the company anticipates will grow is the Evercolor Everillo Carex from the Southern Living Plant Collection. Wolf says SiteOne will also introduce new roses as they come out this year from Star Roses and Plants, as well as Encore azaleas as they are released by the Southern Living Plant Collection.

When it comes to planning for plant trends, Wolf says a beneficial opportunity SiteOne has had is investing in a software platform that uses algorithms allowing the company to examine three-year trends.

“Rather than just going with gut instinct, we can forecast out, with fairly good accuracy, three years in advance on most items. And in some cases, we can actually take it out a little bit further,” says Wolf.

This helps the company work with its primary grower partners by providing them data to help them determine their production cycle and what to grow. “We’re on the back end of what the cycle has grown already. So if we aren’t able to give them good information, they’re kind of guessing at what to grow. It’s definitely a little bit of an art as well as a science,” he says.

What is boxwood blight?

Boxwood blight is a widespread fungal disease that’s been causing the defoliation of boxwood in the U.S. since 2011, where it was initially discovered in North Carolina, Connecticut and Virginia.

Symptoms begin as leaf spots followed by rapid browning and leaf drop starting on the lower branches and moving upward in the canopy. Boxwood blight is very difficult and costly to control with fungicides.

Growers are focused on increasing resistancy to the fungal disease with improved genetics.

Wolf and the SiteOne team are anticipating a successful year. “All indications are it’s going to be a great spring and should be a great year because of how the weather impacted most of our markets last year. When we talk to contractors, they lost a lot of work days just due to the rain or abnormal weather conditions. So there’s a lot of pent up work that didn’t get done in 2018 that from talking to contractors will definitely hit the market in 2019,” Wolf says.

Nightglow Diervilla from Bloomin' Easy

It's all in the name

The scenic Fraser Valley region of British Columbia is home to Van Belle Nursery, a grower of over 400 varieties of plants on 100 acres. The nursery’s Youngplants business works with hundreds of growers that stretch into almost every region of North America.

The nursery is the creator of the brand, Bloomin’ Easy. In fact, branded plants make up about half of its volume, according to the nursery’s marketing manager, Kevin Cramer. “Close to 55 percent of our product volume is nonbranded. This percentage has been slowly shrinking over time as branded plants become more sought after with landscapers and retailers in North America,” says Cramer. “As long as we continue to replace older varieties with newer ones, we will keep up with this trend.”

Electric Love Weigela from Bloomin' Easy

One of the more unique plants the team at Van Belle Nursery is excited to introduce this year is the Electric Love Weigela. With electric red bell-shaped flowers against dark foliage, the plant is striking with its rich contrast. Cramer says growers are really building up Bloomin’ Easy varieties like Nightglow Diervilla, Flare Hydrangea and Rainbow Fizz Spiraea in 2019. He says they are incredibly low maintenance, and the smaller, mature form that these varieties offer is appealing to homeowners.

Rainbow Fizz Spiraea from Van Belle Nusery

Younger-generation homeowners who desire a beautiful outdoor space but are “hesitant to jump right in” are a growing target market for the nursery. According to Cramer, this type of homeowner perceives caring for a landscape as too much work or too difficult. It’s for this reason that Van Belle Nursery focuses on genetics like Proven Winners and Bloomin’ Easy, because they are naturally compact and tidy, are disease resistant, flower longer and perform in a variety of conditions that work for the majority of consumers.

Good genes

Located in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is Saunders Brothers Nursery, a familyowned nursery, orchard and farm market that began as a partnership between five brothers in 1915 and today is operated by the family’s third generation.

Berberis WorryFree Crimson Cutie, Photo: SynRG

“When we’re deciding what to grow, we’re trialing it in production for sure,” says Sonya Westervelt, chief of wholesale sales at Saunders Brothers.

The nursery simulates a natural habitat by using a minimal amount of fertilizers and growing plants in its own office’s landscape to see how they perform. Planning what to grow is “an educated guess based on industry hype, on past sales of similar plants, and also, it’s a gut feeling when you’re growing something new,” says Westervelt.

Summer Crush Hydrangea, Photo: Bailey Nurseries Inc.

The nursery is introducing many new plants this year, including the Berberis WorryFree Crimson Cutie, a noninvasive barberry that has been exempted for sale in the New England region. Westervelt says it’s an exciting plant for that market since other barberries have been banned due to their invasive nature when planted outside of their native regions. A few others she’s excited about are the Buddleia Grand Cascade, a purple blooming butterfly bush that has large flowers in beautiful arching form, as well as the Summer Crush hydrangea by Endless Summer, with its rich, deep pink blooms. The nursery is producing some new perennials too. Among them are Rudbeckia “American Gold Rush,” a Black-Eyed Susan that’s resistant to fungal infections.

Creating the biggest buzz at Saunders Brothers is arguably the boxwood program, which has been part of the family tradition for over 70 years. This year, the nursery unveiled a new generation of boxwood development and production with its NewGen Boxwood.

Rudbeckia American Gold Rush, Photo: Walters Gardens Inc.

Years in the making, the NewGen is a response to address the challenge of boxwood blight and has a better tolerance of the disease and also better resistance to boxwood leafminer.

Westervelt says that while there are tried and true product groups that remain popular over the years, “the quality of the plants are always improving if you’re keeping up with new genetics.” As a nursery that has spent decades trialing and evaluating plants, she says Saunders Brothers will continue to recommend and evolve cultivars with the best genetics.

A relationship-driven business

Part of the West Coast division of TreeTown USA, Village Nurseries is a wholesale plant and tree grower based in Orange, California. It’s here that Nicholas Staddon serves as the company’s official “plantsman” and plays a central role in the nursery’s plant introduction program. A true veteran of the industry, he joined Village Nurseries three years ago after a 27- year career leading Monrovia’s new plant program.

Clarity Blue Dianella, Photo: Sunset Western Garden Collection

Staddon explains that the plant palette in California has changed quite a bit over the last 10 to 15 years because of the state’s serious drought issues. “The landscape architects and designers are driven by government regulation on the plants that they can put on jobs, so they have to conform with specific water needs that are required by plants. That has really driven our plant mix for the landscape industry.”

He admits that while native plants are growing in popularity, they can sometimes tend to be on the unattractive side. “They’re not emotionally fulfilling in their own environment. They fit into the sides of mountains and things like that, but when you put them on job sites and peoples’ gardens, they just don’t have that same emotional appeal.”

Ceanothus Maritimus Valley Violet, Photo: UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden

While people like the idea of drought-tolerant plants that don’t require as frequent watering, he says that homeowners also want their yards to look beautiful and full of fragrant flowers. To find a happy medium between these two desires, he says the nursery looks for varieties that perform well in the landscape, don’t get quite so big as some of the native varieties and are profuse bloomers. An example of this is the Ceanothus Maritimus Valley Violet, which he describes as a “really handsome plant” that’s long-lived with stunning flowers and small evergreen leaves.

“The landscape community and the landscape architects and designers, they’re looking toward someone like myself and Village Nurseries to provide them with great plants that are low-water, handle somewhat inhospitable soil, and when it warms up, do well in high heat.” Staddon says Village Nurseries is always looking for new varieties of water-wise plants, especially ones coming in from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa because of these countries’ similar climates to Southern California.

Lomandra Platinum Beauty, Photo: Sunset Western Garden Collection

The nursery is working with a newer group of plants from Australia called Dianella, grass-like plants that are very drought tolerant. According to Staddon, an attractive variety of this plant is Clarity Blue Dianella from Sunset Western Garden Collection. Another plant the nursery has found to be very popular is the Platinum Beauty Lomandra, also from Sunset Western Garden Collection, which is used for ground cover and erosion control on banks.

Staddon says a hot plant this year is the Bottle Pop Neon Pink Bottlebrush from Monrovia with its striking hot pink flowers. A new lavender that’s come out is Meerlo Lavender from Sunset Western Garden Collection. Staddon says it’s unique because it has a higher fragrance than most other lavenders, and it also has beautiful variegated leaves.

Erik the Red Sunbird Aloe, Photo: Village Nurseries

Of course a true Southern Californian landscape wouldn’t be complete without succulents. “As well as being staples in the landscape, they’re very trendy. I mean, people love to have them in their garden landscapes.” Staddon says. Examples are Erik the Red Sunbird Aloe and the Color Guard Adam’s Needle.

Container gardening is also gaining traction. Gardens and yards are getting smaller in some parts of the country, so people are looking for container plants that not only work on a patio or in an entrance way but in a smaller garden, too. Staddon’s seen an increase in vegetable gardening and in fruit or flowers that can be harvested and then brought indoors.

Horticulture therapy is a huge passion of Staddon’s. It’s going on all over the U.S., and he says it’s a big deal. “Being involved in plants used to be kind of trendy. Now, it’s this massive cultural shift. There’s more people that really get it.” The “it” being that plants are not only good for the environment, but they’re good for our health, too.

He says landscape architects are designing more areas around commercial buildings where people can sit down and enjoy the environment. “There’s a lot of interest in rooftop gardens now where people are putting these gardens in so employees have a place to go on their break and completely relax.”

Bottle Pop Neon Pink Bottlebrush, Photo: Village Nurseries

So how does a “plantsman” like Staddon gather all this insight about trends? “A lot of our job is listening to people,” he says. “I will always fall into conversation with people just chatting them up, and then you can ask them: Do you have a garden? What are your favorite colors? Does your family use the garden? Over a period of time, you begin to see that everyone actually is really thinking the same way.”

Staddon likes to drill down what people like in plants: shapes, forms and colors. It is a relationship-driven business after all. He encourages landscape contractors to visit their suppliers and vice versa.

“It’s crucial that we are all seeing each other face-to-face on a regular basis because that’s where the business is done. That’s where you communicate how things are going, what’s working, what’s not working, what’s coming down the pipeline in plants. As a group of people, we’re still very social. We always do our best business when we’re together,” he says.

With a renewed appreciation for what these plant gurus do to bring new plants to market every year, it may be time for you to go and check them out.

While you are at it, be sure to give your nursery growers and suppliers feedback, so they can serve you well in the future.

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.