Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

What’s in Store for Garden Centers in 2012

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Walters Gardens Inc., Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, EarthBox, Brunnera m. 'Jack Frost', vermiculite, garden centers, vegetable gardening, Cindy Murphy,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgLast week, two of my co-workers, my boss, and I drove up to Grand Rapids at an ungodly hour unfit for man or beast.  Ok, admittedly, the hour is not so early to bother anyone but The Perpetually Late, and that would be me!  (Although I’m usually up by 5am, I had to leave home an hour and a half earlier than I normally do, and it’s always a struggle for me to get out of the house on time.)  We were headed to the last trade show of the season, where we placed the bulk of the garden center’s hardgood orders for next spring.  Despite the ungodly hour, the van was alive with excitement.

Field trip!  Remember as kid the excitement surrounding field trips?  Going on a field trip meant a day away from the classroom, a break from the routine, and a change of scenery.  For me, the enthusiasm never waned. 

Although this last trade show was in late September, August seemed to be the field trip month for us at the nursery.  During the month’s second week, our college intern and I went to Walter’s Gardens, Inc. in Zeeland, Michigan, just a short drive up the road. 

Walters Gardens, Inc., founded in the 1940s, is the largest bare root perennial wholesale grower in the United States.   With 1,500 acres and 500,000 square feet of greenhouses, they grow over 1,5000 perennial varieties, shipping between 15 and 20 million perennial liners to independent garden centers, wholesale growers, and landscape companies each year.  On the grounds are extensive display gardens, open to the public with no appointment necessary (though they do like a phone call beforehand).

Walters Gardens display gardens   

I’ve been to Walters’ display gardens in the past; with nearly 100 new varieties added to Walters’ offerings each year, it’s never the same garden twice.  I’m responsible for ordering perennials for the nursery; seeing how plants grow in a garden helps me choose what I’ll order, and Walters Gardens is one of the suppliers I use.  Things look different in a catalog, and behave different in a garden than they do in pots.  A tour of the display gardens in August after the plants have bore the brunt of all the excessive rain, heat, and humidity this summer threw at them, gave me a good idea of what perennials I’ll place on our fall order for spring delivery; I don’t want to carry something at the nursery that isn’t going to stand up well in customers’ gardens.   

One plant that’s definitely on my list to order, as it has been for the past decade, is Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’.  A Walters Gardens introduction, ‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera has been named the 2012 Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year, the most prestigious perennial award in the country.   

Jack Frost Brunnera 

Walters Gardens first introduced the plant in 2000, and it’s been a favorite of shade gardeners ever since.  Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ grows in zones 3 to 8, prefers shade and moist, but well-drained soil; its heart-shaped silver and green leaves are complimented by tiny blue flowers in spring.    

Next up on the field trip itinerary was Chicago’s Navy Pier in mid-August for the Independent Garden Center Show.  A nice thing about attending the IGC Show is that some of the products showcased there are only sold to independent garden centers…meaning they aren’t available to the box stores.  It’s the largest trade show of its kind, featuring thousands of new gardening products and ideas from over 1,000 vendors. New plant introductions, living walls (very, very cool), birding supplies, garden art, arbors, statuary, and the more utilitarian garden basics such as fertilizers, soil conditioners, and pesticides are just a smattering of products displayed at the show. 

IGC Show 

Based on the number of vendors offering supplies, it seems the fairy gardening craze continues for 2012.  There is a fairy gardening craze?  I guess we aren’t trendy enough, because we hadn’t realized there was a trend.  But, yes – now your garden fairies can keep up with the Jones’ fairies with wrought iron gazebos and fencing, tiny bistro sets to sit at while drinking tiny cups of whatever it is that fairies drink, fairy-sized swings, and whatever else a fairy might need to enjoy time spent in their garden.  I briefly wondered what would use a one-inch ceramic birdbath.  A mosquito, perhaps?  Though fairy gardening is not my taste, and we all agreed fairy gardening merchandize was not something our garden center’s customers would go nuts over, it is enchanting.  That is one of the cool things about gardening….whether it’s flower gardening, gardening for wildlife, gardening for fairies, or vegetable gardening, there is something to pique everyone’s interest.    

Speaking of vegetable gardening, the IGC show had more products than ever to assist the growing population of those that are growing their own food, for both the experienced gardener, and for those just getting started.  Prefab raised bed kits made from a variety of materials – recycled plastics, corrugated steel, and white-cedar, just to name a few – were in abundance.  Many of the kits retail for just about the same as it would cost to construct your own, but without the hassles of measuring and cutting.  Vendors offering greenhouse and cold-frame kits, organic gardening products, tools, and both organic and heirloom seed were well-represented.   

A co-worker and I stopped to chat with a representative from one of the heirloom seed companies – a gentleman by the name of Paul Wallace, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  We talked about seeds, and he then showed us The Heirloom Gardener magazine, a gorgeous thing printed on thick, high-gloss paper, full of beautiful photos and enticing-sounding articles.  Thumbing through it, I came across an article about turkeys…written by none other than Oscar H. Will III – Hank, of course, from Grit, (I later recognized the magazine’s editor, Karen Keb, as being Hank’s wife and culinary partner in crime).

“Hey, I know him….sort of”, I pointed to the page with Hank’s article, explaining my association with Grit magazine. 

“You know Hank?  Nice guy.  He’ll be at The National Heirloom Exposition.  You both should come”, he said, handing my co-worker and I pamphlets.

Held in Sonoma, California, The National Heirloom Exposition ran for three days in September with workshops, demonstrations, and seminars, (along with Hank, KC Compton was on the roster of speakers), all focusing on heritage agriculture.  And food! 

Another field trip?!  Unfortunately, it was hard enough to break away for a day in Chicago; flying across country for nearly a week is impossible.  Drats!  Hope you had fun, Hank and KC – the Expo sounded like a good time.

One of the new products that we saw at both trade shows was the EarthBox Jr..  EarthBoxes are self-contained gardening systems that use less water and fertilizer and require less maintenance than do conventional container gardens.  We’ve carried EarthBoxes at the garden center for a number of years, and in our opinion they are better made than a lot of the knock-off self-contained gardening systems we’ve seen.  Based on our customer feedback, it produces great results.  The Organic EarthBox Jr. Kit will be on our shelves next spring, next to the full-sized Organic EarthBox Kits.   

For those of you who use a lot of vermiculite, you might want to stock up this fall.  The scuttlebutt is that it will be much more expensive next year; one vendor speculates it’ll double in price.  Vermiculite has many uses in industrial manufacturing and gardeners use it to loosen soil, and for its moisture retaining properties.  The forecasted higher price is due to a higher worldwide demand, and a global shortage of quality product (many sources have been found to contain trace metals and other impurities).  Currently quality vermiculite is being mined in South Africa and the United States.  An alternative to vermiculite would be perlite, which also conditions soil, mixed with a coarse peat moss to retain moisture.  I found just a few sites on the Internet verifying a possible price increase, but if you use a lot of vermiculite, it might be worth checking into further.   

Time spent after the field trips has been busy.  I’ve got all the perennial orders placed for next year, we’ve got a gorgeous display of hand-built birdhouses constructed out of wood and iron from old barns in Illinois that we ordered at the IGC show, and we’ve been rearranging the store to allow for a bigger area devoted to vegetable gardening.  I’ve got a slew of new gardening ideas I want to try at home, and a handy-dandy Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company 2012 calendar on which to plan them and schedule other gardening tasks as well. 

What plans do you have for the next gardening season? 

And oh! do you believe in fairies?