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?

cindy murphy
10/16/2011 7:37:27 PM

I've never been trick-or-treating in the snow, Michelle - not with the girls, or even when I was a kid. Winter jackets are usually needed, (such a drag to cover up your costume with a coat), but never snow boots. It's been close many times though; the closest was the year it snowed Halloween night, but it was after all the ghoulies were safely tucked in bed. This might be the year though, (shudder at the thought); they are forecasting snow for this week. Way too early in my book. Snow by Thanksgiving is nice. Snow on my favoritest of all holidays - pfft!!!


michelle house
10/14/2011 9:58:29 PM

Cindy, you would surprised how many times my kids and my grands have gone trick or treating in the snow. lol.


cindy murphy
10/13/2011 7:10:10 AM

Birdhouses are definitely fun, Stepper. Hubs and Shannon built one this spring; it was a simple thing made from a kit, and painted electric blue “so the birds can find it”, Shannon said when she picked the color. It was a good choice; within two days of hanging it, we watched a sparrow busily taking twigs and grass into the house. Simple is good, but a many compartment birdhouse would be fun too…oooo, like one of those purple martin high-rise birdhouses in the sky. There is the risk, of course, of a colony of fairies moving in, but that might not be such a bad thing either – the strange happenings might include your garden growing like gang-busters, fertilized by fairy dust. Or you could just get an EarthBox. Thanks for perusing, and enjoy your day!


cindy murphy
10/13/2011 5:48:55 AM

Hi, Mary. Plants went through a similar state of confusion here too. Some did particularly well with all the rain and heat, and looked better than ever; others that usually thrive in our typically dry summers seemed to melt away. Sorry about your vegetable garden woes. It was a half-and-half year in my veggie garden: the spinach (both spring and fall crops) was a complete bust, but the lettuce, once it finally kicked in, did great. The onions didn’t like the heavy spring rains. We had many more tomatoes than last year when it never got hot enough for them to ripen, but with all the rain and heat, blight was prevalent this summer. Lots of green beans, though fewer than in years past; the sunflowers flopped, I’m guessing because of weak stems from growing too fast. The potatoes did well, and the blackberry vines exploded with berries. Here’s to a more even keel next summer in the garden!


chris davis
10/11/2011 7:55:46 PM

I was perusing your blog and noticed the ‘Jack Frost’. Well, actually I noticed the picture first and immediately thought of ‘Elephant Ears’ (Caladium hortulanum), but in pictures there is a similarity. Maybe they’re kissing cousins – or photoperiodic reaction cousins. In any case, I’ll be looking for an Earthbox – or the Jr version – come spring. We had a terrible growing season here and it’d be nice to actually have something grow. And a birdhouse. I’ve always thought putting up a birdhouse or two would be fun. But it can’t be too fancy or have too many compartments. When they are too homey and have enough rooms, the darned fairies move in and really strange things start happening. Oh, and Tink says “Hi.”


mary carton
10/11/2011 7:47:07 PM

After going from winter to summer here in Alabama, and from 100 to 74 as highs in 2 days, the plants are confused here. My Pink Lady apple trees are in bloom now. Gardening this year was a big disappointment. I planted cucs 3 times, and the sun cooked them as they came up. I stopped after planting tomatoes. One of my heirloom seeds I bought was supposed to be a yellow brandywine, but was some sort of large tasteless cherry tomatoes. Those I pulled up. I had a couple of Cherokee Purples left and did get a few tomatoes from them until we had a couple of heavy rains followed by weeks with out rain. I had a nice watermelon patch that must have floated off vines and all. After the last two years of horrible gardening weather, I'm looking for a nice year next year.


cindy murphy
10/10/2011 7:36:04 AM

Wow, Michelle – slush and sleet already?! We had a few mornings that I had to scrape the windshield of the car, but there hasn’t been a hard, killing frost yet. It’s gotten down to the thirties at night, with a high of fifties during the day, which had me worried that we were going to have a short fall and early winter. This past week has been absolutely, positively gorgeous though. It’s shorts weather – in October!!! Dang, I love fall!!! Hope your slushy, sleety day was just a freak one-time October thing. Hate to think your winter has already arrived…and that your grands will be doing the Halloween thing wearing parkas and snow shoes! Hugs back attcha!


cindy murphy
10/10/2011 7:22:06 AM

Hi, Dave. Yes, you’re right – this year has been a particularly hard one for many plants, with some of the effects just showing up now. We had so much rain – the rainiest summer on record, I heard. A lot of things suffered from the excessive rainfall coupled with extreme heat, (it was also the hottest July on record here). Good deal though, on your patio plants doing so well! From the pictures on your blog, they looked like they thrived under your attentive care. Botanical gardens are great places to visit, and I hope you get a chance to get out to the one near you. You might want to check their schedule – many of them have a number of activities and programs for children all year long. I’d bet there is something your grandson would enjoy this fall. This is the best time of the year, in my opinion, to spend time outdoors! Thanks for stopping in, and enjoy your day.


michelle house
10/9/2011 8:33:28 PM

Field trip!!, lol, even if it was a day of training spent in a classroom, it felt like a field day.:) It sounds absolutely lovely, Cindy, But since I live in semi arid place, those plants would just not survive. :( But the fairy gardens? lol, not for me, but it does sound enchanting. We got our first slush/hail storm today, so I am pretty sure things are gonna die off now. But there is always next year. Hugs Michelle


nebraska dave
10/7/2011 10:27:16 PM

Cindy, I'm glad that you had the time to send out another post. Fall seems to always be just as busy as the spring. I would expect that the days spent at the trade shows are a good time spent away from the hustle and bustle of the nursery. This year has been a long hard year for plants of all kinds especially the garden plants. I'm already into planning next years garden and flowers for the Poor Man's Patio. This year was an absolute success for the arbor on the patio. Impatiens and Begonias virtually exploded with color all summer long. It's going to be hard to beat this years display. I set up a automatic watering system and gave the flowers a shot of miracle grow every three weeks. It's not too organic but I figure I'm not eating them so what the hey. Next year I may try Jack Frost.


nebraska dave
10/7/2011 10:26:32 PM

The Walter's gardens would be a cool place to visit. We have a place called Lauritzen Gardens. It's a botanical garden that's 113 acres. They have seven huge green houses that grow all their plants for the gardens. It has water falls, streams, ponds, and wet lands which display all sorts of different flowers. The best part is it's run mostly by volunteers so the cost of unlimited access membership is $20. One a week in the summer live jazz bands play on an outside area with food and drink allowed. I'm not sure why I haven't bought a yearly membership but I've always had good intentions. There's an inside area that is decorated with flowers and plants for every season and holiday. It's really a quality place. Have a great fall nursery buying season.