The popularity of succulents continues to rise with consumers, making them perfect for retail sales. Succulents are easy to grow and are low maintenance. They create texture and interest in their environments that might include container gardens, xeriscapes or used as houseplants. Succulents are even growing in popularity with florists as a unique and decorative addition to bouquets and corsages. Here are some tips and tricks for success with succulents in your greenhouse program. A wide variety of cultivars are available as URC from Dümmen Orange.
On a plant collecting trip in the 1980s, Joy Logee acquired an unusual plant with pancake-shaped leaves that she brought back to Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut. It took years to identify the untagged specimen as Pilea peperomioides, a funky tropical variety commonly known as the Chinese money plant.
It eventually faded out of Logee’s collection — until recently, when Pilea suddenly surged back into popularity, taking every plant nerd’s social media feed by storm. Pictures began popping up on Pinterest and Instagram, as design icons abroad shared updates about their precious Pilea — fueling a frenzied demand that outpaced grower supply in the United States.
Pilea gained its reputation as “The Sharing Plant,” because you had to know someone to snag a hard-to-find start. People sold Pilea pups on eBay and Etsy for shocking prices, and desperate collectors ponied up hundreds without hesitation.
Meanwhile, plant retailers like The Sill struggled to find sufficient inventory as a new generation of consumers fell in love with tropical houseplants. Although The Sill’s founder and CEO, Eliza Blank, communicates with growers regularly to anticipate demand, she says she consistently sells out of varieties like Monstera deliciosa because growers can’t keep up with trends.
“Growers don’t have a huge appetite for risk, which makes our job more difficult, because we have to wait until enough retailers ask for the same plant,” Blank says. “It’s ultimately worse for the grower, too, because as soon as growers finally caught onto the popularity of Pilea, then they weren’t making as much money as they could have if they would have been willing to be the first to grow it.”
Growers are understandably loath to take greenhouse space away from reliable crops to grow every “wacky new plant,” that Blank and other retailers request. As a result, the whole industry is feeling the pressure of a surging houseplant market, driven by trends that are redefining consumers’ relationships with plants.
Like Pilea, other houseplants from past decades are making a strong comeback.
When Austin Bryant browses Pinterest today, he sees houseplants that were hip in the ’70s; the same types of interior tropical foliage that his parents started growing when they opened Heart of Florida Greenhouses in 1977.
“It’s a minimalist retro look,” says Bryant, head of sales at his family’s greenhouse in Zolfo Springs, Florida, “like Ficus lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig) and Monstera deliciosa (split-leaf philodendron). Those are both oldie goldies, and those are the two hottest plants you could have right now. Is this generation searching to find a connection with their grandparents? I don’t know, but I can look on Pinterest and see plants I haven’t seen in years.”
Ty Strode, vice president and director of marketing at Agri-Starts in Apopka, Florida, agrees that throwback plants are back in vogue. He says tropical foliage is an obvious choice for a new generation of plant owners, because of its low-light, easy care requirements and exotic-looking leaves.
“We’re seeing more opportunity in these funky retro plants like Pilea and Monstera, but the core crops — like Spathiphyllum (peace lily), Syngonium (arrowhead vine), Dieffenbachia (dumb cane) and Aglaonema (Chinese evergreens) — continue to be in demand, too,” Strode says. “The mainstays will always be there, but now there’s a new opportunity to reinvent these re-emerging plants.”
So, what’s different about indoor foliage this time around?
The speed of social media
The classics are still in style, but the way consumers are choosing and using houseplants has changed drastically. The biggest difference with this generation, and their most influential trendsetter, is social media.
“It wasn’t until interior designers and lifestyle influencers gained traction on visual media channels like Instagram and Pinterest that plants became as popular as they are,” says Blank, who founded The Sill as an online plant retailer in 2012 and later opened two stores in New York City. “It used to be that the fiddle-leaf fig tree was only known to the audience reading Architectural Digest magazines, but now that Instagram exists, it democratizes access to high design.”
Now, photos of highly styled interiors accented with plants are making consumers green with “apartment envy,” says Mason Day, co-founder of GrowIt, a mobile app where people can share plant pictures and growing tips. As a result, young consumers see houseplants as must-have décor that makes a bold fashion statement. This nature-infused design aesthetic is pushing houseplant popularity to new heights.
“Houseplants are becoming more prevalent in all kinds of advertisements,” says Strode, who’s noticed clothing retailers adding plants to their merchandising displays for an earthy vibe. “That organic look is popular, so people are paying more attention to incorporating plants into their lives.”
The challenge is that modern plant preferences can shift at the speed of social media, and consumers might not appreciate how long it takes growers to produce those pretty plants they see online.
“It’s difficult for growers to keep up with these trends because we’re growing plants that are slow to produce, and this generation is flip-flopping faster than we can get liners in the soil,” Bryant says. “We put in orders six months prior to receiving anthurium plugs, for example, and then it takes 10 to 12 months to finish a one-gallon pot. That trend could change before the plant we ordered becomes a finished product.”
Greening up the indoors
This generation’s obsession with social media propels the houseplant market in other ways.
“It’s no secret that we’re the indoor generation and we stare at our screens all day,” says Katie Dubow, creative director at Garden Media Group — whose 2019 Garden Media Trend Report stated that 90 percent of people spend nearly 22 hours inside every day. Americans spend 93 percent of their time inside, according to the report, while children average less than an hour outside per day — 50 percent less than their parents did as kids.
“Whether we’re doing it consciously or subconsciously,” Dubow says, “we’re putting more greenery in our homes because we’re spending more time inside.”
Last year, 30 percent of all households bought at least one houseplant, according to research from the National Gardening Association. Millennials were responsible for 31 percent of recent houseplant sales.
While design aesthetics definitely play a role, Dubow thinks our houseplant fascination stems from a deeper underlying focus on wellness and self-care.
“People understand that our surroundings where we work, live and play can affect our health and well-being,” Dubow says. “That’s one of the biggest trends causing people to turn toward houseplants, because they want to incorporate more wellness in their space.”
Research about the health benefits of plants has been around for decades — popularized by the NASA Clean Air Study published in 1989, which concluded that common indoor plants like Dracaena, Sansevieria and Spathiphyllum could remove trace toxins from the air. More recently, “Project Carbon” research from the University of Georgia, funded by the National Foliage Foundation (now the National Horticulture Foundation, NHF) with support from Green Plants for Green Buildings and the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association, confirmed that interior plants remove carbon from the air.
Earlier this year, the National Initiative for Consumer Horticulture (NICH) developed a series of infographics to promote the proven health and wellness benefits of houseplants. The #PlantsDoThat campaign illustrated how indoor plants can improve test scores in classrooms, lower blood pressure in hospitals and increase productivity in the workplace.
“We started the #PlantsDoThat campaign to show people what houseplants actually do in their everyday lives,” says Day, who is also the chair of the commercial council for NICH. “These benefits resonate with Millennials, because they want something that does more than just look pretty.”
According to global research firm Mintel, 52 percent of U.S. consumers buy houseplants because of their air-purifying power. Costa Farms has been highlighting the health benefits of plants since 2008, when Garden Media Group helped the nursery launch its O2 for You marketing campaign, with blog content and social media posts featuring how plants can improve air quality and boost concentration.
Bryant still sees plenty of opportunity for the green industry to leverage this type of messaging. “These benefits are brandable tools that nurseries should be using to drive the popularity of these plants,” he says. “All growers have access to this information through the NHF or NICH; it’s essentially free data to help tell the story of why we should have more plants around us.”
Supporting new plant parents
When consumers buy houseplants they spotted on social media, they expect it to look just like it did online. “Everyone knows what happens if you compare yourself to what you see on Pinterest,” Bryant says. “You’ll be disappointed, because there’s such a disconnect between the internet and reality.”
The culprit is lack of education about plant care requirements. Young consumers may not be able to detect which plant photos have been staged for social media, versus what’s realistic in their apartment — so they need support to be successful.
“There’s been a definite spike in interest for houseplants, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a spike in knowledge about them,” Day says. “A lot of the questions that users post on GrowIt are focused on, ‘What’s wrong with my plant?’ or ‘How do I take care of it?’ There’s an overwhelming amount of basic information that people are looking for. That’s why we can’t just look at people as customers, but students as well.”
The biggest difference today is the new digital channels where consumers can find information. That’s why apps like GrowIt and SmartPlant exist to answer basic questions — and it’s why growers and retailers need to be looking online, too.
“[Millennials are] looking at online sources and apps for their care needs,” says Jacob Butler, director of sales for SmartPlant, an app that provides customized plant care notifications. “You’ll see more growers and retailers producing their own content to answer questions that people are searching for. Because if houseplants aren’t represented on your website, [Millennials] are going to move on to someone else.”
To connect with this tech-savvy audience, Dubow suggests using plant tags as an opportunity to engage online by including a link to your website for more information. “Drive them to your website, where you can capture their email address,” she says.
Engaging customers in ongoing education is key to building relationships that last longer than plant fads. “The best way to get a return customer is to make them feel like they have a green thumb,” Bryant says. “Everyone wants to feel successful, so it’s our responsibility as growers to put out good care information.”
The challenge, he says, is that small independent nurseries that supply IGCs don’t often have the bandwidth to market directly to consumers. So, growers and retailers have to work together.
“It starts with the grower, because you’re the expert, and retailers can’t be experts in everything they sell,” Dubow says.
Blank says retailers should take a more active role. For example, The Sill offers regular workshops and online classes, in addition to a plant helpline that customers can text with questions.
“There’s only so much that [growers] can put on a plant tag,” Blank says. “It’s really the salespeople who should be educating consumers.”
Educating a new generation of houseplant parents requires collaboration and communication. If customers ask why a certain houseplant is so expensive, for example, retailers need to understand the slow-growing process involved in production before the plant landed on the shelf.
Tapping into growth
There’s no doubt that houseplants are back, and the growth outlook for this market is hot.
“Exploding is the only word to describe it,” Day says.
“The industry is poised for growth,” Dubow says. “I don’t see it slowing down at all.”
Growers can respond to these opportunities one of two ways: “You’ve got growers that have always grown what they grow and that’s all they’re going to grow,” Bryant says. “And then you have businesses that are willing to look outside the box.”
That doesn’t mean growers should abandon core crops and switch to Pilea production. But pay attention to see where you can shift, even slightly, toward the trends.
“What can nurseries do today to prepare for tomorrow?” Bryant says. “Well, if you’re stuck in the rut of only growing five things, try to break out of the mold and expand. You can’t look at all the shiny things flying by, but you can make small changes. Look for plant material that has similar watering and light requirements, and try it.”
In this market, diversity is key. Heart of Florida grows about 30 to 40 varieties in several pot sizes, which each require different watering schedules. “It’s a grower’s nightmare,” Bryant says. “It’s like a zoo with 40 animals and every one of them has a different diet. We could do things a lot cheaper and easier if we only specialized in five plants, but this generation wants variety. Everyone wants something different, so it’s easier to create consistent orders when you have a wider variety of material.”
Even growers that specialize in orchids or bromeliads are driven by diversity, Bryant says, because retailers are more likely to order one case of 20 assorted colors than 20 cases of the exact same variety.
“There’s more openness and acceptance for trialing different things than I’ve seen before,” Strode says. “People are more willing to say, ‘Sure, send me a few hundred of those to try.’ The collection mentality is coming back.”
That’s good news, if you were late to the Pilea fad, which Bryant calls “the Tickle-Me-Elmo of last year.” If you look beyond specific varieties, these short-lived fads can signal future houseplant trends. For example, Day predicts that 2019 will be the year of Peperomia, as Pilea lovers look to add different varieties to their collection. Strode also sees growth potential in other “bizarre aroids” that will follow the popularity of Monstera, but with different variegation, coloration and texture.
The best way to stay on top of these houseplant trends is by staying in touch with your customers — whether that means following consumer fads on Instagram or communicating openly with retailers. Don’t lose touch with the market because you’re too busy growing what you’ve always grown.
“If you keep your ears open, your customers will ask you for the plants they want,” Bryant says. “They’ll lead you in the right direction, because your customers are only going to want things that are selling, and if it’s selling, that’s something you want to be growing.”
Brooke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.
Q&A: Everything growers need to know about pest and disease issues in bedding plants
Features - Pest & Disease
Kansas State University’s Dr. Raymond Cloyd and Cornell University’s Margery Daughtrey preview the book they co-wrote with Dr. A.R. Chase, “Compendium of Bedding Plant Diseases and Pests.”
This past September, Dr. Raymond Cloyd from Kansas State University, Margery Daughtrey from Cornell University and Dr. A.R. Chase from Chase Horticultural Research released a book tilted “Compendium of Bedding Plant Diseases and Pests.” The 170-page book, published by The American Phytopathological Society (APS), features information on the many infectious and abiotic diseases affecting bedding plants sorted by their cause, as well as an overview of common arthropod pests such as aphids, fungus gnats and greenhouse thrips.
The trio originally discussed writing the book nine years ago at OFA Short Course — before it was rebranded as Cultivate — and have been working on the book for the past several years. Cloyd, an extension specialist at Kansas State University, wrote the section about pests, while Daughtrey, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, and Chase, president of Chase Horticultural Research co-wrote the sections covering diseases.
“We sat around at a table there and started the conversation,” Cloyd says. “It was us sitting down and saying ‘Hey, there’s no book on diseases and pests for greenhouses and landscapes.’”
“We had an interest in filling that gap,” Daughtrey says. “The way these APS books work, they are very comprehensive and that section of the industry needed this.”
The book is available through APS for $139 or $125.10 for APS members here. It is not currently available in a digital format.
Greenhouse Management: The book says that the 1970s were the heyday of bedding plants and that the information growers need to grow bedding plants now hasn’t been updated much since then. What exactly has changed?
Raymond Cloyd: Growers have really diversified. Basically, the heyday we talk about, looking back at the ’70s and ’80s, growers were only growing bedding plants — marigolds, petunias, etc. Now, you have growers producing vegetables and other plants at the same time. Although I think that while the bedding plant industry is doing well and crops like new guinea impatiens are so popular, growers are diversifying because of the market and trying to find new niches. You don’t have a grower just growing bedding plants anymore.
When you grow other crops along with bedding plants, you’re going to have different pests. If you’re going to apply pesticides and you’re growing herbs along with your bedding plants, there’s an issue there because herbs are consumable and bedding plants are not. The challenges are trying to find products you can use on both or you’re going to have to do isolated, localized sprays and minimalize the drift on the herbs. The same logic applies to vegetables.
GM: In the pest section, what information will be most helpful to growers?
RC: I think the initial overview of pests will be quite valuable because it covers a whole range of topics. I think the tables in there will be really helpful to growers and help guide them to coherently solve their problems. They don’t have to dig for the information — it’s going to be there in table format for them. This is something growers need on their bookshelf.
Although I think that while the bedding plant industry is doing well and crops like new guinea impatiens are so popular, growers are diversifying because of the market and trying to find new niches.
GM: What are some of the challenges of a project like this one?
Margery Daughtrey: It takes a lot of time to get the illustrations for all of this right. You have to go through what you’ve got to find the perfect one. With bedding plants, it’s more challenging because most books that APS publishes are one plant at a time — so it’s everything you want to know about soybeans or everything you want to know about sunflowers, for example. But with this book, we were covering 125 different plants. Each time we covered a pathogen, we had to find all of the plants that interacted with that pathogen in a way that caused it to be recorded or researched.
GM: What are some of the main highlights of the disease section that you think will jump out to growers?
MD: There are a number of colored illustrations throughout the book, which is nice because you can see exactly what we are talking about at any given place. They can see, for example, the symptoms of tomato spotted wilt virus or necrotic wilt. They can learn what Botrytis looks like and see what a fusarium wilt infection on a cyclamen looks like. There are a lot of bits of learning that come from the illustrations. Another thing I think people will be really excited about is one giant table that I know [Chase] worked really hard on. It’s a fungicide listing organized so all of the pathogens are listed across the top on a double-page spread and the different fungicides are listed down the other side and you can see what products have an effect on a particular pathogen. That’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
5 types of people you’re likely to work with and how to manage each
Departments - Business Minds
Adjust your leadership for each to maximize performance.
In a recent Gallup Poll of more than 80,000 American employees, 32 percent self-reported being actively engaged and committed to their work and workplace, while 51 percent indicated being passively disengaged, and a terrifying 17 percent admitted to being actively disengaged and trying to cause problems.
In order to maximize performance, productivity and profitability, you must adjust your leadership strategies to fit the individual and situation. Based on the five types of people I describe in my book “Navigate: Understanding the Five Types of People,” I recommend the following:
High Flyers — Dream employees, High Flyers are extremely reliable, conscientious and driven. Tasks are completed well and on time. They make leadership look easy. All you have to do is assign tasks, give clear directives and provide resources they need. To best lead them:
Refrain from rewarding them with more work.
Protect them from burnout by empowering them to say no and keeping them in the sweet spots where they most easily soar.
Reward them with wages that reflect their outstanding work and occasionally surprise them with things like bonuses, experiences or time off.
Steady Gliders — These reliable, hardworking and conscientious first cousins of High Flyers, Steady Gliders often fly under the radar and are often underappreciated and underutilized. Lift them higher by:
Mentor them by finding and developing their talents, providing opportunities and sharing your knowledge, skills and expertise.
Encourage them by reminding them of what they have previously accomplished, affirming their best qualities, telling them you believe in them and that you know they will succeed.
Acknowledge and reward their courage and efforts as they push themselves and take risks.
Lackers — Underperforming workers who are missing a mindset or skillset needed to be productive and successful, you can help empower Lackers by:
Identify why things aren’t getting done through conversations.
Remediate skillset deficiencies by providing additional training and encourage them to overcome mindset deficits by working with a counselor.
Ensure they come up to speed by providing accountability.
Slackers — Passively disengaged, Slackers force others to work harder. While they may be lazy, far more often they will respond to encouragement:
Clarify their job and its importance to you, the team and to the company.
Enforce deadlines that provide breathing room if the ball gets dropped due to their immaturity or inability to accurately estimate how long tasks take.
Safeguard standards and hold them accountable to doing quality work.
Hackers — Actively trying to cause problems, hidden Hackers drop innuendoes, lie and undermine your authority when you aren’t around. Conversely, overt Hackers create chaos and fear by exploding, attacking, belittling and making snide remarks. Lying, stealing and sabotage are additional tools in their arsenal.
Solve problems by addressing inappropriate behaviors and clearly state they will not be tolerated.
Manage problems you lack the power to solve by assigning them less critical responsibilities, having them work from home or not allowing them to interact with customers.
Terminate them when Hackers refuse to improve.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for leading your team, and each individual who comprises it.
Dr. Sherene McHenry boosts your People IQ so you can increase purpose, productivity and profitability. Learn more about her services and get your copy of “Navigate: Understanding the Five Types of People” at sherenemchenry.com
Attention to detail
Departments - Meet the Grower: Jennifer Webber
Jennifer Webber shares decades of experience with growers at Rambo Nursery to help her team understand operations from the ground up.
Driven by a commitment to keep improving and learning more about every detail of growing operations, Jennifer Webber has carved out a successful greenhouse career.
Growing up in the small town of Kensington, Georgia, Webber says she “didn’t have much, but we always had a big garden.” From a young age, she helped her father plant seeds and care for crops as he taught her everything he knew about plants.
Webber’s father died when she was only 11, and by age 15, she was out on her own. She went out and bought a suit, then got her first job at Hardee’s. She even rented her own apartment, telling the landlord she was 18.
When she wasn’t going to school or working, Webber was reading plant books and magazines to keep honing her green thumb. Meanwhile, she continued working her way up the fast food chain, eventually earning her restaurant manager’s diploma, when she realized, “This isn’t what I want to do.”
So, at age 18, Webber relocated to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where she landed her first growing job at a wholesale greenhouse. She continued her personal research, trying to absorb all the informal horticulture knowledge and experience she could.
“Determined to become one of the best growers around, I even built a small greenhouse in my backyard, where I began learning about scouting for pests, using biological controls, pruning ornamental plants and pesticide regulations,” she says.
Her dedication paid off, and within three months, she was promoted to head grower. Webber stayed at the company for four years, until a hurricane scared her back to Georgia. She worked as a grower near her hometown for another 10 years, before joining Rambo Nursery eight years ago.
Training her team
As Rambo’s head grower and operations manager, Webber oversees two locations: a 75-acre facility in Dallas, Georgia, and a 117-acre perennial farm in Cedartown. The wholesale nursery grows annuals, perennials, groundcover, roses and succulents exclusively for Home Depot locations in Georgia and Alabama.
Rambo Nursery has 66 employees between both locations; 13 of them are section growers. Webber holds weekly training sessions for them to discuss conditions and issues to watch for in current crops. To supplement that training, she also meets with each grower one-on-one throughout the week.
Webber routinely shares her vast plant knowledge with her team every way she can, passing down what she has learned throughout her 22-year career.
“Over the years, I have taken notes on different growing techniques [as I learn] what each plant likes and dislikes,” Webber says. “With all this knowledge, I put together a grower’s handbook — years of work passed down to make all of Rambo Nursery’s growers the best they can be.”
Webber also created a daily checklist for her growers to follow, “so there [are] never any questions about day-to-day tasks,” she says. “It has made my growers outstanding assets to the company.” For growers, every day begins by walking each aisle to get an overview of the greenhouse and identify which plants need hydrating first.
“While they’re walking, they’re required to scout for pests, plant diseases and any kind of discoloration. They never pass any weeds without pulling them,” Webber says.
Emphasizing this attention to detail, she says, is essential to maintaining successful growing operations from start to finish.
“You have to notice the whole environment and pay attention to very small details so you don’t miss anything,” she says. “You have to look everywhere, up and down, and notice all the surroundings to [ensure] the quality of the plant.”
Webber says her main responsibility is “to ensure the highest quality of finished product for our Home Depot customers.” In her dual role as head grower and operations manager, she understands that plant quality is a result of cohesive teamwork throughout the operation — from production and propagation, to her growing staff, to the shipping department. To that end, she’s constantly communicating with all these groups, while training her section growers to look beyond the plants and understand how these pieces work together.
“Not only do we teach [our growers] how to maintain crops, we teach them how the operation runs,” Webber says. “For example, I have an assistant grower at the Dallas location, so when I’m walking with her, I want her to not only see the growing side of it, but also to understand the operation, so I point out everything from maintenance issues to how we enter plants into the shipping system, so she can learn all of it.”
As a result of her insatiable quest to “learn all of it” and help other growers do the same, Webber equips her team to grow their careers through a comprehensive understanding of greenhouse operations, from the ground up.
“I love everything about growing, and that’s what continues to make me knowledgeable in the growing industry,” Webber says. “If there’s something out there I don’t know, I want to know it.”