To view the 2021 New Perennials Varieties Digest, please click on the cover image, or click here.
Greenhouse Management: What does bringing brands like Nexus, RBI and others under the new Prospiant umbrella mean?
Tom Vezdos: While we had these different brands, sometimes they had these specialties or were associated with certain markets. So, along with the specialty, they had adjacent markets that they worked in. What happened is that we saw how different brands were more connected to other markets than others and we just wanted to try and unify all of the businesses that anyone in the agriculture technology business might know. There are shared technologies between different companies that don’t just sit on an island themselves. This is about putting this all together as one company for clarification for the customer, but also to show that each business is working on controlled environment agriculture or the processing side of the business.
GM: Why this moment for the Prospiant launch? And what steps do you take to do it?
TV: It’s probably been in the works for a year and half. The biggest challenge is that we don’t leave behind what we’ve all been known for. That’s probably the biggest concern, right? But we were reaching a tipping point where it was becoming more confusing to continue to go to market with essentially six different brands than it was to just change it. We did a lot of market research. We talked to our customer base. We talked to our vendor base. We asked our individual companies. We wanted to know from each of them what was important to them, what each brand meant to them and moved to consolidate all of that information. That was about nine months.
And then we had to decide, who was our target audience? We have some very large companies, very small companies and new companies and companies that have been around for decades. It’s a wide swatch of audiences, so we had to make sure we have a brand that appeals to everybody and ask why people do business with us. And, at the end of the day, it’s an agriculture business, but also a technology business.
GM: What has doing business during the pandemic been like?
TV: It’s always a challenge. The one benefit we did get out of these days and times are that people are a lot more willing to communicate over the phone and via email. Sometimes it’s actually easier to get ahold of people via a phone call than it was historically. So much of what we did before was face-to-face. And that’s great. But people have become accepting of communication via other means now.
Lavocat’s Family Greenhouse & Nursery
East Amherst, New York
Since opening in 1980, Lavocat’s Family Greenhouse and Nursery has served the surrounding areas of East Amherst, New York. While initially under the leadership of parents Don and Teri Lavocat, the greenhouse is now a third-generation operation and far from the original ground to ground greenhouse set up in Don’s backyard, with their kids, Don Jr., Chris and Kellie, and grandsons Jake and Evan now on board.
With a 22,000 square foot garden center and about 34,000 square feet of production space, the operation can offer a full line of over 1,000 varieties of plants, “from everyone’s favorites to the hard-to-find, unusual garden plants” Lavocat’s “About” page says. It also offers annuals, perennials, vegetable plants, fruit trees, herbs, shrubs, hard good items and landscaping services, and has become the largest selection of Western New York State’s houseplants and plant pottery. This said, growing media is an important aspect of the company’s production process.
“In growing media, I am looking for something that dries out,” says Chris, who oversees the garden center, growing space and expansion plans. “You get somewhat of a period of wet conditions and dry conditions, so something that dries out fairly fast, especially for the annual crop, is probably the main thing, along with price.”
As a customer of Lambert Peat Moss, Chris prefers their products because they work for the business and have for years. “The soil just seems to do what we need it to do,” he says.
By using four mixes from Lambert — one for annuals, a mix for perennials, a germination mix for propagation and a lighter mix for their monk crop — Lavocat’s can hone in on the specific need for each item. Some additives that are included in the mixes are bark, perlite and peat.
With no plans of switching growing media suppliers soon, Chris says he will most likely stick to the standard mixes Lambert offers because they’ve worked well thus far.
“If it’s not broke, there’s no reason to try anything else,” he says. “We’re doing fine as-is.”
Clifton Park, New York
Sokolowski’s Greenhouses, a family-owned operation located in Clifton Park, New York, has come a long way from the acreage Bernard and Benita Sokolowski first purchased in the early 1970s. The old barn and dilapidated greenhouses that were housed on the farmland are now 17 greenhouses with 20,000 square feet of growing, and the vegetable plants they first sold have now expanded to annuals, perennials and herbs, too. With everything grown onsite, Bernard wanted to give his customers the highest quality and variety of plants at a reasonable cost by refusing to purchase from wholesalers. With the help of their staff and son Greg, Sokolowski’s continues to do just that, as it serves local retailers and clientele.
“If my plants don’t look like the most premium around, I won’t be happy,” says Greg, who considers himself the pickiest grower and an expert on growing items that aren’t easy to grow.
Although he studied horticulture at SUNY Cobleskill College of Agriculture and Technology, Gregory credits his expertise to the hands-on experience and teachings he received from his father.
As for growing media, Greg says that he has found the best mix in the industry and dares anyone to contest him. His choice for the past 15 years? Berger, “which is by far the number one growing mix out there. Ever since I’ve switched, I’ve never even looked back," he proclaims.
Although Greg uses four mixes — BM 2, a germinating mix for all of his seeds, BM 7 for his perennials and Berger BM 1, an all-purpose mix — BM 6 is his favorite.
"[Berger] is by far the number one growing mix out there. Ever since I've switched, I've never even looked back." — Greg Sokolowski
In the past, Gregory has used other popular growing media companies, but describes those mixes as “mealy” compared to the “coarseness” of Berger. He also appreciates the adaptability of Berger.
“The high-porosity mix that Berger has is the most versatile mix. When I run out of perennial mix, I throw that in there and they thrive,” he explains. “It’s like the nook and cranny mix. If you look at the airspace of the soil, Berger BM6 has more air in the soil than any mix you can buy. There’s just peat moss and perlite in the BM6 and it’s a very generic basic-looking mix, but it’s amazing how stuff grows.”
Although Sokolowski’s has the mix down, one ironic component they encounter while growing is what Greg refers to as “horrible water.”
To combat their water’s high pH and alkalinity, Greg uses sulfuric acid and mixes fertilizers at one and a half ounce per gallon of concentrate. He also waters from a stream instead of from the ground. While it’s not ideal and may be a little primitive, as Greg describes it, he believes he’s an instinctive grower and is good correcting what needs to be adjusted.
What doesn’t need to be adjusted, however, is his love for Berger’s mixes. “I won’t even try anything else,” Greg says. “This stuff is a magical mix.
Water is a main point of research in the Horticultural Substrates Laboratory at North Carolina State University pertaining to its capture, retention, and availability within soilless substrates during the production of container-grown crops.
While all of these criteria are relevant, water retention and availability wouldn’t be pressing topics without water first being captured by the substrate during irrigation events.
The three properties are relatively straightforward, in that we as researchers in horticultural science are always working to improve water use and improving the sustainability and economics of plant production. The order in which these three properties of growing media are researched is not subsequent, however there must be a general understanding of how substrates are able to capture water before retention and availability are accessed.
As you know, there is a global spotlight on the use of water in the horticultural and agricultural industries, and these are driving forces behind our continued efforts to research this area.
Recent work on substrate hydrological evaluations includes the wettability and water capture of peat, coconut coir, aged pine bark and various engineered wood products. In this article, we will discuss some recent data from an experiment that included sphagnum peat moss, coconut coir, and pine bark undergoing irrigation testing to understand each substrate’s capture limitations based on the pre-set moisture levels, aka “preconditioning”.
Sphagnum peatmoss, coconut coir, and pine bark (Fig. 1) were all selected for testing based on the unique physical differences they possess. Peat is known to become hydrophobic under low moisture conditions, coir is relatively hydrophilic under all conditions and pine bark can be highly variable based on particle size and age.
To test the impacts of initial substrate moisture content (at the time of potting), we chose three moisture levels depicting different conditions at the time of potting. We tested substrates at initial moisture contents of 50% by volume (a common substrate moisture level set before potting) as well as at a lower level (dry) of 33% and upper level (wet) of 67%.
Two irrigation delivery methods (surface irrigation and subirrigation) were evaluated to better understand substrate water capture as influenced by the initial moisture level preconditioning of the materials. The surface irrigation system (Fig. 2D) is a modified surface-drip application system that has been used for substrate wettability and hydration efficiency testing for years. The subirrigation system (Fig. 2A-C) is a small-scale ebb and flood unit that was recently developed specifically for subirrigation substrate efficiency testing.
In order to create an accurate comparison of these two irrigation techniques, the subirrigation testing was modified to be under the same time-based irrigation as the surface irrigation system, with the water level kept at 2.5cm from the base of the substrate samples.
For both irrigation tests, substrate samples were packed (by weight) in clear plastic cores and then placed in their respective systems (Fig. 2).
For surface irrigation, a series of 10 simulated drip irrigation events were applied to the surface of the samples using 200mL of water at each event. After each event, the volume of water that passed through the sample was collected and measured to determine the amount of water captured during each event.
For subirrigation, the packed cylinders were placed on a mesh screen elevated off of the surface of the unit to maximize surface area exposure to the water. The unit was filled with water up to 2.5cm off of the base of the cylinder and held at that level for 5 minutes of continuous irrigation and repeated over a series of 10 events. After each event, the unit is drained over one timed minute and each sample is weighed to determine the amount of water absorbed (captured) by the substrate. For both irrigation tests, after the tenth irrigation, the samples were further analyzed to determine their maximum container capacity potentials (water holding). Data were then graphed in order to compare the results of each irrigation delivery system and as impact of initial moisture content on the different substrates.
Particle size of each substrate was also determined to help characterize each material and be able to correlate how particle size contributed to water capture (Fig. 3). Larger particles within a substrate result in larger channels for water to flow through, but fewer small pockets for water to collect and retain. With that in mind, each base substrate used had a different ratio of particle sizes to accurately understand pore size impacts on the capture and retention of water through irrigation.
Coir represented the substrate with the highest percentage of particles smaller than 2.0 mm, representing 93.8% of all particles tested while pine bark showed the highest percentage of coarse particles with a value of 53.6%. Peat occupied a middle ground between coir and pine bark with 13% more coarse particles than coir, but still 34% less than that of pine bark.
At all initial moisture levels, coir was able to take up water, however moisture content played a role in how much water was retained. Surface irrigation and under drier conditions needed four irrigation events to reach its maximum of 60% volumetric water content (Fig. 4), reducing irrigation events needed to reach higher water capture as moisture level increased to 50% and 67%. For subirrigation, coir never reached a steady-state or maximum absorption at any moisture level. At 50% moisture, coir reached a final hydration of 74% through surface irrigation and 52% volumetrically with subirrigation, never reaching its container capacity of ~75% (Fig. 4).
For peat, moisture content had the greatest influence on water capture with surface irrigation. As is well documented, intensity of hydrophobicity of peat increases at lower substrate moisture contents. These hydrophobic intensities can influence initial wetting and rewetting (subsequent irrigations during plant production) and impair the physical properties of the substrate. Regardless of moisture content, peat captured less water than that of coir, with very little water captured at 33% and 50% moisture (Fig. 4). Comparing irrigation techniques, peat captured ~20% more water through surface irrigation than through subirrigation. This is a result of surface irrigation using gravimetric pull to break the surface barrier of a low-moisture peat to channelize and hydrate the material whereas subirrigation relies on the upward wicking of water vertically through the substrate/container.
Pine bark had a more consistent increase in water captured over the 10 irrigation events than either peat or coir. Of the three substrates, bark contained the highest percentage of coarse particles (Fig. 3), while also having a similar portion of medium (2.0-6.3 mm) sized particles compared to peat, resulting in larger pore spaces for water to travel through but fewer small pores to retain that water. The volumetric water content curves (Fig. 4) identify a degree of consistency between irrigation techniques, regardless of initial moisture level or irrigation method. At 50% and 67% moisture, subirrigation produced maximum irrigation absorption after one irrigation event, with less than 2% difference between first and last irrigation event. At all moisture levels, surface irrigation had water captured after the final irrigation event compared to subirrigation, but the difference between surface irrigation and subirrigation after the final hydration was less than 10% volumetrically.
Aside from irrigation techniques and water capture, the biggest difference happens visually. Irrigating from above will always show a surface change over time to help growers identify at a quick glance whether they require additional irrigation, while frequently subirrigated containers will not show a visual color change to the container surface. But this research shows that while we may not be able to see that difference, subirrigation is allowing the substrate to still capture comparable amounts of water, depending on substrate and container type.
There are other potential capabilities of these two testing systems, with more work to come involving wetting agent application method and efficacy, evaporative water loss from substrates and non-plastic containers, and the water capture and efficiency of substrate blends formulated from numerous components, ratios, particle sizes, etc.
Study take homes
With this research showing that peat and coir capture ~20% more water through surface irrigation and only a ~7% difference in captured water through both irrigation techniques on pine bark, we can continue to progress in water conservation.
Water is a hot button topic that continues to warrant further research to continually inform growers on water management strategies and specific substrate-irrigation-crop combinations. Our industry is continuing to raise the bar in how we approach the growing concern of sustainability and addressing our water uses is going to continue to play a huge role in our future success.
Echinacea, commonly known as coneflowers, are among the most iconic and recognizable native plants in North America. The earliest documented horticultural use of Echinacea can be traced to the late 17th century when Echinacea purpurea seeds were sent to England by the Virginia clergyman and naturalist John Banister. Medicinal use dates back even further as Native Americans used Echinacea to treat a variety of ailments, a tradition that has carried into modern times.
The nine species of Echinacea are North American natives and predominantly occur in the central and eastern United States. The majority of wild coneflowers display pink, purple, and rarely white flowers from late spring to summer. Only one species, Echinacea paradoxa, breaks this color trend and produces canary yellow blooms in June.
What follows are the top-rated coneflowers for the mid-Atlantic from a horticultural and ecological perspective based on the Mt. Cuba Centers’ trials:
Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’
Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’ ranked among the top performing coneflowers in our first trial in 2009 and is again one of the most outstanding cultivars we evaluated. ‘Pica Bella’ is a compact and floriferous form of the species that originated as a seedling of Echinacea purpurea ‘Abenstem’. While many Echinacea cultivars in the market today showcase vibrant blooms that can look out of place in a naturalistic setting, the floral display of ‘Pica Bella’ resembles that of Echinacea purpurea, allowing for its effortless incorporation into a broad range of garden designs. This cultivar was also a favorite among pollinators that flocked to its prominent orange cones.
Echinacea ‘Sensation Pink’
A product of the breeding efforts of Marco van Noort in the Netherlands, Echinacea ‘Sensation Pink’ produced one of the most vibrant displays in our trial. Intense, neon-pink flowers are held on dark stems that further accentuate their otherworldly floral color. In contrast to the exuberant blooms, ‘Sensation Pink’ manifests a restrained and more compact habit relative to its wild counterparts. This cultivar was one of the five most pollinator-visited Echinacea in the trial.
Echinacea ‘Santa Fe’
Echinacea ‘Santa Fe’ is a seed-produced cultivar from the Proven Winners® LAKOTA™ Series of coneflowers.
Despite some expected variation in seed strains, Echinacea ‘Santa Fe’ showed remarkable consistency in our trial and was similar in many ways to Echinacea ‘Balsomcor’ (SOMBRERO® Hot Coral), although ‘Santa Fe’ was decidedly more vigorous. This tidy and well branched plant reaches 2 feet tall and wide at maturity. Striking coral-red flowers are produced en masse from late June through late July before eventually fading to attractive shades of pastel pink.
Echinacea ‘TNECHKR’ (KISMET® Raspberry)
Echinacea ‘TNECHKR’, also known by the trade name KISMET Raspberry, is one of several Terra Nova Nurseries introductions that were evaluated in this trial. KISMET Raspberry was a standout in the trial thanks to its strong vigor, saturated color, and oversized blooms. The glowing raspberry-pink petals are at their peak in early July and, while comparable to the blooms of Echinacea ‘Sensation Pink’ and Echinacea ‘Purple Emperor’, KISMET Raspberry maintains the slightest floral edge over these close competitors because of the sheer vibrancy of its blooms.
Echinacea ‘Snow Cone’
Echinacea ‘Snow Cone’ is an outstanding cultivar introduced by Intrinsic Perennial Gardens in Haebron, Illinois. This pocket-sized hybrid is one of the most compact coneflowers in our trial. Fully grown, it reaches 2 ½ feet in height and width, making it a perfect choice for container gardens or the front of a border. Despite its modest size, ‘Snow Cone’ puts on a first-class floral display from the middle of June through late July.
Echinacea ‘Balsomcor’ (SOMBRERO Hot Coral)
Echinacea ‘Balsomcor’, commonly known as SOMBRERO Hot Coral, is a coneflower in the SOMBRERO Series from Darwin Perennials. In our trial, SOMBRERO Hot Coral produced a compact and well-branched plant that is very similar to Echinacea ‘Santa Fe’. The individual flowers of SOMBRERO Hot Coral are some of the smallest in the trial at 3½ inches wide, but they bloom in abundance over a prolonged period from early July though early August.
Echinacea ‘Purple Emperor’
Echinacea ‘Purple Emperor’ is one of three members of the Butterfly Series from AB-Cultivars that excelled in the trial. This particular cultivar is named after a species of Apatura butterfly that is native to Europe and Asia. ‘Purple Emperor’ hybrid coneflower distinguishes itself from other medium sized cultivars thanks to its vigorous and uniform growth and its large 4 ½-inch flowers produced in late June though early July.
Echinacea purpurea ‘Fragrant Angel’
A Terra Nova introduction, E. purpurea ‘Fragrant Angel’ was the highest rated white flowering cultivar during our first coneflower trial and it remains impressive more than a decade later. The large, pleasantly fragrant, 4 ½-inch flowers present their porcelain-white petals to great effect from early July into August. Other white cultivars such as E. purpurea ‘Baby Swan White’ and E. purpurea ‘Happy Star’ have slightly reflexed petals, but ‘Fragrant Angel’ has horizontal petals that contribute to its more substantial appearance.
Echinacea ‘Glowing Dream’
Echinacea ‘Glowing Dream’ is a Terra Nova Nurseries hybrid that has incredible tropical pink blooms. A profusion of luminous flowers is held well above the foliage for six weeks in mid-June to mid-July, establishing ‘Glowing Dream’ as one of the longest blooming non-double Echinacea in our trial. This cultivar is most similar in form and color to ‘Sensation Pink’, although ‘Glowing Dream’ lacks the contrasting dark stems of the former cultivar.
Echinacea ‘POST301’ (Postman) is a member of the Butterfly™ Series from Arie Blom of AB-Cultivars in the Netherlands. Each cultivar in this series is named for a different butterfly, in this case the Mexican and Central American postman butterfly (Heliconius sp.). This coneflower is known for its large, intensely colorful flowers and prominent dark cones. Beginning in June, showy oversized buds with attractive dark centers are held well above the foliage.
The flowers of Echinacea ‘Julia’ are particularly noteworthy and share similar orange tones to the South American Julia butterfly for which it is named. The petals of ‘Julia’ showcase the same two-tone quality that SOMBRERO Hot Coral displays in the early season but on a larger flower. As the petals mature, they begin to express an attractive bicolor effect. The petals are a deep rosy-pink closest to the cone and vibrant tangerine at their tips. Near the end of the five-week bloom period in mid-July the flowers trade their vibrancy for soft pastels.
Echinacea ‘TNECHKIO’ (KISMET® Intense Orange)
From Terra Nova’s KISMET Series, Echinacea KISMET Intense Orange features the same breeding strategies as Echinacea KISMET Raspberry and is similarly advertised to have increased numbers of flowers and greater garden adaptability. This coneflower was often compared to Echinacea ‘Santa Fe’ and Echinacea ‘Balsomcor’ (SOMBRERO® Hot Coral) due to similarities in habit and flower color.
Editor’s note: Information published by permission from the Mt. Cuba Center Echinacea report. Trial evaluations were edited for length. Read the trial report in its entirety at mtcubacenter.org/trialgarden. It includes scoring for all plants, honorable mentions, pest and disease issues, cultivation tips, and pollinator-preferred plants. This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Nursery Management magazine.