Recapping this year’s Perennial Plant Association Symposium

Features - Perennials: Events

This event held in the Twin Cities united growers, breeders and other members of the green industry who are passionate about perennials.

October 26, 2016

The trial gardens at Bailey Nurseries gave tour attendees the chance to evaluate plants in a northern climate.
Photo: Karen E. Varga

If you’re looking for the latest information about perennial varieties, production and trends, and opportunities to network with fellow perennial plant aficionados, look to the annual Perennial Plant Association (PPA) Symposium.

One of the aspects that sets the PPA Symposium apart from other events, besides its exclusive focus on perennial plants, is the diversity of activities throughout the symposium. In addition to the conference sessions, there are multiple tour options throughout the week, plenty of time for networking and various opportunities to explore the green spaces in the surrounding area.

The plants at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum were complemented by giant insect sculptures, part of a special exhibit.
Photo: Karen E. Varga

“The PPA Annual Symposium combines a rich program schedule with unique tours throughout the week. In fact, it’s the tours that really distinguish the conference from other industry events we all attend,” Leslie Halleck, Greenhouse Management contributor and PPA board member says. “You have a unique opportunity to visit gardens you’d never otherwise see, and network with a varied cross-section of industry members. It’s a powerhouse group of plant people, for sure.”

This year’s event took place during the first week of August in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, an area with a strong horticultural presence and history. Greenhouse Management was there to take in the conference sessions about anything from native plant diversity in Minnesota, to the right plants to use in stormwater treatment basins, to the varieties you should have in your lineup, tours of wholesale growers in the area, and much more. Here are some of the highlights of this year’s event.

Educational opportunities

The conference portion of the event included more than 25 presentations about a wide range of topics. Here are a few of the many takeaways:

A look inside a Bailey Nurseries greenhouse
Photo: Karen E. Varga

1. Perennials and pollinators: Consumers have become increasingly interested in supporting bees and other pollinators in recent years, and this has been instrumental in boosting the perennials market. Several speakers highlighted pollinator-friendly varieties and efforts being undertaken to support the populations.

2. Updated perennials resource: Stanton Gill, Extension Specialist in Integrated Pest Management for Greenhouses and Nursery at the University of Maryland, addressed common pest problems in perennial crops. For further information on these aspects and others in perennial production, he suggested consulting the 2016 revised edition of Total Plant Management for Herbaceous Perennials.

3. Timing is everything: Jeremy Windemuller, trial manager at Walters Gardens, looked at reasons to consider planting “early spring blooming plants and perennials that take time to bulk” in late summer versus early in the following year. These include taking advantage of a generally slower time of year for most growers, not having a need to heat or supplement light levels, and providing the plant with the opportunity to bulk up before being vernalized.

4. Try, try again: “If we don’t have five major failures each year, we’re not trying enough new things,” said Dean Engelmann of grower-retailer Tangletown Gardens. His takehome message was to not be afraid to keep tweaking your business model until you find the right fit.

5. Landscapes with a purpose: Shannon Currey of Hoffmann Nursery, a native and ornamental grasses grower, spoke about what the modern landscape looks like. It has a purpose “beyond the visual” and supports the surrounding wildlife. Being a source of health and well-being, integrating into the ecosystem and the responsible use of natural resources are also of concern to today’s consumer. Currey also notes that the more we see “uncommon” landscapes like urban meadows (versus traditional grass lawns or standard landscape designs) that fulfill these purposes, the more mainstream — and accepted — they will become.

Bachman's grows about half of the plant stock that supplies its retail stores and also sells to wholesale landscape customers.
Photo: Karen E. Varga

6. Planning for success: Nothing that happens this year will make it so you can’t make a profit, neither the election results, nor the economy, Dr. Charlie Hall told attendees during a keynote presentation. Hall predicts a continued increase in demand for garden tools and plants and says there’s no need to be conservative with business decisions. However, he cautions against growing an operation for the sake of growing it. He advised attendees to first make their businesses more efficient and increase profit margins. Lastly, have a contingency plan so that no matter what happens, you’re set up for success.

PPA standouts

During the conference, PPA presented awards to outstanding members of the perennials community as well as recognized horticulture students who received PPA scholarships. Here are the award winners:

  • Becky and Brent Heath, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs: 2016 Award of Merit, PPA’s Highest Honor
  • Brent Horvath, Intrinsic Perennials Gardens: 2016 Grower Award
  • Dr. David Graper, South Dakota State University: Academic Award
  • Klehm’s Song Sparrow Nursery: Retail Sales Award
  • Klaus Peters, Stauden Peters (Germany): International Contributor Award
  • Janet Draper, Smithsonian Institution: Service Award
  • Becky Fox, Garden Making Magazine, and Carolyn Ulrich, Chicagoland Gardening: Garden Media Award
  • Dr. Jared Barnes, Steven F. Austin State University: Young Professional Award

To read more about the winners, visit

Donahue's Greenhouses, specialists in clematis propagation and production, produce about 700,000 plants annually.
Photos: Karen E. Varga

Growing in northern climates

One of the highlights of the PPA Symposium is visiting local growers, retailers, landscape design sites, local gardens and more. The first stop of the Grower Tour was Donahue’s Greenhouse, a grower-retailer specializing in clematis propagation and production. Donahue’s clematis plants take approximately two-and-a-half years to grow from unrooted cutting to trade gallon, retail-ready size, and the grower grow and ships, on average, 700,000 plants per year. It’s a family-run business that includes both production facilities and a large retail store that’s operated seasonally and carries more than 100 varieties of their clematis and other plants, all of which Donahue’s grows. Fun fact: seven of first-generation owner Lois Donahue’s children work with her at the business.

Bachman’s was our next stop. This grower-retailer pots about 13,000 to 14,000 perennials a day (about 500,000 annually) and uses one growing media for all of its perennial and shrub production, a blend of pine bark and peat. Bachman’s splits its perennials potting between late summer and May. Their top-selling perennial is Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster.’ In addition to growing for landscapers and its retail locations — they grow about half of what they sell at retail — Bachman’s has also taken on custom projects, such as growing perennials for a local airport’s green roof.

We visited Bailey Nurseries next, one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the U.S., which had propagated about a million perennials through August of this year. One of the highlights of the tour was perusing the expansive trial gardens, where we got a sneak peek into some of the varieties that are still under evaluation and not yet ready for market, as well as comparisons between newer and more classic varieties. We got to see which of the plants could truly survive the scorching heat of an above-average summer and a cold Minnesotan winter.

Our last grower visit was to Twin Orchards Nursery, an operation that grows a wide variety of perennials and shrubs destined for the local Twin Cities market. During our tour, we learned that they had recently switched growing medias and had noticed a considerable improvement. In the past, Twin Orchards was using a lighter-weight, commercial blend. Now they’re using a heavier mix that incorporates Minnesota peat. Since that change, they’ve noticed their plants have a much improved quality and last longer for the customer. The importance of choosing the right growing media for perennials production cannot be understated. Read more on the topic on page 26.

We capped off the day with a tour of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, 1,200 acres brimming with perennials, shrubs, trees and annuals, and a dinner with delicious regional foods like walleye and wild rice.

Top: PPA executive director Steven Still (far left) and president Jennifer Brennan (second from left) present the 2016 Award of Merit, the association's highest honor, to Becky and Brent Heath. Bottom: Twin Orchards Nursery grows a wide variety of perennials and shrubs in hoophouses for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
Photos: Karen E. Varga

Next stop: Denver

The 2017 PPA Symposium will be held in Denver, Colo. from July 24 to 28, 2017. Why attend? “The site committee in Denver is planning some great visits to the area’s largest perennial production greenhouses, including Gulley Greenhouses and Welby Gardens, as well as tours of the new, state-of-the-art greenhouses at Colorado State University with tours of their annual and two-year perennial trials,” Pat Hayward, executive director of Plant Select told Greenhouse Management. “Denver Botanic Gardens has two locations, both of which are worthy of nearly full-day visits on their own. Postconference tours will visit the display and trial grounds at Northern Water Conservancy District, The Gardens on Spring Creek and High Hops Brewery. High altitude and alpine tours will take visitors to public, private and natural garden settings.”

Denver’s climate and unique environment is also a draw. “Denver is redefining horticulture in the American West,” says Mike Bone, curator of Steppe Collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

You can find more information about the Perennial Plant Association and its 35th annual Symposium at