Summer solutions: Find those season extenders

Departments - Hort Truths

Focus on plants that can handle lower moisture levels during the dog days of summer and keep your season going.

April 18, 2022

Proven Winners' Summerific hibiscus series
Photo courtesy of Proven Winners

Plants that go beyond simple spring showiness are a must when it comes to inspiring customers to keep planting and growing. Finding your summer-extending star performers, and niche novelties, is key to summer sales success.

Knowing how to best modify your production mix as the season progresses always comes down to knowing your target customers and what solutions they’ll be seeking as summer approaches. Do they need instant impact via larger specimens, plants better able to tolerate planting during the heat, replacement color or perennials, or a shift to focusing on their edible garden after all their spring color needs are taken care of?

Ultimately, getting to know how both landscapers and garden center customers “garden” in your area during summer is your ticket to summer-extending offerings.

Summer showstoppers

I must admit, I’m loving all the new hardy hibiscus cultivars hitting the market. They are the happiest when it’s the hottest! While tropical hibiscus always hit the spot when it comes to summer sales, offering newer perennial hibiscus that are just as, if not more, showy than the tropicals allows you to offer bigger perennials at a bigger price tag. Plus, the wide hardiness zone range of 4-9 makes these big-blooming beauties versatile across many different gardening climates.

It’s been interesting to watch the breeding programs on these plants evolve over the last twenty-plus years. While breeders have been chasing a blue-flowered specimen, they’ve ended up with some pretty nice conventional-color cultivars along the way. 2021 was the National Garden Bureau’s Year of the Perennial Hibiscus, so you can find valuable info on their website. Some of the newer series that include some stellar performers include the Summerific series from Proven Winners, Summer Spice series from J. Berry Nursery, and Head over Heels series from Star Roses and Plants, to name a few.

No-mow grass

It’s nothing new that ornamental grasses offer gardeners a reliable heat and drought-tolerant foundation for a summer garden. Given the Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial Plant of the Year is little bluestem grass, Schizachyrium scoparium, and cultivars, grasses still are enjoying nothing but growing enthusiasm. Where I do see customer fatigue with grasses is that too often only one species or cultivar is overplanted in monocultures. A deeper offering of a variety of grasses (including many of the little bluestem cultivars) that can be combined — and in support of other blooming perennials — for a variety of textures and colors is a water-wise way to reinvigorate your reliable summer offerings.

Native niche

If you’ve grown native plants, you know that they often do not put on their best show in nursery containers. Especially early on in the spring season. Many species don’t come into their own until further into the selling season. This can sometimes slow turns of native plants at garden centers in spring.

Nonetheless, demand for locally grown native plant material continues to grow. As issues related to water conservation and wildlife support become more mainstream, planting native — or at least well-adapted — species has become more important to many homeowners, designers and landscapers. Summer is the perfect time to promote native plant offerings, as customers will be looking for tough plants that can better handle establishment during times of heat and water stress.

Schizachyrium scoparium

Pivot to pollinators

There also doesn’t seem to be any slowing of interest in pollinator plants. Annuals, perennials and shrubs alike — especially those with long summer bloom cycles — that offer up resources to pollinators provide customers a greater purpose for planting. Offering a well-curated selection of pollinator plants when, or before, pollinators need them most can boost your sales after the spring rush on color has waned.

Summer flavor

While those of us who garden in extremely hot climates may fare best with spring and late-summer planted vegetable transplants, many of your customers may do all their best vegetable gardening in peak summer months.

Luckily, the most popular herbs tend to be heat-loving or heat-tolerant and are the perfect staples for extending summer sales. While not all gardeners will keep shopping for petunias once the heat hits, they never get tired of basil and other culinary specimens. And you can’t beat the summer-long blooms of lavender. Vegetable and herb transplants can help garden centers keep up summer foot traffic and repeat purchases. A shift to a focus on food for summer months can help you not only extend but expand your summer sales.

Go big

A simple strategy for extending your summer season is simply increasing the size of your offerings. Again, in hot climates, larger plants perform much better when planted in the summer than small 4-inch pots, which can dry and expire very quickly when planted in summer heat. One of my tried-and-true approaches to successful summer sales during summer months was to shift to larger pots of annuals, herbs and veggies once the heat started to set in. While larger plants require a larger price tag, and that might be a little uncomfortable for the end consumer at first, we’re selling them confidence that their summer-planted specimens will have a better chance at surviving. Bigger is better in summer.

Foliage friends

One last thought: if you haven’t already considered indoor plants as a summer season extender, you’re probably missing out on some great sales opportunities. Indoor gardening is a 365-day project. If it’s too hot outside for garden center customers to feel inspired to garden, there’s no reason they can’t keep up their planty momentum with houseplants.

Clearly, supply chain constraints this year are going to have a big impact on what you can and can’t do to shift or increase your plant production and extend or expand your summer season. If nothing else, consider how you are marketing your selection to your customers. Focus on these customer summer pain points and make sure they know exactly how your plant offerings provide summer solutions.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author.