by Bill and Mary Weaver
With the heat of summer fast approaching, many growers will have empty greenhouse space. Consider a novel way of using that space: adding value to herbs such as rosemary which can thrive in warm temperatures.
You could try your hand at creating rosemary topiaries. “Start with a cutting to produce this item,” advised Dr. Chris Currey of Iowa State University. “You can keep encouraging the development of a tall, woody stem by pinching off side shoots over time. When the stem is the height you want, pinch the central leader to get bushy top growth for your topiary. While time-consuming, these can be very economical to grow over the summer in unused greenhouse space.”
They will be ready for sale for the holidays, when families are enjoying food together and looking for unique gifts. Particularly in city outlets these topiaries can command high prices for the holidays.
Other herbs can also be made into topiaries including lavender, basil and even lemon verbena. Basil topiaries are a bit more difficult to produce and involve grafting. Basil topiaries generally reach about 15 inches in height, including the pot. They are often viewed by consumers as a great conversation piece.
“Two different basils are used in each topiary,” continued Currey. For the tall stem, start with a vigorous basil cultivar, such as the standard Large Leaf Italian and pinch off side shoots.
When the stem is the desired height, graft a scion of a bushy dwarf basil, generally a small leaf variety, onto it using a clip similar to those used in grafting tomato plants. “With the clip, the graft will heal fine,” Currey continued. “Basil topiaries take less time to produce than a woody herb topiary like rosemary, and they have great sales potential.”
Sweet Valley Herbs in New Brunswick, Canada, has sold thousands of basil topiaries, nearly all direct- delivered to a chain of garden centers. Anna Randall, co-owner with her husband Aaron, cautions, “When you sell basil topiaries to garden centers, because they are very top-heavy, employees often water them from above. This can cause the big ball of basil to split and splay open.
“They are very impressive, though, if you know how to grow them, and will last forever. They do need to be pruned at least twice before they’re sale-ready.”
For next spring’s bedding plants sales, keep in mind greenhouse-grown herb plants are taking a more prominent place among the traditional bedding plants, reflecting the interest of Millennials in cooking. “The younger generation is passionate about food,” commented Dr. Currey. “We all have a vested interest in engaging them in horticulture.”
How you present and market your herb plants can significantly increase your profits. “Possibilities are only limited by your imagination,” he noted.
In retail greenhouses and garden centers, end caps are frequently devoted to herbs, reflecting the excitement surrounding them with today’s consumers. You can add value to these herb plants with creative packaging. “One of the greatest marketing tools I’ve seen,” continued Currey, “was a container of basil, borage and cilantro, with a little handle and a small pair of scissors. This makes a great gift item.” Another value-added pack could be a container of oregano, thyme and sage, labeled “The Bar-B-Q trio.” Sometimes these multi-herb packs contain a small umbrella, signifying they’re for your patio.
Sweet Valley Herbs has gone a step further toward higher-end. The operation sells themed, patio-ready containers of five different herbs, grown in organic soil without pesticides “so customers can feel free to rub, sniff, and taste,” explained co-owner Anna Randall. In addition to attractively designed labeling, each of Sweet Valley Herbs’ sizeable containers of ready-to-harvest herbs is accompanied by a recipe from Chef Aaron, Anna’s husband, formerly a chef.
A basil-pesto combo themed container containing five different ready-to-harvest basils which can be set on the patio comes with a recipe for Chef Aaron’s “Perfect Basil Pesto.” Sweet Valley Herbs also wholesales similar themed containers of five herbs called “Flavors of Italy” with a recipe for “Traditional Bruschetta,” and a “Flavors of Mexico” five herb combo with Chef Aaron’s “Fresh Tomato Salsa” recipe.
“I wouldn’t try to direct-seed larger containers,” Dr. Currey advised. “It is hard to manage moisture in a larger mixed container compared to a flat. These are better planted using rooted cuttings or small seedlings.”
“A mixed lavender pack with a handle, to ‘Grab and Go,’ also adds value to the plants it contains. You can also try a species container of purple basil, lemon basil, and sweet basil plants,” said Currey.
Sweet Valley Herbs has had the courage to take this idea also to the next level, adding even more value, and the result has been popular with their customers. Anna Randall designed a box with a handle, printed with bright graphics, and called their new program “Pick Six for a Fresh Fix,” again with large, attractive Point of Purchase signs.
As another venue for value-added herbs, Currey recommends growers consider marketing potted herbs in grocery stores. “A grower about an hour away from me,” continued Currey, “sells basil in smaller containers that customers can set on the windowsill in the kitchen. He has experienced a rapid rise in demand for this product in the produce sections of grocery stores.”
Another value-added possibility is an herb, perhaps rosemary, in a one-gallon pot for use as a patio container.
Besides having excellent possibilities for value-added, most herbs are very inexpensive to grow, noted Currey. The seed for many is inexpensive and most are easy to germinate if you understand their varying light requirements.
Anna Randall sums up the marketing philosophy which has propelled their company to more and more value-added herb products over the years and could profitably be adopted by other growers. “Many greenhouses sell their plants as ‘commodities,’ settling for low prices, because they lack self-confidence to design new products and ask for higher prices.
“We flipped into the ‘high end and unique’ market. Just as there is a demand for high-end restaurants, there is also a demand for high-end herbs, if you think outside the box about products your customers would like. We have found that if you are secure as a grower, passionate about quality, and bring to the market something that is unique, you’ll get your price.” Top quality is paramount in marketing high-end herbs.