As summer unfolds, greenhouse growers are continually tracking their inventory and evaluating how their business is doing. How early did certain varieties sell through? On the flip side, what part of the crop production should be cut back next year?
If you ask a greenhouse grower in the Midwest how their season is going, a common response is “Ask me after the Fourth of July.” That usually tells the story for annual bedding plant sales, but what about perennials?
National Industry Trends
The USDA released their 2022 national horticulture industry report in late May of this year. The Horticulture Survey is conducted by the National Agriculture Statistics Service among operations that annually produce and sell at least $10,000 of floriculture products. The broad category of crops includes annual bedding and garden plants, potted herbaceous perennials, potted flowering plants, foliage plants, florist greens and cut flowers. The report breaks down individual segments of the industry by state as well as listing national totals.
The total economic impact of the horticulture industry is shown as over $6.4 billion for 2022. Comparing 2021 and 2022 national figures, NASS indicates that both annual bedding plants and herbaceous perennials are trending upward in sales. The two categories represent over half of all sales in the industry report. 2022 statistics show that annual bedding and garden plants came in at $2.3 billion and perennials were just north of $1 billion in sales.
In comparison to the previous year, annuals increased 4.1% and there was a 5.8% growth in perennial sales.
W&E Radtke Perennial Nursery is one of the largest perennial growers in the Midwest. A culmination of over 90 years in the horticulture industry, their Northern Sunset brand of perennials is found in greenhouses and garden centers across Wisconsin, northern Illinois and upper Michigan. Today the third-generation business is owned and operated by a sibling team: Liesl (Radtke) Thomas and George Radtke. Their Germantown, WI, farm has 45 acres of growing space with eight acres currently in perennial production.
In addition to their Northern Sunset brand, the Radtke family grows the Native, Naturally™ line of native plants, Scarborough Faire Herbs and vegetable plants and small fruits.
“We grow about 1,400 varieties of perennials,” said Liesl. While the company once grew the majority of their crop in quart-size containers, they now also offer plants in the larger half-gallon, gallon and even two-gallon size pots. Their selection includes a native collection as well as standard and newer varieties including select Proven Winners perennials.
“Anything that is a pollinator plant that is good for the birds, bees and butterflies is definitely on the rise,” she said. “We’re finding that people even want the common milkweed variety.”
When asked about what is selling best this season, she indicated that the Hellebores and new Hibiscus varieties and native plant collection were popular.
“The pandemic woke everyone up to fact that there is an outdoors and people are enjoying that,” she added. “With so many more people working from home, more are interested in doing their own landscaping and working in their yard.”
But it seems those same people equate the word “perennial” with low maintenance. “I see that people kind of thought that perennials are going to be easy,” Liesl said. “They aren’t necessarily the low maintenance that you thought they were going to be unless you do it just right.” Despite that, native plants continue to gain popularity, especially those that attract birds and butterflies.
Patti and Mike Backus of Prospect Hill Garden Center of New Berlin, WI, have been growing annual and perennial flowers for over 40 years. About 90% of the plants they sell are grown in their own greenhouses. One of the newer perennial varieties gaining interest there this season is Proven Winners’s “Back to the Fuchsia” Salvia. Attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, the fragrant upright plant works well in cottage gardens and small spaces. With the absence of the typical late spring Wisconsin frosts this year, Prospect Hill’s greenhouse sales had a strong start this season.
As interest in annual flowers start to taper off in summer, there are sales opportunities with autumn perennials. Marketing fall as the second planting season along with national branding has helped perennial sales gain traction as well. Traditional asters, chrysanthemums, sedum, Rudbeckias and autumn grass varieties add a burst of color to landscapes when other garden flowers start to fade.
Rudbeckia “American Gold Rush” is the 2023 Perennial Plant of the Year, a summer-to-fall garden showstopper with dazzling color right up to frost. Take advantage of these varieties and try some in your product mix.
As with all segments of growing programs, tracking what part of the crop has sold through too early along with ending inventory notes are tools that help decide next year’s growing calendar. The good news for growers across the U.S. is that there continues to be a trend of increased sales for both annual bedding plants and perennials.
The most recent USDA horticulture data can be found at quickstats.nass.usda.gov.
by Gail March Yerke