Nursery owners work to keep pace with plant trends


Issue Date: June 12, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Denise Godfrey looks over anthuriums in one of her Fallbrook greenhouses. Godfrey, whose parents started Olive Hill Greenhouses in 1973, said tropical plants such as this one can help clean the air. Nursery producers such as Godfrey are aware of plants trending on social media, but responding to such trends can be difficult, given the long lead time needed for production.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Heather Hydoski looks over hanging plants in a greenhouse at Armstrong Growers in Fallbrook. Houseplants have taken off in the past few years as people seek to bring nature indoors.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

The next big social-media-fueled plant craze may be growing in a San Diego County greenhouse.

As younger people fill their living spaces with houseplants and interior designers turn walls into gardens, Southern California nursery producers endeavor to keep up.

"The Pilea peperomioides, which took the industry by storm last year, is one of the top-selling houseplants," said Heather Hydoski, production manager at Armstrong Growers in Fallbrook, referring to a plant also called the Chinese money plant, which took off on social media.

"I think it had its own Instagram page and everything else," Denise Godfrey of Olive Hill Greenhouses in Fallbrook said of the Chinese money plant.

Nursery products and cut flowers accounted for 69 percent of San Diego County's agricultural production in 2017, according to the latest crop report, and 55 percent of Orange County production.

Godfrey, whose parents launched Olive Hill in 1973, said younger customers such as millennials seek plants "that are unique, have a story, just are really different to look at."

Hydoski said millennials' pocketbooks and nomadic living arrangements drive their interest in bringing nature indoors.

"Millennials don't have the purchasing power of other generations, and so they tend to live in smaller places," she said. "They have to move around more. Houseplants is a way to decorate, enjoy nature—maybe because they don't have a yard—bring it indoors, and it's easy to move."

Then there are the interior-scape clients, who maintain homes and commercial spaces. These folks, Godfrey said, are going vertical.

"What they're seeing is a lot of interest in the green walls," or a wall with plants embedded in it, she said.

Godfrey likened the idea to a paint-by-numbers setup, where each plant is a pixel.

"It's kind of exciting," she said. "All of a sudden we're talking about, I guess, competing with art. Is somebody going to install a picture, or are they going to install a wall that's like an expression of art?"

Keeping those customers happy means expanding the catalog.

"When people are doing the green walls, people have a different palette that they like to work with," Godfrey said, "and so I want to make sure they have enough colors and varieties on that palette."

Trying to keep up with plant trends can be difficult for growers, she said. Some plants need close to a year in the greenhouse before they're ready for sale, and with limited space, expanding one program means cutting back elsewhere, she noted.

"We're having to decide, OK, can we sell this?" Godfrey said. "Even though we're one of the larger nurseries, there's so many other nurseries that when everybody goes into the same plant, it makes it really tough."

Plants that first took off in the 1970s, such as ferns, pothos and philodendrons, also are making a comeback—but it isn't nostalgia that's fueling the trend, Godfrey said.

"I think more the trend is, people like the big leaves," she said. "The big Hawaiian shirts with the really big leaves—they enjoy that on their clothes, and they want to decorate their houses with the neat big leaves."

Hydoski said annual colors remain a big hit.

"The color-pack bedding, we can't keep it in stock," she said. "That's just your old-school marigolds, petunias, alyssum, things like that."

Mother Nature has been doing her part to boost plant sales, as well. At the Plant Depot, a retailer in San Juan Capistrano, Andy Barber said winter rains gave gardeners confidence.

"We had the busiest April on record," Barber said. "I think there's no question that there's some correlation between all the rain, and the actual winter, and then people coming out and planting their garden."

Shoppers will sometimes mention plants trending on social media, he said, but though social media is an influence, it's not the only thing driving sales.

"What happens more often is that, outside of social media, is that people will see something in bloom around here," Barber said. "They'll see a pride of Madeira, and all of a sudden we're selling through pride of Madeira like crazy. Or they'll see, recently, the calandrinia. They'll see that bloom on the parkways, and everyone wants to know what that plant is. I think that has more of an influence than social media does."

Barber's co-worker Rick Carrasco said olive trees are catching on with shoppers, with a new hybrid called the Swan Hill on the market.

"It's being marketed as a fruitless olive," Carrasco said. "There are some other olive trees that have also been marketed as being fruitless, but after several years we see that they produce some olives. We're not sure about this one because it hasn't been out that long."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.