Getting a Handle on Combinations By Roger C. Styer

Combination planters are popular with consumers; taking the time to do the job right can be very profitable.

Now that another spring season is winding down, it’s time toreview the major growing problems. From working with growers of all sizes, Ithink the number one problem this year was combinations. Combinations of alltypes sell well in independent garden centers, though not always so in big boxstores. Putting together different types of plants in the same container is avery big trend in our industry, so getting this right can be very profitable.

Problems With Combos

Personally, I like combinations of plants in largecontainers. I have my own preferences as to color, shape, habit and size of thecontainer, but that is just me. The problem comes when you need to make upcombinations for different people with different tastes.

I think combos do best in larger containers, but I see manygrowers trying to make a 10-inch basket with three different plants. Toocrowded! Container sizes can range from small ovals and bowls to big mossbaskets and huge tubs. Try something different and stay large!

I also see many growers using some very strange combinationsof plants. Part of the problem might be that, combos are often made of leftoverplants. Other times, there is no sense of how the shape and colors of theplants go together in the container.

Another big problem is production times, which can be allover the place. Some growers start the combos with plugs and liners and growthe containers for a long time, while others cram together 4-inch or smallerplants and ship right away. It’s critical to know how long it will take plantsto fill out and flower.

When putting together different plants, you have to be ableto control the growth of the vigorous plants or they will overgrow the others.Understanding how vigorous each plant is before going into the combo can helpwith growth control. Otherwise, you will be trimming in the middle of shippingseason.

Shipping combos presents another unique problem. Carts aretypically set up for shipping flats, so different shelving, sleeving, etc. areneeded for combos. The cost of shipping containers is greater than for flats,just due to the number that can fit on a truck, and many growers do not know ifthey are really making more money on combos than they would growing andshipping more flats because they haven’t adequately figured out all expenses.

How to Improve

I suggest that my clients take pictures of new varieties andcombinations at trade shows and conferences. I advise them to gatherinformation sheets on these varieties, talk with suppliers and review theinformation with their growing and marketing groups. Each person attending thetrade show should be responsible for getting information on 3-5 differentplants that could work in combos, as well as getting pictures of them in actualcombos. It is vitally important that they also get cultural information, sinceeach year many new varieties are introduced.

There are a number of books, Web sites, combo patterns fromsuppliers and gardening magazines where you can get combo ideas. Be aware ofchanging color trends as well. Just because you grow a great combo one yeardoes not mean it will sell well the next year.

Look for additional creativity within your organization. Because80 percent of our customers are women, it makes sense to have some women whohave a talent with colors and shapes put together their own combos for review.And, try to change more than 20 percent of your combos every year.

Once you decide on all of the designs you want to produce,you need to schedule your cuttings and plugs and order accordingly, whether ornot you grow your own plugs and root your own cuttings. Late ordering will getyou lots of variety subs and CNS (cannot supply).

Scheduling and ordering needs to be based on how you willgrow the combos. There are three basic choices: 1) Plant liners and plugsdirectly into combos and grow for a long time; 2) use cell-packs and small pots(4-inch or less), plant into combos when ready and grow them for another 2-3weeks to root in and fill out; or 3) cram cell-packs and pots into combos atthe last minute and ship right away. I think the second choice works best, butyou need good scheduling to make this work.

For height control, make sure liners have been treated withFlorel if needed and that vigorous varieties are dipped in A-Rest, Bonzi orSumagic before potting into the combo. This will hold back the growth for 2-3weeks, allowing the slower varieties to get growing and not be overgrown atshipping. Most combos cannot be sprayed or drenched with growth regulators, asthey usually include plants that will respond differently to the growthregulator. However, if the combo can be drenched with Bonzi or Sumagic at theend, do so. Otherwise, you will be doing a lot of trimming before shipping.

I try to get wholesale growers to define what thecombination should look like at shipping. That image is typically smaller thanwhat sales wants, but it has to ship in one piece or it won’t sell. Big,trailing combos look great in the greenhouse, but unless you can sleeve them orprotect them on special carts, most branches will be broken by the time it getsinto the store.

Finally, put pencil to paper and figure out what your trueproduction costs are for all of your combos, including shipping. Then you willknow what your price needs to be. If the big box stores will not give you thatprice, move on to other containers and leave the combos to someone else.

Roger C. Styer

Dr. Roger Styer is president of Styer's Horticultural Consulting, Batavia, Ill. He can be reached by phone at (630) 208-0542 or E-mail at

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