With 2020’s unique circumstances in play, garden centers and gardeners are experiencing spring in new ways. For many people, thinking about plants, gardening and container décor are byproducts of extra time at home. To hear the latest on containers and the designs that crown them, we reached out to insiders at three IGCs. Here’s what they’re seeing at their stores — and what you may soon see at yours.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BURLINGTON GARDEN CENTER

Tracy Hankwitz, General Manager: Burlington Garden Center, Burlington, Wisconsin

Located about 30 minutes south of Milwaukee, Burlington Garden Center has been known for containers and custom container designs for at least 20 years. General Manager Tracy Hankwitz reports that container demand has been high. “Containers for houseplants have been really strong all winter,” she says. “As we transition into more outdoor gardening, I think we’ll see people wanting containers that are lightweight and self-watering.”

Simplicity is a leading container trend. “People want solid colors, plain or with texture or simple geometric designs,” she says. White and charcoal gray are top picks for indoors.

Customers typically purchase plants and pots together at Burlington, where they emphasize “plant styling” and talk with customers about décor and interior design, as well as lighting and plant care.

Outdoors, Burlington follows trends such as Pantone’s Color of the Year. The team helps customers carry color through their exterior living spaces, coordinating blue pots, for example, with blues in plant material, art and other outdoor décor.

Popular container sizes vary dramatically. For houseplants, demand starts with 4-inch pots, but 6- to 8-inch are most popular. From there, it jumps to larger sizes for floor plants and exteriors.

With the emphasis on simple containers, Burlington’s team adds color, drama and diversity through plants. Combinations regularly include annuals, houseplants, perennials and shrubs. The IGC keeps a steady supply of pre-planted “grab ‘n go” containers on hand. “There’s definitely that demographic that wants something instant to decorate with — something that looks nice, but unusual,” Hankwitz says.

Burlington’s container-related services include a monthly “Houseplant Happy Hour.” Customers enjoy beer, wine and snacks while buying pots and plants that are potted up as a free service while they socialize. The IGC has also expanded its custom container programs for commercial and residential customers, including seasonal changes. In addition, customers can have containers planted early and grown in-house until Mother’s Day. Then customers take full, beautiful gardens home.

During late March, Hankwitz saw greater than normal interest in starting seeds and growing food, perhaps influenced by the coronavirus. Sales were up for the year, and Hankwitz remains optimistic. “Plants make people happy. We just need to be ready for when this all passes,” she says. “Hope is a strategy, but we also need to be flexible and adapt to things. We can offer hope to people through plants and connecting with nature.”

A simple stems and hellebores container from Burlington Garden Center
A tropical mixed container from Burlington Garden Center

Aja Macheel, Interiorscape designer and sales manager | Cactus & Tropicals – Salt Lake City, Utah

Simple containers rule at Cactus & Tropicals in Salt Lake City for both indoor and outdoor uses. “Concrete is very in,” says Aja Macheel, the IGC’s interiorscape designer and sales manager. “We’re using a lot of GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete). Particularly in our climate, we like to use that because of the freezing and contracting.”

Matte finishes are in high demand, as are contemporary pots. “The less embellishments, the better,” Macheel says. Even in terra cotta, people want grays and muted tones. “The container is less the star of the show and a little bit more of the supporting role, really accenting what’s in the container,” she says. “With a neutral base like that, you can really change your look through seasonal color.”

Commercial and residential customers want larger containers, with residential diameters averaging 14 to 20 inches. “People are going big. It’s easier to maintain than a grouping,” Macheel says. Even so, nested sets of pots — small, medium and large — sell well. “It’s an automatic trio that looks really gorgeous.”

Demand for custom potting and maintenance services, including a tap into the drip line, runs high. “It is kind of a luxury, and some people like having a crew show up and change that out seasonally with fresh ideas,” she says.

Plant material used in custom containers varies. “A lot of people want tropicals. The tropicals work great in the shade, and it’s a fun change, especially here in the high desert,” Macheel says. “We really try to work the spring and winter angles, too.”

That can mean mosses and flowering quince in springtime, and cut evergreens and berry branches in winter. “We remind people a planter is a showpiece. You want to continually keep that updated,” she says.

Container vegetable gardens are one of the most important trends in this new COVID-19 era. She expects demand for homegrown food in small spaces to increase exponentially. In response, the IGC is working on making more planting packages available to help people grow lettuce gardens, tomatoes or peppers in pots, herbs and more.

Earl Lieske, Custom planter design lead, manager, plant buyer | Chalet Nursery – Wilmette, Illinois

Chalet Nursery’s custom container division, known as “Chalet Signature,” sells in store, online and through its landscape division. As the line’s design lead, manager and plant buyer, Earl Lieske both influences and responds to container trends. He says many clients prefer muted colors, such as charcoal, and clean, sleek container lines. “I like the gray because it showcases what’s going on in the container more than the container itself,” he says.

While ceramic pots have fans, Lieske says most customers want something better adapted to northern climates. “Customers are more interested in containers that are easy to care for and hold up well, especially over winter,” he says. Top sellers trend toward large, lightweight options, with 16-inch and 14-inch pots running first and second, respectively. “They’re small enough for a customer to manage without having to pay for delivery, but large enough to make a statement,” he says.

When it comes to container plant material, nothing is off limits. Trees and shrubs mix with annuals, perennials, grasses and — increasingly — vegetables and herbs in Chalet Signature designs. “My favorite containers, and the ones that have started to pick up and trend, are definitely more textural, more structural, not necessarily a lot of blooms,” Lieske says. “A lot of our customers are asking for no blooms at all. They want just foliage and texture.” Tone-on-tone plantings and chartreuse are especially hot.

Lieske has also shifted away from 360-degree plantings, meant to be viewed from all sides, to 180-degree container designs. “By using 180, it allows more depth, and you can create more look by pushing the tall to the back,” he says.

The IGC keeps a large selection of pre-potted containers on hand. “We always build in pairs, on opposites,” Lieske says. “If customers are flanking something, they can have the pair right there.” The team typically builds 12 to 18 of each design, duplicated from container through plant material.

Lieske says the Chalet team always pays attention to other companies, social media and industry trends. However, he advises IGCs to rely on in-house talent and creativity more. “When garden centers look to other garden enters too much and try to copy, it can denigrate their brand,” he says. “Every brand is local. You have to know your local customer and what sells in your area and cater to them.”

The author is a freelance writer specializing in the horticulture industry and a frequent contributor to GIE Media publications. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com.

A large mixed container from Chalet Nursery
A mixed fall container from Chalet Nursery