If you’re a veggie gardener, then you’re probably no stranger to the intense rush of endorphins you get when perusing next season’s seed catalog. I think most of us can agree that selecting and ordering seeds is a hobby of its own — one that may not have anything at all to do with getting the seeds started on time or planted in the garden. While my seed collection grows larger each year, I still need to hit up my local garden center for transplants.
I’m appreciative that I can usually count on my local IGC being there to pinch hit with veggie transplants for me. You can usually count on a local IGC to stock the basics, or a very limited number of cultivars. But I also know buying transplants means sacrificing on variety. Most veggie gardeners know that if they want to grow a less common edible, they’re usually out of luck unless they start their own seed.
As consumers get more food-adventurous so do veggie gardeners. Most food gardeners I know are looking to branch out into veggies they haven’t yet grown or cooked with. If you’re looking to grow your veggie garden category and you want to stand out from your local mass merchants, think diversity and stretching the season.
I tapped my friend and veggie gardener extraordinaire Niki Jabbour on the shoulder to see what trends she’s observing with her followers. Like me, she’s seeing a need for more unusual crops, herbs and unique cultivars. “Seedlings for artichokes, ground cherries, heirloom tomatoes, super-hot peppers, heritage melons, edible gourds (like luffa) and cucamelons are some of the many seedlings gardeners will be asking for in 2020” Jabbour says. (Check out Jabbour’s book “Veggie Garden Remix” for some great suggestions on alternative food garden varieties).
Greens more commonly grown outside the United States, such as mizuna, bok choy and komatsuna, are also becoming more popular. Because leafy greens are one of the easier crops for gardeners to grow, many tolerating more shady conditions than their fruiting companions, this is an easy category for you to boost variety and sales. Plus, many growers can handle growing greens indoors, so you have more off-season opportunities for these crops.
Jabbour also expresses a need for crops more resistant to diseases such as downy mildew — Basil PROSPERA as an example — blight-tolerant tomatoes, mildew-tolerant cucumbers and melons and other improved varieties. She reminds us that excellent signage will be required to properly communicate these benefits to customers.
Stretch the season
Growing in a climate that affords me a 365-day vegetable growing season, succession planting is important. While my climate does force me to split my growing seasons between warm and cool crops, there’s enough time in each to plant multiple successions of similar crops and bridge the gap during transition times. Too often, there’s only a short one-shot at the availability window of transplants in spring at the garden center. The limited availability doesn’t afford food gardeners the opportunity to lengthen their growing and harvest season.
In hot climates, there are often two tomato planting seasons — early-spring and mid-summer. While customers can usually find a decent selection of tomato transplants in spring, too often they are offered too late in spring, when temperatures are already getting too hot. And I’m often hard-pressed to find tomato transplants for summer planting and fall harvest. If you grow in a colder climate that gives you a short fall growing window, don’t leave your customers hanging. Jabbour, who veggie gardens in a cold climate, laments the lack of availability for mid-summer to early-autumn transplants that can be harvested in fall and winter. “So many vegetables can be planted from mid-summer to autumn for late season harvest — cabbage, broccoli, kale, lettuce, endive, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, cucumbers, Swiss chard, etc.,” she says, but she doesn’t find these transplants at the garden center.
Jabbour also suggests offering a variety of ‘plug-in plants’ for additional succession or seasonal transition plantings to entice food gardeners. Again, she recommends detailed signage to clearly communicate to customers how and when to use these fill-in crops.
As more urban gardeners adopt more resilient, biodiverse and wildlife friendly landscaping approaches, look for an interest in native edibles to gain some traction. While I’ve already seen an increased interest in foraging for native edibles, I think we’re prime for providing more access and education to native plant species that offer some type of food or herbal value. As we guide homeowners to integrate more native plant species into their urban landscapes, let’s look to offer more plants that provide food source to both the homeowner and the native wildlife.
If there is one thing you can count on, it’s that veggie gardeners are engaged customers. They want to visit the garden center more often, not less. And there’s no better excuse to hit up the local IGC than cool new veggie transplants!