As Seen in Greenhouse Grower Magazine

Have You Planted a Display Garden Yet?

Lane Greer and James L. Gibson
NCSU Floriculture Research

In our move from a service economy to an experience-based economy, more and more consumers want to walk away from a sale feeling that they have experienced something new and different. Display gardens serve this purpose. They help to inspire gardeners, both new and old, with the possibilities of what could be. As a marketing tool, nothing beats display gardens. They are colorful and educational, captivating and informative. A display garden helps to sell plants and other materials by giving homeowners new ideas about plants, hard goods, and garden themes. They allow consumers to see the potential of their home gardens.

Display Garden Links

Display Garden Photos

In the retail area, most of our attention is focused on selling plants. There is very little thought given to how these plants will perform in the landscape. Display gardens let us see how well the plants establish themselves. We can then knowledgeably answer shoppers' questions on plant vigor and ideal location. Growers can see for themselves how well new introductions survive in sunny or shady environments. Additionally, an on-site display garden can provide information on growth rate and on the appearance of mature plants. The display garden also educates growers on potential pest problems and the effects of microclimates.

We all know that customers are particularly interested in how plants look in bloom. Flowering plants in your display garden will encourage shoppers to try these plants. Fall color is also important to buyers. Seeing large shade trees in full fall color will entice customers much more than would a descriptive paragraph on a plant label.

Good display gardens can provide the grower with lots of information, such as:

Plant establishment time and ideal location

Plant vigor

Time to maturity and what the mature plant looks like

Bloom time and fall coloration

Pest problems

Effects of environment and microclimates

Selections for next yearís young plant order

Why install a display garden?

  • Repeat business. People will keep coming back to see what's new in the garden, so be sure to plant spring bulbs as well as summer-blooming perennials and plants with fall interest. All of this translates into year-round sales.
  • Sales of accessories, which usually have a higher profit margin than plants. Customers can see how best to use statuary, benches, and ponds in the garden. Also, consider adding landscape lighting if your establishment is open after daylight hours.
  • Establish yourself as a gardener, not a mass merchandiser. Youíre not just a retailer, youíre a privately run botanical garden. Prove that you know more about these plants, and that they were grown with the plant in mind. Conversations about plant performance are a great way to break the ice between you and a new customer.
  • It provides an area for employees to enjoy their lunch or breaktime in the outdoors.
  • Therapy. Anyone who works in retail knows how frustrating it can be. Working in or walking through the display garden can relieve some of this stress.

What are the disadvantages of a display garden?

Maintenance. While a good display garden is a great key to sales, a poorly maintained one will say to your customers that you don't care enough about your plants to keep them looking good, so why should they invest in your plants? Good display gardens are litter-free, weed-free, and well-watered.

The garden will probably require a spring and fall clean-up. A pre-emergent herbicide applied every spring and an irrigation system installed prior to plant placement will help reduce labor requirements. Utilize composted plant materials and potting media from previous growing seasons as an organic amendment. Other maintenance concerns include dividing perennials every few years, keeping deer out of the garden, and replacing trees lost to storms or plants that were poorly matched to their site.

Preparation, Fertilization, Installation, and Maintenance of Display Gardens

Weed Control in Display Gardens

Space. Display gardens should be designed to take advantage of unused areas. In some cases the best areas are at the operationís entrance or around buildings (tool shed, office, breakroom, etc). The garden can be planted around bathroom facilities or in the (often) weedy strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street.

Keep in mind your plans for future expansion. Very extravagant display gardens should not be planted where greenhouses may be built. Another big concern with display gardens is parking. While shoppers are visiting the garden, their cars are occupying the parking lot. At some point, a choice may have to be made between adding more parking or keeping a display garden.

Timing. Youíre probably saying to yourself, "Yeah, itís a great idea, but whoís got the time? Who wants to clean plants in the morning, load carts in the afternoon, fill the truck in the early part of the evening, and then have to think about a display garden?"

Accepting the fact that it will require an extra burst of enthusiasm during the most rigorous time of the season is a given. One goal that we established during the writing of this article was to develop some garden templates for you to use, so that you can grab some plants from the greenhouse and install them with relative ease.

Here are five tips to creating a successful display garden.

  1. Build your soil and structures first. The days of April madness are not the time to plan and establish the foundation for the display garden. During the fall and into the winter, take soil tests and add appropriate amendments first. Work with your local Cooperative Extension Service to determine strategies for improving the soil. Also consider building structures like gazebos, fences, and ponds. Finally, plant your trees, shrubs, and bulbs. In the spring, plant annuals and perennials.

  2. Stick to one theme or idea. Having trouble moving those aquatic plants? Build a pond! Show how they can be used in a water garden (One, Two). Decide on the plants or group of plants you want to emphasize. Focus on that theme. If you have several themes you want to push, make several display gardens, rather than trying to lump everything together. It will end up looking muddled.

    What are the local themes in your region? Every state or region has a recognizable icon that can serve as the focal point of a garden. You could create a landscape that reflects hometown pride. Ask your employees to sketch out their ideas for a theme garden. In any kind of garden, it is important to add new and unusual annuals every year to produce excitement and anticipation.

  3. Use a backdrop, even in an island bed. Remember, your aim is to spotlight this garden. For display gardens, the ideal backdrop is usually a row of evergreens, but most nurseries aren't blessed with this. Consider fencing, potted conifers placed behind the bed, or even a steep slope planted in a single crop. For island beds, place tall, expansive plants in the center of the bed and step down the height gradually.

  4. Match plant groupings in the display garden with containerized plants in the sales area. If your display garden features Rudbeckia and Echinacea side by side, place your one gallons of Rudbeckia and Echinacea next to each other on the sales floor. One of the most effective display gardens that we've seen was composed of containerized gallons of daylilies, pink phlox, and veronica in a tiered arrangement.

  5. Avoid running out of featured plants, especially those in bloom in the display garden. Your silent salesperson will be the plants themselves. On sales signs, use photos of plants in your display garden. This makes the customer feel that he or she is a part of something big; like they had a hand in creating your display garden. You will begin to notice that people walk through the garden, making lists of plants they want to buy. All of the display plants should be well-labeled. Consider having a leaflet with a plan design. Talk to your "young plant" suppliers to find out if they can provide free promotional literature that can be distributed to consumers.

Throughout the article are suggestions for four theme gardens: cut flower, butterfly, "summer proven", and fall/winter emphasis. There are lots of other possibilities, though, like vegetable, bird, bulb, spring, children’s (One, Two), and single species (a garden full of only daylilies (One, Two), for instance). Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions; the use of color and creativity are necessary for making a great display garden.

The cut flower garden focuses on summer color. The design incorporates annuals, perennials, and woody plants. The cultivars listed possess many of the characteristics of good cut flowers, such as long vase life and long stems. Alternatively, the design can be modified to focus on one color, such as an all-white or all-yellow garden, by changing cultivars. Also, a fence can be substituted for the row of evergreens prescribed in the design. Many of the annuals (sunflowers, statice, cosmos, bells of Ireland, zinnias, and Ammi majus) should be mass planted, and successive plantings will provide months of color.

Cut Flower Garden Plan

Cut Flower Garden Plant Links

Butterfly gardens (One, Two) have become very popular in the last decade, as more homeowners seek to lure these beautiful insects to their homes. The plants called for in this garden design are nectar plants for mature butterflies, rather than host plants for caterpillars. The fountain in the middle of the garden will provide water and cooler temperatures for butterflies, and the arbors covered with vines provide shade. Benches placed under the arbors invite customers to enjoy the view.

Butterfly Garden Plan

Butterfly Garden Plant Links

The "Summer's Best" garden contains plants that have performed exceptionally well in North Carolina for the past two years. The plants have been trialed in the Annual Trial Gardens at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum , retail garden center display gardens in North Carolina, or in colleagues’ landscapes. The garden contains an array of textures and colors, and in some cases vigorous plants, therefore we suggest selecting a balanced group of tall and upright plants, sprawling moderate growers, and trailing prostrate plants. Most of the plants will endure the heat of the summer for those with irrigation concerns.

"Summer's-Best" Garden Plan

"Summer's-Best" Garden Plant Links

Summer Bedding Plant Links

The fall/ winter display garden has been developed to provide you with hardy plants for the months of October to April. Among the species are some of the kales and mustards that have been trialed in the Annual Trial Gardens at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. These plants have been selected because of their growth habit, hardiness, and foliar textures and colors.

Fall/ Winter Garden Plan

Fall/ Winter Garden Plant Links

A good recommendation for new businesses is to start small. In the same way, display gardens may begin as numerous species of containerized plants displayed together. This simple garden may evolve into a large area with several themes, lots of hardscaping, and picnic tables. The amount of time and space available to each grower-retailer will determine the ultimate design and role of the display garden in the retail setting. Whether large or small, display gardens are an essential component in an effective marketing strategy.


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