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'Hard Stuff'...the world of plants, pots and paving

New 'Greenworld' feature writer, Elizabeth DeFriest examines the latest trends.

Though the bulk of your day-to-day business may be predominantly `mainstream', having an appreciation of current garden design trends is also an advantage. Using the latest fashions in plants, pots and paving treatments helps to keep things looking fresh and interesting around the nursery - and you'll encourage sales from the percentage of customers who are looking for a fashionable garden. Read on to discover, firstly what the designers are up to, and then how other retailers are catering to the trends.

Carolyn Blackman - Vivid Design

Pots can form the basis of simple, effective water features.

"Lately I've noticed a greater interest in plant material - not as trimmed topiary or arid, low-maintenance species. Instead people are being very vocal about wanting lushness, seasonality and diversity." So says Carolyn Blackman of Vivid Design. As for the reasons why, in part she sees it as the inevitable cycling on from the recent minimalist approach, but in most cases it's a desire to remove themselves from the highly built up environment with which most of us deal on a daily basis. "Even house designs are incorporating open spaces within them, effectively linking plants to the indoor living spaces."

"In terms of hard landscaping, we provide practical paved surfaces for each situation with a preference to natural materials. Where water is needed (why lose precious rain to storm water drains unnecessarily), granitic sand or gravel allows the moisture to percolate through to plant or tree roots. Large slabs of saw-cut bluestone or slate work well in conjunction with aggregate material, often merging into turf or groundcover species and finally giving out into garden beds. The idea is to create some surfaces for use and access without creating an enormous `desert' of paving. If a hard area is needed for furniture, we aim to use the same materials but in different configurations, like crazy paving, so that the whole area works as one but the selection of materials is limited".

"Big is better in terms of maintenance"
"We often use pots in our designs to inject drama and height into a smaller garden space. Big is better in terms of maintenance - at least 80cm across - filled with the best quality potting mix. Where previously we made use of the tall, angular glazed pots, we've now begun to focus on more rounded, voluptuous shapes in softer tones like charcoal. Whatever is used, the key is to have a contrast between the form and mass of the pot and the shape and size of the plant - upright, architectural Phormium foliage in a large, squat round container, prostrate, cascading plant in a tall pot."

Where water features are being considered, Carolyn's advice echoes good garden design overall. "Aim to build a relationship between the plant textures, hard landscaping materials, and colours which together give you your garden's theme. With this theme, and the scale of the garden in mind, select a water feature to suit. It may be clever but not gimmicky. Most of all, spend time to work out the best position to site it - few things look worse than a water feature that has been designed to be positioned in a deep garden bed or in a lawn, squashed up against a wall. It can also accentuate the lack of space in a small garden. Water features must be designed for the space in which they sit. Simply `plonking' one in can look disjointed and tacky."

Linton La Fontaine
While the design firm of Linton La Fontaine is influenced primarily by architecture, Michael La Fontaine does recognise some recent trends. "Where we've worked with contemporary architecture, we've used paving and other features to break down the symmetry, for example using random sheets of bluestone, each roughly the size of a dining table, to pave a relatively small area. The crazy paving softens the symmetry while the scale of the individual pieces gives uniformity."

Regardless of what's 'in'-paving will always play a major role in the garden landscape.

Working with bluestone as well as limestone, sandstone or pressed concrete Michael sets out to define those areas to be planted, areas where (as a surreal device) the paving may overhang the garden and help lead the eye away. Another planted treatment sited within the paved area might be a small urban forest of silver birches interspersed with maples - positioned so that they lightly obscure views. "Typically the size of the garden limits the use of axis converging on a focal point - this is something which works best on a much grander scale. Instead we use plants to break the minimalist lines of this style of garden design and at the same time accentuate them."

"Pots can become sculptural features if left unfilled"
"The pots themselves give clues to how to use them. The Indonesian ones have a sense of function and look best planted or better yet, filled with water. We're about to drop a huge container into a tiny courtyard off a bathroom, where it will appear to float over a bed of Arctic pebbles spilling water in a sheet over the rim. The key here is the size - we want no doubt that the pot is the focal point."

Recognising a definite increase in interest in water features, Michael stresses the importance of choosing carefully. "Pots and other containers form a good basis for water features. Aim for something that is stylish with a quality finish, or at least a finish that weathers well. Avoid any water feature which appears novel - with time it may look kitsch."

Stock, display and sell

Landscape design trends follow fashion, and buyer trends are influenced to different degrees, depending on demographic and location.

With fifteen years retail experience, Carseldine Garden World's Maree Bretz (Carseldine, Queensland) is very clear on the factors which affect buying and selling - in this case pots. "Before you consider trends you need to consider three things. Understand who your customer is and what they will buy. Have a good idea of your surrounding competition. If they are operating on a price base, then you can't afford to! You'll need to establish yourself in the niche they've left you. You have to offer your customers something more than price as an incentive. It might be your range of pots, their quality, and having something different - which is why developing a good relationship with your suppliers is so important."

Maree has few suppliers, but they know what she is looking for and they are also willing to search for her when on buying trips overseas. "It helps to be visual and observant to keep up with trends. I check out every magazine that comes through and make a point of searching through trade or gift fairs and homeware shops. That's not to say my customers will buy the latest in trends, but I need to know what's happening so I can bring in something they will buy."

To display pots Maree uses a cross merchandise approach. "We'll take a glazed modern container, fill it with an Agave and set it onto paving and mondo grass to show customers an end use for each item in the display." However, most pots sell themselves. "Most people know what they are looking for and we certainly are not high pressure sellers. The advice we offer is usually horticultural, helping the customer to select the right plant for the right sized pot."

The sky's the limit at Tim's Garden Centre
The pots are stacked as high as possible at Tim's Garden Centre (Mt Annan and Campbelltown, New South Wales) and for good reason. "When we bought just a few of each style there was no impact to the display. Now we buy by the container load - not twenty different styles, but ten and in a more limited range of colours - so we end up with pots stacked so high they look like they're on sale, and they sell. We make sure we have saucers for half our stock and coloured pot feet to match." Another tip from Tim, "When you get down to the last five, you may as well mark them down 25% or you'll be looking at them for weeks. The same goes for any pot that sits around without selling in the first three to four weeks. Mark it down. Get rid of it; you don't want it taking up space."

As for colour, Tim has spotted a cycle. "People buy pots like they buy plants - "Ooh, that's a nice colour!" - so the next time they come in you need to have another shade for them to notice. And about every third buying cycle, you can buy in the original colour again!" "Fish do die, so we can expect to see customers back" Noting the increased interest in water in the garden, Tim recently invested heavily in a series of filtered fish ponds, filled to brimming with koi. "We sold $4,000 worth of fish in the first three months - and fish do die, so we can expect to see customers back here buying more."

Mark McKenzie, Tim's in-house designer, explains how his role builds business. "We're sitting within a major boom area of Sydney. Typically my clients fall into two groups - those who have just moved into a new estate and don't have a great deal of money or time to spend maintaining a garden, and those who have been here for a while and want to set up something where they can garden more." For a flat fee, Mark makes four, one-hour site visits a day over the weekend, then spends two days back at the nursery drawing up plans. "In most cases the hard landscape is in place. If it isn't I indicate where it should be, but for the fee we charge, I can't spend time supplying engineered drawings. I produce planting guides based on the nursery's stock - selecting the best plants for the site."

Often Mark will work pot-based features into his concept plans, especially where they solve a landscaping problem left behind by the builder. "There often seems to be a spot with poor drainage, and I'll suggest the area be covered by weed mat and a mulch of pebbles, before sitting a large container on top." This creates an opportunity either to grow something with reasonable drainage, or to use the pot as a water feature - Mark's favourite being a rough-etched pot set at an angle. "This gives a much greater surface area of water for reflection and the pot's textured surface shows up the water movement better than one with a flat surface."

The Greenery, Heidelberg Victoria
Trish Sim's Pot Shop at The Greenery, Heidelberg, is a massive open courtyard displaying containers, statuary, garden and water features. Faced with so much choice, consulting with customers could be made more difficult rather than easier. However there is logic behind Trish's approach, plus a good eye supported by a background in visual merchandising.

There are always new colours, shapes and textures which add interest to any landscape.

To begin with, everything is grouped by association - colourful glazed ware, subtly hued concrete geometric containers, traditional terracotta and romantic reflief-ware. Water features are in dazzling motion together in one corner, while ready-to-install bamboo panels, statuary and Feng Shui accessories sit together within an unofficial Asian zone. Like Maree Bretz at Carseldine, Trish also displays sample pots potted up with plant suggestions. "As soon as they're planted, we're selling customers the pot, potting mix, plants and mulch to create the same look. Everyone seems to like a fresh idea, so we make the most of it by positioning our potted ideas strategically around the entire nursery to boost sales."

Just the layout of the Pot Shop helps customers to define their needs, Trish's consulting approach helps refine the process further. "I could spend all day walking around here pointing to one pot after another asking if they like it. Instead I ask them for information. What do they need the pot for? What will they be putting in it? If it's to sit on paving, what type of paving is it? Will it be near any other existing containers and if so, what are they? What style is their home? And finally, can they see anything here they like?" `

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