Creating the wow-factor with seasonal color programs

Photo: Jill Odom/Total Landscape CarePhoto: Jill Odom/Total Landscape Care

If your landscaping company is looking into offering seasonal color programs as an additional service to provide your clients, there’s a lot more to this sort of work than you may first think.

Seasonal color programs are popular because of the curb appeal they can create.

“Everyone wants their entrances, their doors and their entryways to shine and the color is going to give them a little bit more of a pop than the evergreen,” says Cerys Heroman, a registered landscape architect with HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLC based in Pensacola, Florida.

Photo: HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLCPhoto: HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLC

Another main reason customers like seasonal color programs is because of the individuality they can express. Heroman says clients like designs that will set them apart from everyone else.

“The one that I hear everybody say is, ‘I want a wow factor,’” Heroman says. “‘I want something that’s going to make people do a double-take and look back at it.’”

As for whether seasonal color programs are in more demand from the commercial or residential side of things, it depends more on their budget, according to Amy Kirkland, seasonal color director for Russell Landscape Group based in Sugar Hill, Georgia.

 “Seasonal color can make an ordinary property unique to bring in tenants,” Kirkland says. “The fact that it is changed out two to three times a year it acts like a fresh coat of paint or a new outfit against the same lawn or shrubs that do not change much. It also acts as a welcome mat for the residential setting.”

Heroman says that prior to six months ago, she would have said seasonal color programs were strictly a commercial service, but recently, she’s received more residential business than she could have ever imagined. This is due to customers investing back in their homes.

When to start and what goes into the planning

You might think creating a seasonal color program is something you can throw together a few days before spring, but Kirkland says she starts planning on Jan. 2nd.

When asked when she starts planning her seasonal color programs, Heroman jokes when do you stop?  

 “Year-round, I’m looking for any of my seasonal concepts around it, different things that people are using, different color combinations, texture combinations, things that just kind of catch my eye, both locally and when I travel,” Heroman says.

Kirkland says the first step to creating a seasonal color program is to see if there is adequate irrigation or hand watering available.

“Next, determine what the client’s budget is,” Kirkland says. “We work with a price per square foot and are then able to offer additional upgrades to meet a client’s needs. Last but not least is to simply ask if there is anything that the client loves or hates. You will find many folks just would like something to look nice and others are seasoned gardeners and have a long list of things to help direct the design.”

Heroman says the best advice she has to offer when it comes to creating a design that customers will love is to simply “shut up and listen.”

“Because normally they’re going to give you keys and hints when they’re talking about something they want,” Heroman says. “At first, they’re going to kind of be like ‘I just want a wow factor.’ But if you get them talking and if they see you have a passion for what they’re doing, you’ll start picking up little things about why they want to do this, and why they want to stand apart.”

She also suggests offering things that are beyond the norm. While most landscaping companies are going to use plants like begonias in the spring and pansies in the winter, take the time to offer something that is unique or used in an unexpected way.

Selecting your plant palette

“I’ve got a fallback list of my tried and true practice plants that I always do incorporate in ways but I’m always looking at those new and up and coming ones,” Heroman says. “The only downside about those a lot of times is the availability.”

Heroman says it can take three years sometimes before the newer cultivars she’s wanting to try are readily available. She says that while she has a fallback list of plants that she knows will thrive, she doesn’t prefer them over new plants. One of her go-to plants is canna, as she says she can put them anywhere and they are beautiful all season.

Photo: HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLCPhoto: HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLC

Kirkland says some of her favorites are lantana and Angelonia. She likes lantana, as it is typically insect and disease free and is drought tolerant. Angelonia is one of her preferred plants because it blooms all season long and responds well to a good trim.

As for plants not use, Heroman says she avoids installing petunias as she says they melt in her region.

“Come late June to sometimes in August without fail, no matter where I put petunias in our area, they die,” she says. “They melt. No amount of water, no amount of shade, no amount of any of that, the heat and the sun just destroys them.”

She also doesn’t use edibles in her designs, as she’s found that she doesn’t get an extended period of time with them before they start looking unruly. Heroman says she’s had instances where someone has decided to make a salad out of them as well.

Kirkland says she doesn’t avoid any specific plants, but that you should use a good mix of plant material.

“It is very important to know your site and plant the best plants for the site,” Kirkland says. “It also important to know how much maintenance you will be able to deliver so that you plant things that will hold up within those time frames.”

Switching plants out and maintenance

Because you never know what Mother Nature will bring each year, and depending on what region you’re working in, the timing for switching plants out will vary.

For Heroman, they will often install spring plants in late April or early May and then switch to fall plants in late October or early November. Kirkland says Russell Landscape Group also tends to switch things out twice per year around these months in the spring and fall.

“There are occasional clients that like a late summer revamp that can take place in late July or August,” Kirkland says. “This is a very limited palette of marigolds, zinnia and lantana because even in the heat of the summer, these will root in with ease.”

Heroman says typical customers opt for two season color changes due to their budget, since multiple changes call for more labor costs, and another aspect is plant establishment.

“The places that we’re doing only twice a year change out, they get a healthier plant in the long run and you’re not still a tiny plant in the summer and then just a slightly larger tiny plants when you’re making the switch,” Heroman says. “So they’re getting a bigger bang for their buck, honestly.”

Another aspect of offering seasonal color programs is providing maintenance to ensure the plants look good through the months.

Heroman says during the winter, their crews will visit about once a week, and during the summer they take care of the plant beds and containers at least two to three times a week. Kirkland says it varies on the client’s needs but they typically go out every three weeks to take care of the plants.

“Water is the big one and then cleaning, deadheading, trimming, pruning,” Heroman says. “The fertilizer we alternate. Every few weeks, we visit what we’re putting on to it so that you’re not overloading it and we don’t want to feed it too much and end up with a mass of sweet potato vine.”

Challenges of seasonal color programs

Some of the main challenges to expect from seasonal color programs are the availability of the plant material throughout the season and the weather itself. While at the beginning of the season, suppliers may have endless options, two months in the pickings are much slimmer, which can put you in a bind if you add more clients later on.

“I always bring in a little bit extra when I’m ordering my seasonals because then I don’t get stuck,” Heroman says.

With the weather, it’s always unpredictable and uncontrollable, so the best practice is to be prepared for anything.

Sidewalk Garden“You never know how the weather is going to be,” Kirkland says. “Several years ago, we had a wet summer and most landscapers lost tons and tons of vinca, so for a couple of years it was the shunned plant until we hit a drought and could not water.”

Kirkland adds that the changing climate is constantly introducing different insects and disease issues as well.

“When I started in seasonal color in 2005, fall pansies seemed nearly disease-free if planted properly,” Kirkland says. “The biggest worry then was cold damage on dianthus, snapdragons and red mustard if it got too cold before established. The last few years we have had very wet winters, so each maintenance visit has to include very aggressive deadheading and repeat fungicide applications to keep the seasonal color looking good all winter.”

Another challenge to expect from seasonal color programs is finding skilled labor for the job.

“Not just anyone can design, install and maintain good seasonal color,” Kirkland says. “It takes a special eye to detail to be able to carry out detailed designs. It also takes skill to be able to properly maintain the area to keep the intended design visible.”

Advice for others

If you’re truly interested in providing seasonal color programs yourself, Heroman encourages landscapers to start small.

“Because you’re going to make mistakes,” she says. “When you want to start doing things like this, you’re going to look at it and say, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Everybody does, but there’s so many little nitpicky things about it and every plant has a different personality that, until you learn it and get comfortable with it, don’t go jumping in and saying, ‘I’m going to do an entire mall exterior or something.’”

Heroman says that smaller clients will forgive you for those inevitable initial mistakes, whereas bigger clients might not be so understanding after paying so much for your services. She also encourages landscapers to test their soils.

“A lot of people assume things and whatnot; do not do it with seasonals,” Heroman says. “It’s actually become a staple part of my seasonal rotation when I do beds. I change out the top eight inches of soil, guaranteed.”

Photo: HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLCPhoto: HeroMan Services Plant Company, LLC

Seasonal color programs are not something you should jump into on a whim. Heroman says their company president, Patrick Heroman spent five years researching the service before offering it himself.

“For five years, twice a year, he traveled to several cities outside of our business area and found the companies that had successful seasonal programs,” Heroman says. “He learned from them and though we don’t replicate because no two places are identical, it gave him the building blocks to start.”

Kirkland says you should not offer the service if you are not able to maintain the work.

“Oftentimes, you see a beautiful installation that peaks in July and looks bad the rest of the season because there is no maintenance,” Kirkland says. “There are definitely lower maintenance plants that could work with only a few visits if you were to maximize plant spacing. It is great to be a full-service landscape company. Depending on where you are in your company, you can consider subcontracting with someone that specializes in flowers to make yourself a one-stop-shop.”

It’s also important to develop your own list of go-to plants and fallback options, as there’s always the chance something unpredictable will happen and a plant will fail.

“I have a knowledge of some of these plants I’ve worked with that I know I can shove in there in a last-minute thing and they’ll do fantastic and get me out of a bind if need be,” Heroman says. “Because once you have those and once you’ve been through the wringer a few times, then I say go out and be experimental and crazy and off the wall. Because the best part about this entire thing is kind of just having fun with it and letting loose.”

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