Considering growing edible potted crops?

If you are looking to take advantage of the demand for locally-grown potted edibles, here are some “new” crops that could excite retailers and consumers.

While an increasing number of consumers are downsizing their gardens, they still want to garden. University of Minnesota horticulture professor John Erwin said as the population in the United States is increasingly urbanizing and people’s yards are getting smaller, gardening is still an important part of their lifestyle.

“More people are living in residences with balconies and patios so they want to garden with containerized plants,” Erwin said.

Greenhouse ornamental plant growers have the opportunity to take advantage of the increasing demand for locally-grown edible crops. Erwin said there is a real opportunity for greenhouse growers to make the transition from potted bedding plants into potted edibles. This would also apply to growers of vegetable transplants and potted herbs who are looking to expand their existing product lines.

“For someone who is already growing potted herbs, it’s easier to add new edible crops for their programs because they usually already have a pest, disease and fertility program set up for edibles,” Erwin said. “Whereas a grower who is going from ornamentals into edibles, there are a large number of pesticides and fungicides labeled for ornamentals that can’t be used with edible crops. That may be a challenge for someone who is switching from ornamentals to edibles.

“A major driving force for the edible plant industry right now is the fact that people want to purchase product that is grown locally. That is a much bigger factor in driving edible sales than organic vs. inorganic. Consumers think locally-grown is fresher. When it comes to potted plants shipped on racks, it’s usually cheaper to ship the plants locally than to ship them from a grower further away.”

 

Expanding the edible footprint

Growers who may already be selling potted ornamental plants, vegetable transplants or herbs to local supermarkets and garden centers have a ready-made market to increase their sales with additional potted edibles.

“Growers who are looking to expand their footprint would typically start with potted herbs, but they could also try edibles that are ornamental like purple leaf basil and flowering kale, which is technically an edible and an ornamental,” Erwin said. “Other examples include ‘Bright Lights’ chard and Red Russian kale. These are both foliage that are ornamental and edible. Growers are using some of these edible crops in planters where, for example, they will put in one kale plant as an accent plant.”

 

Photos courtesy of John Erwin, Univ. of Minn.
Ornamental greenhouse growers looking to expand into potted edibles can start by using edibles in combination planters.

 

 

Erwin said combination planters are a good way to introduce consumers to potted edibles.

“There is an increased interest in container gardening,” he said. “Red Russian kale can be put into a combo planter along with Wave petunias or some other ornamental crop. Kale is an easy plant to start with because it is grown from seed and it grows rapidly. Kale is also a tough crop. Red Russian kale and scarlet kale produce attractive ornamental foliage. Kale is a great plant that can provide a premium price.

“‘Prism’ kale is a curly leaf variety that I have in my yard. It’s about 12-16 inches tall, that’s why it would do well in containers. It looks like curly-leaf parsley. This variety would also be a good accent plant for restaurants. I have grown Red Russian, scarlet and ‘Winterbor’ kale and they are easy to grow and tough as nails. They all make great combo plants.”

Kale is an edible crop that looks good in combination planters or window boxes.

Erwin said many of the dwarf edible plants are rapid growing so their profitability is relatively high.

“In most cases combos which include edibles are not being sold as edibles,” he said. “The next step is for growers to consider selling edible combos. There is real interest from consumers.

“Offering an edible combo that may have jalapeno peppers, along with kale and pansies enables consumers to eat the peppers, the kales leaves and the pansy flowers. That is attractive to a lot of people. These kinds of combinations offer growers an opportunity that they really haven’t exploited yet.”

 

Potential markets

Erwin said there are potentially three different markets for potted edible crops.

“There is the outdoor market in which the consumer finishes the crop and harvests the plant,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity for traditional bedding plant growers to start the combos and let someone else finish them. This could be either other growers or consumers. Those finished crops should also be something that is eye-catching. For example, plants with purple leaves that are edible. For consumers some of these plants can have a higher price point because they are larger finished plants that can be accompanied by bigger picture tags.

“The second market is finished edible plants where consumers purchase plants with fruit already on them so they can harvest and eat them right away. The third market is where a grower finishes the product and harvests and sells it to local restaurants or retailers. Restaurants want local product when they can’t get it fresh from the field. This is ideal for fall, winter and early spring sales in many parts of the country when local field-grown crops aren’t available.”

‘Bright Lights’ chard (center blue pot) looks great in a container and gardeners can harvest the leaves all summer.

Erwin said one of the easiest ways to achieve market penetration with potted edibles is to offer a variation of crops that people are familiar with.

“Simple Wave is a good example of that on the ornamental side,” he said. “There are a number of dwarf basils available. Normal basil gets big and floppy. Growers are also doing well with salvias. These are opportunity crops because people have some experience with them. There are also basils and salvias with different color leaves. The focus with basil, salvia and thyme is on compactness and foliage color. Herbs with different looking foliage are helping to drive the demand for them. What is really encouraging is the seed companies are rapidly working on developing both dwarf edibles and dwarf edible ornamentals.”

Erwin said another way to market edible combos is to offer plants with a theme. An example would be combos for mixed drinks or for a tea garden, which could include different types of mint, rosemary and other herbs that could be added to drinks. A pizza plant combo could include basil, oregano, green onions or chives. He said there are also herbs used in different ethnic foods that consumers may have a difficult time finding. An example is potted lemongrass that is a common herb used in traditional Asian cuisine. Erwin said lemon grass could easily be planted in a mixed combo.

Lemongrass can be grown as a specimen plant or in mixed containers. It is commonly used in Asian cuisine.

Identifying food trends

Erwin said a good information resource for growers interested in growing edibles to look at food trends is the National Restaurant Association.

“The association provides food trends for what people want to eat every year,” he said. “The association does surveys and collects a lot of data.”

For 2017 the top five produce trends are:

  1. Heirloom fruits and vegetables.

Erwin said a lot of growers grow heirloom fruits and vegetables, but they don’t tag them that way. Sales would likely go up if they simply added a label.

  1. Unusual or uncommon herbs.

Erwin said very few growers are doing these types of herbs.

  1. Hybrid fruits and vegetables.

Erwin said growers may be producing these crops, but probably aren’t labeling them as hybrids. They may mark it as a F1 variety, but most consumers aren’t going to know what a F1 is.

  1. Exotic fruits.
  2. Dark greens.

Examples include kale, chard and spinach. Erwin said consumers realize that dark greens are high in iron and many of these crops are used in making smoothies. Kale is also high in Vitamin C.

 


For more: John Erwin, University of Minnesota, Department of Horticultural Science, 1970 Folwell Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108; erwin001@umn.edu; https://horticulture.umn.edu/people/faculty/johnerwin.

Some of the information in this article was presented by John Erwin during an educational session on “New, Exciting Edible Crops” at Cultivate’17.

 

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; dkuack@gmail.com.

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