At noon on Sunday, Crown Center’s snow-dusted courtyard was empty, with gusts of below-freezing wind whipping through steaming fountains and bare trees.
Inside Crown Center’s Exhibit Hall, it looked more like spring than winter, with lush foliage packed wall to wall. At the Western Nursery & Landscape Association’s annual trade show, horticulture professionals mingled among flowering blue hydrangeas, towering spruce trees with burlap-wrapped roots and tender young tomato plants with sunny names like Sweetheart of the Patio.
The WNLA is a Kansas City-based regional trade association for the professional horticulture industry in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Nebraska. Every year in January, the association hosts a trade show and education event that attracts plant breeders, plant growers, garden center owners, research professionals and landscape architects. This year marks the association’s 125th anniversary.
Sarah Woody Bibens, the association’s executive director, said the trade show gives horticulture professionals a chance to network, share business ideas and learn about new products and plants. New plants are a big deal at the trade show: They’re even paraded down a runway in a plant “fashion show.”
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Woody Bibens says some companies cross-breed flowering plants such as hydrangeas “to get better colors or to get the blooms to stay on longer.” Others try to come up with plants that are hardier and more resistant to drought.
Garden Debut, a line of landscape plants from Oklahoma-based Greenleaf Nursery Co., displayed several new varieties of a pink and purple flowering shrub called crapemyrtle. The varieties — with names like Princess Lyla, Princess Jaden and Princess Zoey — were bred to be low-maintenance and drought-resistant, said Garden Debut representative Wes Lugas.
Plants that don’t require a lot of watering are becoming popular with local gardeners, said Mike Kromeich, who owns Northstar Garden Center in Liberty. Kromeich said recent hot, dry summers helped demand grow.
Kromeich said he goes to the trade show every year to catch up with friends in the industry and scope out new products. This year’s show featured vendors from 30 states in 200 booths, and not all of them focused on plants.
Missouri Mulch’s booth displayed trays of wood chips in an array of colors, from Crimson Red to Espresso Brown to Classic Black. Sales representative Tracy Stewart said the mulch is a byproduct of Independent Stave Co. in Lebanon, Mo., a leading manufacturer of white oak barrels used to age whiskey and wine.
The white oak that can’t be made into barrels is turned into food-grade mulch that’s guaranteed to be free from tree diseases, Stewart said.
Other booths showed off serious gardening gadgets: Think super-sharp garden shears, machines capable of rolling out hay bale-sized rolls of sod, and a $4,500 device that transfers plant seedlings from one tray of soil to another.
The machine, called the Punch’n Gro 2, was operated by Warren Ida of Tagawa Greenhouse in Brighton, Colo. Ida used a conveyor belt to place a tray of soil underneath a tray of tiny green petunia seedlings. With a swift motion, the Punch’n Gro 2’s long spikes pressed the seedlings into the soil, planting them neatly in the container below without damaging their delicate shoots or roots. Ida said that the machine transfers seedlings faster and more gently than human hands.
“One person can do 500 to 600 flats in an hour,” Ida said.
Next to the Punch’n Gro 2, Stacey Noble, a program representative for Philadelphia-based Burpee Home Gardens, showed off the company’s new hybrid tomatoes.
“SuperSauce is easily peelable,” Noble said, “and each tomato can grow up to 2 pounds. One tomato can fill an entire sauce jar.”
Burpee Home Gardens also offers a new pepper called Tangerine Dream that looks hot but tastes sweet. Noble said Burpee Home Gardens is targeting millennials who are passionate about growing their own food but don’t have a ton of space.
Space is a growing issue for gardeners of all ages, said Susan Mertz, marketing director for Ottawa-based Loma Vista Nursery.
“Our yards are shrinking,” Mertz said. “Used to be, suburban properties came with large yards.”
Many aging gardeners are also downsizing to smaller houses with easier-to-maintain patches of green. That’s driving up the popularity of columnar trees and other plants that don’t take up a lot of space.
Mertz, who was selected employee of the year by the association’s board of directors this year, said this year was a good one for the trade show and the local horticulture industry.
“Our economy is improving, so demand is up,” she said.
And on a frigid January day, the longtime gardener added, “it’s just nice to be around plants.”