Plant Nerd Night kicks off Oregon gardening year. What will the hot plants be in 2023?

In early March of 2020, Plant Nerd Night, the unofficial official start of the gardening year, was one of the last large, indoor events before the state was shut down for COVID-19.

Three very long years later, it’s back with the same lineup of heavy horticultural hitters and the same congenial host, Mike Darcy.

But there are a few changes as well.

The event, always standing room only, has moved to a larger location, the Lake Oswego High School Auditorium.

Also, even though it’s still called Plant Nerd Night, it begins in the afternoon (2 p.m.) this Sunday.

And, Darcy insists, it’s no longer the unofficial official season opener.

“It’s official,” he said. With a lot of help from the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, “it’s turned into the first major plant/garden event of the year.”

Of course, after a wild three years in the nursery business, some changes seem almost inevitable.

Bright red, purple and yellow flowers bloom from hardy cacti at Cistus Design Nursery

Assorted hardy cacti at Cistus Design Nursery.Marcia Westcott Peck

Unlike some segments of the Oregon economy, such as restaurants and movie theaters, the nursery industry thrived in 2020 and 2021, enjoying some of its best years.

Being classified as an essential business by the state didn’t hurt.

“We were able to remain open with safety protocols in place,” said Leonard Foltz of Dancing Oaks Nursery and Garden in Monmouth. “People were spending money in the back yard” instead of on vacations.

In addition to staying open, after an initial bit of panic, nurseries adjusted as well.

“At the beginning, like everyone, we were worried,” Cistus Design Nursery’s Sean Hogan said of his Sauvie Island operation. “But we were allowed to stay open and mail order purchasing grew exponentially.”

Hogan’s experience mirrors that of Kristin VanHoose of Hydrangeas Plus in Aurora.

“The demand for plants was incredible,” she said, calling 2021 “our best year since before the recession,” in large part because of exploding online sales.

Online sales played a part in the West Linn-based Rogerson Clematis Garden’s pandemic years as well.

“We developed the online ordering system we still use today,” collection curator Linda Beutler said.

At Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, Wash., Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken took what Dodson called the “responsible but risky” action of closing down their in-nursery operation and relied solely on mail orders. And now, they have no intention of reopening the onsite operation.

It wasn’t just the growers who had success. Larger operations had big years as well.

“We were able to acquire new customers, and customers were spending more on average,” said Mark Bigej of Al’s Garden and Home, which operates centers in Sherwood, Woodburn, Gresham and Wilsonville.

In fact, those customers, along with some warmer-than-usual weather, led to record sales for Al’s in 2020 and 2021.

And while no one was predicting financial windfalls when the pandemic began, it wasn’t the only thing nobody saw coming.

Supply chain problems initially caught some growers off-guard.

“I was surprised by the shortages and drastic price increases,” VanHoose said.

Hogan echoed that, saying surprises came “one after the other, such as supply issues like actually having containers makes it so much easier to grow” plants.

Dealing with new gardeners led to some unforeseen issues for Dancing Oaks’ Foltz.

“There was a lot more education time both on the phone and in person,” he said. “Occasionally, they expected a 100% guarantee on the life of the plant.”

And while Bigej, like the others, said he was “very surprised by the record-setting financial impact on us,” there were a few unexpected non-monetary benefits as well.

For example, at Rogerson, the unexpected actually had wings.

“What surprised us was the new species of birds venturing into the garden because fewer people were around,” Beutler said. “We saw the first lazuli buntings fly into the garden from a nearby wetland in 2020.”

And at Far Reaches, the surprise was the newly realized free time.

With their onside retail sales shuttered, Dodson and Milliken suddenly had time to go hiking in the mountains which, Dodson said, “we never could have done when we were open at the nursery.”

In their case, it was a surprise that became the new norm.

Plant Nerd Night

Linda Beutler and Mike Darcy at the Rogerson Clematis Garden in 2017.Marcia Westcott Peck

“We’re not giving up our hiking,” Dodson said. Instead, they will continue to rely on online orders and will remain “generally closed,” with occasional group tours and visitors.

While everyone expects the gardening fever of the last few years to cool off, no one knows just how much.

“What percentage of those that dabbled in the joys of gardening will become lifelong, passionate growers?” Foltz asked.

Bigej expects a falloff as people return to spending on things other than home improvement and gardening, but he remains optimistic.

“Our customer base has expanded,” he said, “and the interest in gardening is stronger than it was in the past.”

Hogan has similar expectations but isn’t about to put a timeframe on them.

“I keep expecting both plant buying and design requests to slow,” he said. “But so far, that hasn’t happened.”

Plant Nerd Night emcee Darcy, a veteran of both TV and radio gardening shows, thinks he knows why.

“People have been cooped up for so long,” he said. “They are chomping at the bit to get out to try new plants.

What will the hot plants be in 2023?

Clematis flowers in red and white

Rogerson Clematis Garden will feature ‘Spark’, with vivid deep pink flowers and a 14-16-week period of bloom, beginning in mid-late May.Rogerson Clematis Garden

Sean Hogan, owner, Cistus Design Nursery: “Other than the ones that happen to be in front of me, I can think of a few. People are really getting into the western and evergreen oaks, and other climate-adapted trees. Once upon a time we would have to convince the skeptical customer that it doesn’t rain in the summer. Now we have so many requests for plants that are gorgeous, and we can grow because of the dry summer — manzanitas, ceanothus, cork and silver oaks, native iris species and mediterraneans like phlomis, olives with good provenance, cyclamen, and hardy succulents. Hardy agaves, yuccas and good forms of prickly pear are also very popular. People seem to understand more about the best plants (and forms of them) for our climate and I get far fewer wrinkled noses when talk of hardy cacti comes up.”

Linda Beutler, curator, Rogerson Clematis Collection: “White, large-flowered clematis are perennial favorites. We have trouble keeping whites in stock. Red is consistently popular, and we are increasingly impressed with breeder Raymond Evison’s ‘Evipo059′ Nubia, which is strawberry red. People are always asking for a clematis that will flower all summer. Of course they mean large-flowered hybrids, and none of them, not a one, can flower all summer. It just isn’t in their genetics. The clematis that CAN flower all summer are non-climbing, bred from herbaceous perennial species. We will be featuring one of these at Plant Nerd Night (Afternoon) 2023, the delightful ‘Spark’, with vivid deep pink flowers and a 14-16-week period of bloom, beginning in mid-late May. The non-climbing clematis are foolproof, more heat tolerant, and simple to maintain. And beautiful.”

Leonard Foltz, co-owner, Dancing Oaks Nursery and Garden: “Waterwise plants will continue to grow in popularity, but collector plants that can be curated in a few spots of special interest will always be in demand. The native waterwise plants such as arctostaphylos, eriophyllum and epilobiums and assorted dryland native and exotic bulbs will be popular. The dedicated breeding of the new Chick Charms sempervivums by Salem plant breeder Kevin Vaughn are finally becoming available in sufficient numbers. Their winter colors and mature size are phenomenal and must be seen to be believed.”

Kelly Dodson, co-owner, Far Reaches Farm: “A lot of our plants are rarities always in short supply so they are always sought after, but one highly ornamental plant that we are seeing interest continuing to peak in is the oyster leaf, or Mertensia maritima. A circumpolar plant of northern coastal shores, this is wild-crafted as an edible for its succulent blue-green leaves that taste delicately of raw oysters. A great vegetarian alternative. This has gained a following among high-end trendy restaurants looking for something both different and beautiful on a plate. In the garden, this perennial will do great in half sun to light shade where its trailing stems of striking leaves are complemented by the small, sky-blue flowers. These will be at Nerd Night.”

Kristin VanHoose, owner, Hydrangeas Plus: “I’m not sure about the ‘hot’ new cultivar of hydrangea this year. The market is flooded and consumers are confused already. As am I! I suspect the trend will be more toward the paniculata varieties because they don’t require as much water. Water restrictions in California are really going to impact the sale of macrophylla. Other states will likely follow.”

Mark Bigej, co-owner, Al’s Garden & Home: “Growing your own food has been a trend that continues to be popular, and with fresh food prices increasing and the availability of fresh produce declining at times, we see that as a great opportunity for people to grow their own fresh edibles. We anticipate people who haven’t grown their own edibles in the past to give it a try as well as people familiar with edible gardening to expand what they usually grow. Eating fresh out of your garden is healthy, the flavors are so much better than store-bought produce, it can be more economical and to top it all off — it’s rewarding. We see more and more people coming to this realization and growing more of their own edibles.”

Mike Darcy, host, Plant Nerd Night: “There’s more concern about the environment. Pollinator plants are high on people’s lists, are good for native insects and require less spraying.”

Plant Nerd Night

Mike Darcy will emcee Plant Nerd Night on March 5.Marcia Westcott Peck

When: Sunday, March 5, 2 p.m. (doors open at 1 p.m.)

Where: Lake Oswego High School auditorium, 2501 Country Club Road

Admission: Free

Note: Masks are optional

Presenters: Cistus Design Nursery, Dancing Oaks Nursery and Garden, Far Reaches Farm, N&M Herb Nursery, Sebright Gardens, Rogerson Clematis Garden.

— Dennis Peck, for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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