The Dreaded Return of Dracaena Spikes

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Plants Nouveau - Travel Gnome

I had to go to Home Depot this weekend to get a roll of concrete reinforcing wire to make some tomato cages for my son’s school vegetable garden. I asked for help to get the very heavy roll into the car, but I waited for 20 minutes and then decided to do it myself. Typical Home Depot experience for me here in Baltimore.

While I was there, as I always do, I took a stroll through the garden center. What did I see for the first time this spring?

You guessed it, my nemesis – dracaena spikes.

Only this time they were everywhere. I mean everywhere. And the selection of annuals was very disappointing. As I walked around searching for cool annuals to put in some mixed containers, I realized there were none. That’s not such a huge surprise, but there was a surprise.

Ready?

Most of the annuals were already in mixed containers. Cheap, plastic terracotta looking containers with my favorite combination of one red geranium, one blue verbena, one white petunia and you guessed it – smack dab in the middle – one generic, green dracaena spike. There were end caps full of them. There wasn’t much variation either except maybe a pink geranium instead of a red one.

Apparently, the buyers think people don’t have time to make their own containers. I’m sure that’s true, but while I was there two ladies asked where they could buy those “spiky, palm-like” things because they wanted to make their own containers.

They weren’t selling them separately. Perhaps they should.

Wait a minute. What am I saying?

Maybe they should stop growing plain old green dracaena spikes all together. That’s what I’m saying! Maybe they should be the leaders who teach shoppers at Home Depot about other spiky plants that make wonderful container companions.

Plants Nouveau - draceana hellDo the buyers even know others exist and that there’s not a law stating you must have a spiky green thing in the middle of every container?

Creativity is such a wonderful thing and mixed containers should be creative expressions of those who display them. If they are all alike, our neighborhoods will start to resemble Stepford communities.

My very good friend, Steve, is a buyer for Terrain at Styers. I was complaining to him on the phone the other day. Here’s what he had to say about dracaena spikes:

“The texture of grasses is pleasing in container combinations. This demand has been created and fueled for sometime by a plant whose name I will no longer say and will not carry (at Terrain). This is good because combinations need to evolve and (people need to) use other plants. There is a plethora of choices that are far superior, with much more interesting attributes than the plant whose name I will no longer say.”

He suggests to try these (instead of dracaena):

- Saccharum officinarum (sugar cane): Yes, this is sugar cane. A dynamic and vigorous grass with an unusual texture.

- Setaria palmifolia (palm grass): Check out the wide blades of this grass. Nicely textured and accordion-like.

- Pennisetum setaceum ‘Princess’ (red fountain grass): A very much-needed improvement over the traditional red fountain grass. Wide strappy blades are blood red as the summer sun intensifies and the modest height makes this one ideal.

Steve is trying to educate the staff and the customers of Terrain about exiting container options. He’s talking about spiky plants, really cool spiky plants that I bet no Home Depot shopper has ever seen. There’s a reason we also have independent garden centers. You usually can’t find the cool stuff at Home Depot. Not usually. I do find things occasionally, but not very often.

Plants Nouveau - AnnualsSo I thought this crappy, generic container thing was just at Home Depot until I drove to Harrisburg and back on Thursday to fetch some of the newest Echinacea selections from Arie Blom of AB-Cultivars. I’ll be planting them in the trial gardens this weekend to evaluate their blooms and growth habits and to make sure they overwinter with ease.

On my way home, I stopped at a large garden center (who will remain nameless) to check out their annual selection. It was so great and varied I filled an entire shopping cart with odds and ends and some really cool stuff for my containers. A plethora, if you will. There was lots of cool stuff, at reasonable prices and most of it was in 3-4” pots, which I prefer for mixed containers.

In my initial excitement, I noticed some containers with canna lilies (Canna sp.) in the middle, replacing the dreaded dracaena spikes. I also noticed some New Zealand flax (Phormium sp.) and even elephant ears (Colocasia sp.) being used as well. I was so excited.

Until I got to the mixed container section…

There it was, looking me right in the eye. An entire table of 4”, green dracaena spikes. I know I let out a big sigh. I had to give them credit for selling them separately, so people could make their own containers. They had that on Home Depot.

They had loads of mixed containers, jam packed with gaudy color combinations and guess what? All but two, yes, that’s right, two out of about 50 mixed containers had a big ole’ green dracaena spike right in the middle.

Why are they never off to the side? At least that would mix it up a bit, but no…always in the middle.

I was impressed that someone tried something else. The two that didn’t have a spike had cork screw rush (Juncus decipiens). That was a pleasant surprise.

You know what?

Plants Nouveau - containerI just know if growers sold red dracaenas and smaller, cheaper New Zealand flax in 4” pots people would buy them too, so why is there no choice? It’s like there’s a mixed container uniform or a standard recipe.

That’s crazy.

There shouldn’t be a recipe. Is there a recipe for foundation plantings? Is there one that fits every home?

So, why is there one for mixed containers? Why can’t the people who assemble the pre-made containers for folks who are too busy give them some choices? People truly think this is all there is because they have not been presented with options.

I adore putting together containers. I do way too many and I curse myself each hot, dry summer when I spend way too much time watering. Choosing the colors and textures that make up my containers is like art. I know everyone isn’t as crafty as we plant weenies, but people who design the containers for people who don’t know how to do it should be setting much better examples.

Come on people!

It reminds me of the kids at my son’s school who wear what we call “the uniform”. To me, it looks like PJ’s, but they think they are so cool because they wear nothing but Under Armor sports wear to school each day. They all look the same. Oh, I know Under Armor works, but why can’t they wear real clothes to school? Are they working out all day? Why can’t they wear something unique?

It kills me to see my son afraid to wear his really cool soccer jerseys he’s collected from all over the world because he’s afraid he’s not cool like the other kids.

The other kids who look like they have their PJ’s on.

Are people afraid to make containers without spikes? If you must have a spike, try something else. Or, better yet, don’t use a spike at all. Go completely rogue. Challenge your neighbors to do the same.

While we’re at it, let’s challenge garden center container designers to make something unique. If garden centers sell something different, I know people will buy it. Ease them into it. Slowly remove the spikes and replace them with really cool stuff – even spiky stuff.

It’s not the spikes that bother me. It’s the fact that they are always green and in the middle of the pot.

My husband calls it an A-B split. Make some with spikes and some without and see what happens. I would love to know of a garden center that’s trying to do this. There’s got to be someone willing to introduce their customer to different things. Terrain is trying, but I have yet to see another garden center or home store in my area trying new things.

There are so many really cool plants out there. Shop the houseplant section. Spider plants are cool again! Crotons are cool again! Did you know they carry dracaenas in many colors and variations in the houseplant section and often times they come multiple plants to a pot, so you can divide them and use them in your containers? I love the variegated selections and buy them every year for my containers.

Plants Nouveau - Snake ContainerWhat I do not do is stick them in the middle.

Look at the cool, unusual stuff I found in my search for annuals.

We take way too much for granted. We assume everyone knows plants and we assume they know what’s out there. They would ask for it if they wanted it right?

WRONG!

If they don’t know it exists, they’ll never ask, so give them some variety and let them choose.

There’s a reason Baskin Robins is famous for its 31 flavors. It was the first ice cream place to offer people so many choices. They’ve been around for decades, yet they evolve more and more each year. They were the first…

If garden centers and home stores sold ice cream, they would only sell chocolate and vanilla, when they could be selling one of my favorites, Chunky Monkey or additional offerings. Maybe it’s time we start offering our version of 31 flavors.

Happy weeding!

Angela

Angela Treadwell-Palmer
President, Plants Nouveau