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How to Plant Bestselling Combinations

Brian Bourdon

Combination plantings are more popular than ever.  They’re a win-win for home gardeners – offering instant beauty and color in a take-home package.  But how do growers create the combinations customers love, and produce them as efficiently as possible?

We asked Brian Bourdon, Four Star’s Offsite Manager and Product Line Manager, who has created hundreds of popular combinations.  He recommends growers consider each of these elements:

  • Variety selection
  • Growing requirements
  • Sun or shade
  • Container size and type
  • Design elements

Variety Selection is Key

This cheerful analogous combination — Good Morning — mixes SUNSATIA® BLOOD ORANGE™ Nemesia, BRIGHT LIGHTS™ Yellow Osteospermum and SUPERTUNIA® Honey Petunia.

A healthy, vigorous combination pleases home gardeners, so selecting the right plants to grow together is the first priority. 

“Make sure the varieties have similar vigor ratings,” Bourdon says.

Vigor ratings show the growth characteristics, so it is easy to match plants with compatible vigor.  For instance, Bourdon notes growers would not match a high vigor variety with a low vigor one – the more aggressive variety would take over.  

Another important quality to match in a combination is cultural compatibility, Bourdon advises.  “Make sure the varieties have the same growing requirements, such as lighting, nutrients, growing temperatures, the same environment. Also, pay attention to soil pH, but if they’re all between 5.8 and 6.2, they should be fine.”

He explained that this approach simplifies production and ensures that the plants are more efficient and easier to grow together.  Four Star’s 2018 Plants & Programs Catalog includes “We grow well together” graphics in the Annuals section, which show varieties that make beautiful combinations and also have similar lighting, temperature and water requirements.

Combinations destined for full or mostly sunny areas do best with sun- and heat-loving varieties, while combinations for shady areas need those shade lovers. Avoid mixing varieties requiring full sun with full shade, because some of those varieties will never grow to their best.

Combinations for shade continue to grow in popularity, and Bourdon recommends several shade-loving varieties for their beauty and versatility: Infinity® and Ruffles™ New Guinea Impatiens, Snowstorm® Sutera/Bacopa, Laguna™ & Lucia® Lobelia, and Surefire®, Dragon Wing®, Nonstop® and Illumination® Begonia.

Match Plants to their Containers

Upright combinations become even more dramatic with mixed textures, beautiful colors and designer containers.  Frosted Watermelon combines ARTFUL® FIRE AND ICE® Caladium, DIAMOND FROST® Euphorbia and SUNPATIENS® Compact Deep Rose Impatiens for great effect. 

Everything from humble 10-in. plastic baskets to expensive designer containers are available for today’s home gardeners.  These consumers are willing to pay well for stunning plantings in decorative containers.  That’s why it’s worth spending time planning your combinations carefully to match their containers.

“I have seen growers grow one plant of each color in a 10-in. container to keep costs down,” says Bourdon. “But it will really take a long time for them to size up and be ready for market, and they won’t blend well to have a good appearance.  It’s important to use the right number of plants for the container, to make sure your combinations are ready for market.”

“Our Bundled Combination Kits make life easy for our customers,” he adds. “They are easy to order because you order by the combination. Each kit has one tray of each variety so there are enough plants to produce good looking baskets. The sorting labels on the trays tell which combination each tray is for, so it’s easy for the grower. The kits also have all the combination tags needed.”

For upright containers, the basic formula is “Thriller, filler and spiller.”  This works well to create drama and balance the look of the container, especially since there are so many varieties of thrillers, fillers and spillers available that work well together.  The hard part is choosing which plants to use.

“We started out using a lot of grasses, Karalee® & Stratosphere™ Gaura and Angelface® Angelonia as thrillers for our upright containers, but now we’re getting more creative and using new varieties,” notes Bourdon.  “We’re moving into tropical plants and things like Dahlightful® Dahlia, Colocasia, ferns, Croton, banana plants, Sansiveria, and others. They give each upright combination a unique look.”

Get Creative with Design

Color is a priority with many consumers, and creating several color options should satisfy almost all buyers. 

Classic color wheel schemes like monochromatic, analogous (e.g., yellow, orange and red), complementary (e.g. blue and orange) and triadic (e.g. blue, red and yellow) each have appeal. 

Creating combinations with pastel or primary colors, or a mix of those takes these schemes to the next level.  Other ideas include combining seasonal colors (e.g., pastels for spring), using dramatic contrasts (e.g. purples with yellows), mixing holiday colors (e.g., orange with black), and trying combinations related to events (e.g. whites for weddings, local team colors, etc.).  The possibilities are endless!

Bourdon says the next decision to make is whether to plant similar plants (like all Supertunia® Petunia or all Superbells® Calibrachoa varieties) or different ones together (e.g. Supertunia Petunia, Superbena® Verbena and Snowstorm Sutera/Bacopa).  “With different varieties, you’ll get more contrast in the texture of flowers and foliage.”

Four Star growers use planting diagrams like these to create combinations that grow full and are ready for market.

He also recommends thinking about the growing habit and flower placement.  Many combinations look best when they are symmetrical, yet asymmetrical ones can be stunning.  “Some asymmetrical combinations are like flower arrangements,” Bourdon says.

Four Star’s growing team has been creating hundreds of combinations for years, and has learned that creativity is important.  “We try to involve our growing team,” Bourdon explains. “We tell them to make up what they want using new varieties.  We finish them out and flag our favorites – the winning grower then gets to name it.  Don’t be afraid to try different plants together. That’s how we came up with some of our coolest combinations!”

Planting Makes Perfect

Once the planning is done, the planting configuration is important.  “We’ve developed planting diagrams for all our combinations at Four Star,” adds Bourdon. “There are basic diagrams suited to different types of containers, as well as recipes for specific combinations.  These include both symmetrical and asymmetrical plantings.”

Four Star’s production department depends on these diagrams to guide them in placing enough plants in each container, in the right spot. Bourdon explains, “The diagrams show all kinds of options, from 2 varieties/2 plants per pot to 5 varieties with a thriller, based on the size of the container and varieties used.”

What to Grow in 2018

Looking for tried and true combination baskets?  Four Star tracks real-life retail sales data annually on our combination baskets. Contact us for the list of 2017’s best-selling baskets as you plan for 2018.

Want more combination ideas? There are nearly 300 tested and selected combinations available in the Bundled Combination Kits. Each kit includes all the liners and tags needed to grow 42 beautiful combination baskets. Learn more here

Follow Four Star’s culture recommendations to grow and finish varieties for combinations, or contact our grower team for more information at 734-654-6420 or