Growing Younger, Growing For Green
Northwest Horticulture is undergoing phenomenal expansion with its availability of new plug sizes, new rose varieties and selling to new markets.
September 11, 2008
Young plants have gained an edge at Northwest Horticulture. The large, Washington-based producer, which used to dedicate half of its production to finished plants and half to young plants, is now 55 percent young plants and 45 percent finished. The reason for the change in production is the growth of Northwest Horticulture's 24-cell big plug program for perennials, roses and grasses, which has led the grower to install 10 acres of greenhouses and a 2-acre shipping area at its Mt. Vernon, Wash. facility. The expansion was completed March 1.
Ten of the new greenhouses are dedicated to propagation and the remainder are for finishing and vernalizing plugs for spring shipment. The shipping area allows for a capacity of 36 trucks on site and loading 12 trucks per rotation.
The new 24-cell plug size replaces the 3-inch size, the patented Etera liner, which was discontinued about three years ago. The larger plug size is popular for rose liners, as well as perennials, grasses and groundcovers. Recently, there has been a trend of growers purchasing smaller perennial plugs in the fall for overwintering and larger plugs in the spring for quick turns, says Bruce Gibson, Northwest Horticulture's general manager.
"We have seen some growth in units, but the perennial market is relatively flat in sales dollars due to downsizing," Gibson says. "We have seen both sizes developing. There is more pressure in the middle, for example less interest in a 72- or 50-cell, but more interest in a 200-cell or even smaller. For reasons of short cropping and specific applications, the demand for something that's bigger, like a 24-cell or an 18-cell, is growing, as well."
Gibson adds that while finished perennial production seems to be growing, it's mostly at larger growing operations, while smaller growers are realizing perennials aren't as profitable as in years past, which is the natural evolution of a maturing market.
"Overall, the perennial market appears to be somewhat flat for propagators," Gibson says. "Herbaceous perennials, according to USDA 2006-2007, is down 2 percent. We have to characterize this market as flat, at best. The way we deal in the finished portion of our market, it tends to act more like a mature market than it did 10 years ago. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you're expecting growth out of nowhere, it's less likely to occur."
A Rosy Outlook
Northwest Horticulture's partnership as the largest rose propagator for Conard-Pyle contributes greatly to the success of its rose liner program, accounting for nearly 40 percent of Northwest Horticulture's business. Richard Gigot, director of sales and marketing, says the interest in the Knock Out family from consumers, as well as landscapers for residential and commercial landscaping, has fueled the growth of shrub rose varieties as a category, and by extension, the rose liner program at Northwest Horticulture.
"Our sales and marketing partnership with Conard-Pyle and Star Roses has expanded the 4-inch rose liner program dramatically," Gigot says. "We have grown every one of the Knock Out varieties for Conard-Pyle, its licensees and the general market."
Recently two of the much-anticipated Knock Out varieties, 'Double Pink Knock Out' and 'Sunny Knock Out' have been released for general production for the 2009 season and are available in Northwest Horticulture's patented 4-inch rose liner. Two new landscape rose varieties, 'Carefree Celebration' and the 2009 All-America Rose Selections winner 'Carefree Spirit,' have also been added to Northwest Horticulture's offerings. The quick turn 4-inch liner planted in early spring (January to April) will finish a 1-gallon in eight to 10 weeks and a 2-gallon by late spring or early summer.
"There is a lot of demand for Knock Out roses in plugs, but as growers look to having a quicker turn and because of the higher dollar value of the rose at retail, we've seen a lot of demand in the 4-inch liner, as well," Gigot says. "We've always had the 4-inch liner, but with the Knock Out trend and more people wanting to grow it, the ease of growing and same-season finishing for that 4-inch liner has been a major part of the demand for the product."
Growing For Green Roofs
Sedum has always been a huge crop for Northwest Horticulture. So with its nearly 30 varieties, the grower was well-poised to expand its sedum offerings to cater to a new market: green roofs.
"We are positioned to take advantage of the market out there," Gigot says. "We have added 15 acres of stock to our sedum capacity because we're starting to see the demand."
As green roofs have become a phenomenon in large cities and an integral part of green building, Gigot says this market clearly has growth potential for growers willing to be flexible.
"I just read an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about how buildings are being given a role in saving Puget Sound. The article discussed controlling runoff, which was cited as the biggest pollution threat to the health of Puget Sound," Gigot says. "This appears to be potentially a major development in our Seattle market, and we already know Chicago has gone in that direction, New York has said it's going to go in that direction and Portland, Ore., and other cities will. The plant part of it tends to be the lowest cost portion of the roof, it's all the other technology with the roofing system that is higher cost. But what is seen, in the end, is the plants."
In addition to growers working on planting systems for green roofs, such as in the LiveRoofs nationwide network through Hortech, roofing and building companies also are developing their own systems and putting in orders for plants, Gigot adds. But beyond providing plugs or finished plants for these systems, Northwest Horticulture doesn't want to be involved, says Gibson.
"We are going to participate in the green roof movement by being the green in the roof," Gibson says. "As far as how it's planted and what format it goes to the roof, we're not concerned with that. We just want to supply the green. That may be sedums in bulk by the hundreds of thousands of pounds or it may be the plugs. We have good technology, good shipping ability and a significant amount of stock to accommodate large orders, so we are more interested in becoming a grower supplier than we are to participate in any jobs that might occur in any city."
Sedum is ideal for green roofs and approximately 98 percent of the inquiries Northwest Horticulture has received about plants for green roofs has been about sedum, Gibson says.
"Sedum is the overwhelming favorite for a lot of reasons," he says. "Some large jobs could have significant perennial plantings; however, overwhelmingly sedum is the dominant genus for the live roof application. Many other plants have been looked at but sedum's ability to endure drought and even excessive rainfall is such that many other plants, including perennials, just aren't equipped to do that."
The majority of green roofs being installed or planned today are also more industrial than aesthetic, Gigot says, so they are not the same as rooftop gardens or destinations.
"By and large, green roof installations are specific systems with proper drainage, designed to help reduce runoff, help energy conservation and reduce ambient temperatures in the city, and not meant to be toured as destinations," he says. "There are destination roofs out there. But live roofs ought not be confused with rooftop garden plantings."
Saving On Shipping
Now entering its third year using the Pallet Shipper program, Northwest Horticulture is realizing some real cost savings, not only for itself but also for customers. The Pallet Shipper system allows the operation to ship all eight of its rooted plug programs via pallets of 72 trays. Growers can order a single pallet or an entire truckload, delivered to their door, and save on freight costs, according to Gigot.
"By switching to the Pallet Shipper, it has allowed us to get more onto the truck," Gigot says. "We have had to pass on fuel surcharges and raise prices like everybody else, but it's allowed us to increase the count of items per pallet and per truck, so it's helped us minimize some of that."
Before implementing the Pallet Shipper program in 2006, Northwest Horticulture shipped all its young plants on carts, which was costly because carts are expensive and so is sending trucks back at the end of the season to pick them up, Gigot says. The Pallet Shipper saves that trip, plus it's made from recyclable material.
"We found that while a lot of growers like carts in the early spring, as they get busier, they want them out of there," Gigot says. "Add to that the cost of carts and getting them back. We needed to find an alternative."
Plants are just as healthy shipped on the Pallet Shipper as they are when shipped in carts, and the system allows Northwest Horticulture to cater to smaller but significant clients, which has been one of the biggest impacts the Pallet Shipper has had, Gigot says.
"The Pallet Shipper system allowed us to provide truck deliveries to two- and three-pallet customers, which are significant customers but we couldn't afford to send them a cart because it might be the only order they placed with us," he says. "Now, we can give them the delivery, give them the same advantage and don't have to go back to get the carts. That really substantiated our decision to change our shipping procedures. It really has paid off."
Laura Drotleff is a freelance writer based in Willowick, Ohio. She spent seven-plus years as an editor on Greenhouse Grower. Reach Drotleff at email@example.com.