What Greenhouse Growers Need To Know About Extending Retail Shelf Life

Keeping plants healthy at the retailer until they’re sold is often a challenge due to weather, staffing, water and light conditions. It’s even more of a challenge for outlets where selling plants is not the main part of their business.

The questions include: is there anything growers can do before the plants leave the greenhouse to extend shelf life? Do growers have a duty to educate experienced retailers about how to care for the plants on their shelves?

“I think growers do have a reason to care, and they have a responsibility, but it’s a conversation that’s been going on a long time, says Dr. Terri Starman, associate professor at Texas A&M University’s Department of Horticultural Sciences. “Even if growers feel that responsibility, they don’t often have the communication [with the retailer]. When they do have that communication, it’s proved to be successful,” she says. “You hear testimonials when you go to OFA and other events about how networking between the wholesaler and retailer pays off.”

The stakes are high for both growers and retailers, since they all benefit when customers have success with plants. Starman stresses that with such a perishable product, many people have bad experiences and never want to buy another plant, so providing a healthy product to start with as well as educating the consumer on its care are important first steps.

A Better Quality Plant Equals Better Profits

How does plant health affect the bottom line? Of course, producing top quality plants is important for the grower, whose reputation depends on providing a saleable crop. But beyond that, the payoff for growing a top-quality versus an average-quality plant is hard to quantify.

There is not a lot of data on this, Starman says. “For most of it, it’s just kind of intuitive – if you have a nicer quality product, you should be able to get more money.”

But studies on this are limited, she says, and a lot more needs to be done. There are different layers of markets: high-end independent garden centers, grocery stores and big box stores.

“Growers know what their market is and if they have the kind of market where they can grow really nice quality. Certainly some people who have the money want excellent quality, so they’re willing to pay for it and appreciate it. They will come back for more if it lasts a long time,” Starman says. “We all believe that anybody, no matter what their income level, would come back for more if they are successful with what they buy.”

How To Grow A Retail-Ready Plant

Giving plants adequate space in greenhouses so they get proper quality and quantity of light is extremely important when it comes to a high-quality versus a lesser-quality plant, Starman says. Make sure they are properly watered and fertilized as well, which sounds more obvious than it is.

“Right now we don’t know what proper watering and fertilizing is. We’re starting to get some research results that say holding back on water and fertilizer can actually make a better product; the plants are more adapted to adverse conditions in retail, and insects feed on them less. There is a lot of research that can be done in this area,” Starman says.

She cites a not-yet-published study one of her students at Texas A&M conducted recently on angelonia, in which the pots were watered at different moisture levels. “We looked at the shelf life and found the plants that received less water lasted just as long on the shelf, but they didn’t need to be watered as much at retail as the plants that received more water during production,” Starman says. “Plants given a lot of water during production continue to need it on the shelf.”

She says there have been other studies that show that reducing water and fertilizer in the last few weeks of production after the plant starts to flower will extend shelf life. The term for this process is hardening the plant for the market.

“That’s been done with potted chrysanthemums, poinsettias and some bedding plants, and most of the studies were done in the 1980s and 1990s. There hasn’t been much done since then,” Starman says.

Complicating Factors

Something over which growers have little control is that there are no standard conditions in the retail setting.

“What I’ve seen at some retail outlets is they just put plants on the shelf with the hard goods. Then you go to another venue and they’re out on the curb. At others, there are better conditions,” Starman says. “One of the most consistent things, however, is that plants don’t get watered properly.”

The lack of care can be costly. According to Dr. Charles Hall, holder of the Ellison Endowed Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M, shrinkage at the grower level is around 5 percent, but at the retailer level it is 19 percent.

Starman is striving to do more research in this area of plant health and has submitted a proposal for funding with other researchers at Texas A&M and Ohio State University. “There is so much that needs to be done, from trying to teach retailers what environment they need to have for plants to looking at how watering, fertilization and pest infestations affect shelf life. Part of our proposal is that after we get results from some of these studies we plan to get the information out – at all levels,” she says.

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