Horticulture: A Reason For Thanksgiving

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We all have heard the old saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Well, I think many of us can’t see our profession because we are only interested in one facet of this great industry.

This notion was brought home to me a few months ago when I read a garden design magazine. It showed how to create a meditation garden, a pharmaceutical garden, a service garden and a beauty garden, as well as an art garden.
 
There were many different plant species used that I had not seen before. I began to remember what I was taught at the university: There are so many plants on this earth that it would be impossible to learn all the genetics, physiology, pathology and uses of even a small percentage of them.
 
For some of us, it has taken a lifetime to master all the information we need to grow five or six species of plants for commercial production. Most of us spend our time producing large quantities of annual or perennial flowers, vegetables, grasses or woody ornamentals that we sell to homeowners to provide food and beauty around their homes or on small areas of land.
 
The article in the garden design magazine made me realize people garden for different reasons. Today’s garden centers have to acknowledge this and then see how great the demand is for each area.

Try Something New

In the Harvard Business Review for September 2003, the authors suggest that, to be a resilient business, you must learn how to repeatedly reinvent yourself and develop new strategies as circumstances change instead of just responding to a crisis. The article suggests cultivating this ability that depends on variety. Explore a wide array of ideas on a small scale. Companies should steer clear of grand, imperial strategies and devote themselves instead to launching a swarm of low-risk experiments.
 
So plant more seeds, get more ideas, capture the best and exploit that plant or garden idea. My advice has always been to try a lot of new ideas but fail quickly, and then implement the best ideas on a small scale. 
 
It is important you understand what the customer wants or needs before you try to give them the solution. Let me share one of my most memorable lessons in knowing what the customer wants before you give them the answer.
 
About 20 years ago, I was asked to visit a dairy farm to meet with the owner who wanted to put up a small greenhouse. Before the trip, I gathered all my articles about how to start a greenhouse business, the cost per square foot, all the equipment that was needed and how much he could make per square foot on his investment.
 
When I arrived at the farm, he welcomed me and I began to give him the information. He said, “I want to build a greenhouse that is 20 feet by 50 feet.” I said, “You’ll never make money on this venture.” 
 
He responded: “Son, I don’t want to make money on the greenhouse. I have a large dairy farm and I do quite well financially. But I have a problem. My wife is always interfering with my work. She bothers the help and disrupts the operation. I asked her what her hobbies were, and she said she would like a greenhouse so she could raise plants for our house and garden.
 
“Therefore, you are not here to help me build a greenhouse that is profitable. You are here to help me build a greenhouse that will keep my wife out of my dairy. I basically don’t give a darn about the price. Just get us something that can keep her busy growing flowering plants and vegetables.”
 
I think the greenhouse wound up costing him about $50 per square foot. The next time I saw him, he said it was the best investment he ever made. So you can see, even a dairy farmer can be thankful for horticulture. 

On The To-Do List

At Thanksgiving, I am always thankful for horticulture and the people who work in this profession. Together, we have achieved great advancements in producing and marketing our products.
 
But our job is never done, and we have a chance over the next 10 to 20 years to solve some of our production problems. Here is a list of discoveries I feel would be of great value to our industry:
 
1. Find the gene that controls flowering so we can have a given species in flower any time.
 
2. Find the gene that controls vernalization, so vernalization will not be needed.
 
3. Find the gene or genes that control ethylene formation so we can extend flower life.
 
4. Find the genes that will make plants resistant to our major diseases and insects so we can work toward pesticide-free production. If we knew these answers, perhaps we could develop the following products and make millions with them:
 
1. A day-neutral chrysanthemum
 
2. An Easter lily that flowers without a cold period
 
3. A day-neutral poinsettia
 
4. A seed geranium that does not shatter and does not get Xanthomonas campestris pv. pelargonii
 
5. A lily that does not shed pollen
 
6. Geraniums, marigolds and vinca that are not affected by high or low pH
 
I’m sure you could add to this list with production problems you presently face. Sure, you can say, it’s easy to list the problems, but they are hard or impossible to solve. It reminds me of a little story I read in the April 2009 Bits and Pieces that was adapted from Mike Wills’ Learning Services website, titled “Theory vs. Action.”
 
A grasshopper went to the old owl, who was the wisest and oldest leader in the forest, for advice on surviving winter. The owl listened and said, “It is simple. Change yourself into a cricket and hibernate.” However, the grasshopper soon came back complaining he couldn’t change. The owl shrugged and said, “I supply the strategy. It’s up to you to implement it.”
 
During this month of Thanksgiving, I hope you will take time to think about the millions of people on this earth who are starving. Thousands of people starve every day  because they have no food to eat.
 
There are so many in our country who go to bed hungry. I want to share with you a story of help for the poor and hungry in my state of Michigan. 
 
In inner city of Detroit, the children get few or no fruits and vegetables to eat. They eat a lot of junk food. That is because there are no stores in the very poor areas that carry fresh fruits and vegetables. In one of these areas, they started a community garden, and it has helped a small part of the neighborhood have fresh produce available.
 
One woman said, “If the people can’t come to the garden, we will take the produce to them.” She got an old truck with shelves and painted it on the outside with the name of her group, “Peaches and Greens.”
 
She developed a route and rang her bell. People came from their buildings and shopped in the truck for vegetables from the community garden plus fruits and some vegetables from the growers’ farm market. It works! The people now have access to fresh produce. This model is such a success that it is being tried in other Michigan cities.
 
There are solutions to the hunger problems. Let’s solve them in the United States and then take that model to other countries.

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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