The Right Plants For Value-Added

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Rob O'Hara

Over the past few years our operation has seen a steady increase in sales of our value-added division. You may be wondering about my definition of value-added. In our operation, any plants potted into a decorated pot or put into a combination and sold to the customer as a new item are value-added. This could be a simple, upgraded ceramic pot with a four- or six-inch flowering plant dropped into it, or a multiple plant combination, such as an Easter lily along with two flowering potted plants and some foliage.

I admit that there were days when I hated the word “value-added.” I believed that you should be able to grow a plant and have the plant sell itself, without all the fancy designer stuff to dress it up. The thought that I would spend energy growing a beautiful poinsettia only to see someone come along and spray paint it purple or green went against all of my beliefs.

After some long, hard internal battles, I began to realize that value-added can be the marketing tool that helps sell our plants. Once I was on board with the program, I had to figure out the tricks to growing crops specifically for this market.

Here are some of the planning and growing tips that I can pass on:

Timing: Most of our value-added items center on the holidays, so in most cases you only have a one to two week window to have the crops ready. There will be multiple items when you are growing for a planter, so give yourself extra grow time on everything. This ensures you have room for crop issues or bad weather.

Check the status of the crop regularly; one week off can cause serious issues, and if there are problems with the crop, corrective measures need to happen rapidly.

Always take good notes of the crop time for future reference, as this will be a valuable tool for future years.

Variety Selection: When I sit down to plan a crop for our value-added sales, I have to make sure that I select the right varieties. I need to choose plants that can handle the abuse they will take once moved from the greenhouse to our value-added line.

This is where plants get squished and mushed together to fit into a container. From a plant’s perspective it would be pretty stressful, so I try to select varieties that can handle this kind of stress. They need to have strong stem structures and root systems to survive the planting process.

During this process, talk to the breeders to find out which of their series are best suitable for this use. When I am using poinsettias, for example, I like to look for the varieties that have a slightly smaller bract, as this will reduce the risk of it getting bruised by the other plants around it. When selecting plants like cyclamen, I go for a variety with smaller leaves and flowers, as they tend to hold up better once the item hits the retail shelf. If it’s a kalanchoe, I go for the doubles with flowers that last weeks longer than some of the singles.

Growth control: This is one of the trickiest aspects of growing any crop, and it is even more so for a value-added planter or upgrade. Take our Easter planters for example. We have an Easter lily, two flowering plants and some tropicals in one pot. It all has to fit together, so height control is essential. If the Easter lilies are 30-inches tall, the planter will not look good. Conversely, if the other items are too small, they won’t fill up the container, and we will have to add another plant.

The best way to avoid height or plant size issues is to pay attention to detail, find out what the target range should be from your design team and track the crop closely, so you can make corrective procedures along the way. I have even sprayed some plants with Fascination to get more height out of them, while drenching the plants on the next table with Bonzi to slow down the growth. All this needs to happen in order to get everything to the desired size.

Plant health: As with every plant you sell, you want it to be the healthiest possible. This also stands true for a plant-up or value-added destined crop. The difference is that if one plant dies in a multi-plant planter, it will ruin the entire item. You end up crediting the four or five other plants and the cost that goes with the planting and hard goods.

Root systems are the most important part of the health of any plant, and taking care of them is crucial for the longevity of the planter. I like to use preventative drenches of RootShield or Actinovate during the growing period to give the plants the best chance to develop a healthy root system. Those products will continue to work once the plants
are transplanted.

At the time of planting, we inspect every root system and discard the ones that don’t look healthy. We used to consider the value-added division a place to put the grade outs, but that is no longer true. The value-added items need the highest-grade plants to produce a beautiful product. We need to supply the best quality possible to make great planters.

Planning: I saved the best for last. Planning takes a huge collaborative effort from our sales team, design staff, growing team, hard goods purchasers and, last but not least, the hard-working people that put it all together. Without a system to work through all the channels, it would be a disaster.

For us, this is an ongoing challenge, but the key ingredient to all of it is time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and planning begins at least one year in advance to get a value-added planter from design to reality. For example, a cyclamen grown for a planter needs about a 26-week lead time just to get the plant growing, so that means the ideas and sales would have to be done well ahead of that.

The horticulture industry is forever changing, and this direction is one that I feel is a good one. We have had to take our products and make them appealing to a wider customer base and adding value to indoor flowering and foliage crops is a great idea. We have seen our sales in this area going up, and we continue to grow more crops that are destined for upgrades.

Rob O’Hara (rohara@rainbow.ca) is head grower at Rainbow Greenhouses in British Columbia, Canada.

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