Two Head Growers and a Retail Live Goods Buyer Talk Best Practices for Quality

Quality is the standard to which all crops are judged, whether it’s by your own expectations, your retail buyer’s requirements, or the end consumer’s satisfaction. Ultimately, the quality of the plants you grow will be responsible for the success of the consumer, and consumer success will ideally translate to repeat sales.

That’s why quality must be a top priority for all growers, according to Brad Julian, a Live Goods Buyer for Lowe’s Home Improvement, and Head Growers Dennis Crum of Four Star Greenhouse and Joe Moore of Lucas Greenhouses.

Quality is a Way of Life

It’s easy for anyone to say they grow quality crops, but quality is something that growers have to live, with buy-in from the whole team — not just print on a business card, according to Crum.
“You have to have an honest commitment to quality, a legitimate philosophical belief that you want to do the best job you possibly can,” Crum says. “That starts with the people sticking the cuttings or transplanting liners, all the way to the shippers who are pulling orders. It’s got to be from start to finish, employing people who really take ownership and get personal self worth out of being part of growing a product that has a good reputation, that looks good, and that customers are happy with.”

Julian says he expects the owners of the grower operations he works with to be engaged in and drive the quality process at their operations, to ensure that consumer success is the focus from the very start of production.

“I ask them to follow a product from seed to the trunk of somebody’s car,” Julian says. “Better yet, follow it all the way to their home. Talk to customers, get out in the stores and wait on customers. Do focus groups and understand what customers are going through. By and large, we have found that their biggest concern is fear of failure, particularly with Millennial customers, and a lot of that starts with quality. If you’re not delivering quality, they’re going to fail, and they’re going to opt out of gardening.”

When costs are high and labor is tight, and growers are struggling just to get product out the door, that’s when corners often get cut. But instead, growers need to double down on quality to stay competitive, Julian says.

Moore adds that once your crops leave a grower’s facility, you may feel like you can no longer control the conditions they’re in, but you’re more likely to maintain crop quality at retail if you focus on giving them a little extra care before they ship.

“The best way that we can help the condition of the plants at retail, and ultimately in the garden, is to have them at the peak of nutrition and plant tone when they arrive at the retailer,” Moore says. “It’s real easy to cut the feed off at the end of the crop and cut a few corners that won’t be apparent at time of ship; however, problems can become very apparent shortly after shipping, which doesn’t do any favors at all for the end consumer.”

Julian says retailers should do their part to help with quality, as well, starting with providing accurate forecasts to growers, not just for immediate needs or the upcoming season, but for one or two years ahead.

“If you want a grower to be good at what they do, you have to deliver a forecast so they can plan, and if there’s good planning, you’re going to have good quality,” he says.

Practical Growing Guidelines for Quality

Crum and Moore offer the following tips for growing the highest quality material.

  1. Start with good genetics. Select high-quality, clean plant material that’s proven itself in field and grower trials.
  2. Sweep, pressure wash, and disinfect each greenhouse after every crop, including curtains, roofs, posts, and irrigation booms and lines. Sanitize all benches, floors, and equipment before you bring in a new crop.
  3. Test all equipment and let it run for a day, at least for a week or two before you receive live inputs or young plants. This will allow you time to address any issues before production begins.
  4. When you receive cuttings, scout material and test samples for diseases and pests, especially for the crops most prone to the horticultural economic impact viruses like TMV, INSV, etc.
  5. Begin any early crop protection treatments immediately, based on the customized needs of each crop.
  6. Before sticking cuttings, separate by source, genera, and variety, and change gloves before sticking each crop. Lay them down separately to grow.
  7. Scout liner crops to keep insects and disease in check, and give plants the necessary temperature control needed. “The main difference from liner transplant to the prefinished stage is that different soil temperatures and air temperatures are needed for different crop species,” Moore says.
  8. If you use biocontrols, begin your regimen as soon as your cuttings, liners, or prefinished plants arrive.
  9. When receiving liners or prefinished plants, follow the culture guides provided by breeders and young plant growers. Develop an action plan for each crop and train your staff accordingly.
  10. Be sure to use the best media and fertilizer blends, customized for your crops, and provide the proper environmental and light requirements.
  11. Transplant liners with the same care as sticking cuttings, changing gloves after each variety for the most disease- prone crops, and laying them down to grow separately.
    Scout finished crops daily to keep an eye on pest, disease, and nutritional issues.

Shipping Quality Plants

Before you pull plants for shipping, Moore, Crum, and Julian recommend you look for the following dos and don’ts.

  • Check quality in the greenhouse or field first, and only select plants matching customer specifications including size, color, stage, etc. Know your customers’ needs and don’t send anything “shaky.”
  • Don’t pull product any earlier or leave on carts any longer than absolutely necessary.
  • Follow ag best practices and don’t ship anything with pest or disease issues.
  • Be sure plants are toned properly and can handle shipping and the retail environment. Make sure the plant has plenty of feed/controlled-release fertilizer in the pot to support plant health for several weeks post ship.
  • Master your product flow — don’t ship more product than a store can handle.
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