Wenke Greenhouses’ Transparent Plug Treatments

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Wenke's new cultural information sheets explain what was done to these plants prior to shipping. The goal is to help customers know the best steps to take in finishing plants.

As a young plant producer, Wenke Greenhouses is dealing with an issue that’s increasingly important for growers purchasing plugs and liners: How can you make the best decisions for growing a crop if you don’t know exactly what’s been done to those plants before you receive them?

President Lisa Ambrosio says the Kalamazoo, Mich., operation is taking two steps to remedy that situation and help customers be more successful with the company’s young plants.

Q: What kind of information are you putting together for your plug and liner customers?

Ambrosio: We are in the process of creating information sheets this year. We have two versions.
One is designed for the grower who is getting the product so they will know more about what we did to the crop in producing it. For example, if we used growth regulators or insecticides on the crop, they will be aware of that and will know not to duplicate those treatments.
We will be putting a sheet in the box or with the packing slip so when the person receives the shipment, they have the information right there.

The other document we’re working on is more of a finishing guideline with some basic things to watch for when you’re growing that crop. We’re doing this for a couple of reasons. One, obviously, is to help the person who is scheduling the crop know what to do. But we think these will also be a benefit to the sales reps who often are helping schedule the crop or answering customers’ questions.

Q: Prior treatments seem like important information to have. How have your customers known in the past what was happening with the plants?

Ambrosio: I suppose it’s fair to say they have had to try and figure it out. We have always been happy to take people’s phone calls and share this information. But even though we ship lots of orders, few customers were calling. The majority were figuring it out on their own.

Q: Do most young plant growers make information like this readily available?

Ambrosio: In reality, I think it’s relatively unusual. From my knowledge, not many young plant growers provide this information.

I think growers have tried before but it’s difficult to keep track of that and give people accurate information. For example, the crop might change. During one time period you did one thing but during another time period you did something else.

We think that by putting this information together, we can be transparent about what we’re doing and to help people produce a better crop.

We also finish plants, and one of the things we have struggled with when we buy in product from other people is having too much growth regulator put on the crop. Here in the Midwest where we don’t see the sun during certain times of the year, it can be very difficult to grow under those circumstances. We found we use a lot less chemical growth regulators than other people, and we want to share that information.

Q: How detailed are you going to be with an individual crop as you kick off the program this year? How will you keep track of all this?

Ambrosio: I wish we could say we will have a sheet for each crop and each ship date. This first year we are going to go with a more standard listing. We will have different sheets for different time periods. We have an early season, a mid season and a late season in the spring growing season. I expect we will have a different set of sheets for different time periods.

We keep track of everything internally, so if someone needs to have more specific information, we can provide that.

Each sheet will document what’s been done to that plant. With impatiens, for example, we have a regime of different fungicides. We would list that schedule so the customer will know when the last crop protection material was put on that plant. If we applied something that might make the leaves look a little bit red, it would have information to explain why it looks the way it does.
We have gotten pretty good at having a recipe for these crops. If we have a situation where we have a hold for somebody, the standard treatment program probably wouldn’t be accurate anymore. Those plugs may have had an extra application of something and we’d have to note that on the sheets. But unless we have to hold a plug a lot longer than normal, we use a pretty consistent recipe.

Q: Are there benefits to your operation in addition to helping your customers?

Ambrosio: I think this will help our own internal knowledge. We’re doing the MPS certification so we’re really tracking ourselves. We’re trying to reduce our own chemical use and be more efficient in what we use. I think this helps complete the cycle a little bit. What’s the saying? “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” If nobody ever asks what you’re doing in the first place, you don’t start doing it better yourself.
I see it having some benefit for our own internal awareness and asking questions about whether we really need to do something, or if we can do it better.

Q: How about the finishing guidelines?

Ambrosio: These will be more standardized. For each crop, we’ll talk about the number of weeks we would expect it to grow, if you need to pinch it or not and how many plants to use per pot if you’re going to take these liners and put them into a hanging basket.

It’s funny — you would think this information would be readily available from a lot of places. To some extent it is, but it’s very variable information. Because we finish so much product ourselves, we think maybe our perspective on how we finish the crop will help somebody else. We have more experience with finishing our plugs and liners in our conditions versus a textbook with more generic information. We’re getting as specific as we can for our environment.

Our general strategy is to be as easy to do business with as we can. Part of that means being able to answer the questions people are asking. We’re hoping it will make it easier to do business with us because you know what you’re getting.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.
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