Surviving tough economic times is top of mind for Tim Landers (pictured at right), just as it is for many Americans in 2009.
“House plants aren’t something people require to survive,” says Landers, owner of Benchmark Foliage, Inc., in Plymouth, Fla. “People are hunkering down and doing without a lot of frills. Even corporations have cut back on their interiorscaping. So, we’ve reduced production a bit and followed cost-cutting measures, and I believe we’ll come through just fine.”
Still, foliage production has always been a labor of love for Landers. His interest in gardening dates back to eighth grade in his native Alabama, where he began helping his mother tend to her flower and vegetable beds. After receiving a degree in horticulture from Auburn University, he began working in nurseries across the Southeast, and he taught vocational horticulture to high school students for nine years.
Landers purchased Benchmark in 1995 and began growing a wide variety of foliage plants, including dieffenbachia, schefflera, ficus, crotons, Neanthe Bella palm, three varieties of peace lilies, 10 varieties of ferns and 20 ivy varieties. “We’re really big in ivy,” he says.
Producing on roughly 10 acres in 500,000 square feet of growing space, Benchmark grows strictly indoor foliage. One of Landers’ shade houses covers three acres, while two others encompass an acre and a quarter each. The company has 14 full-time employees, increasing to 19 or 20 during the height of the season.
“When you come down to it, we’re just farmers,” Landers says. “We don’t broker anything. Everything we sell, we grow. I’m FOB (Free On Board) at my front door. We supply mostly mom-and-pop garden centers and mom-and-pop florists, using brokers from Miami to California.”
Benchmark Foliage starts its crops in several different ways. In the case of dieffenbachia, Landers buys tissue culture plugs, grows them out and uses cuttings so they are always F1 generation. He buys croton cuttings from Costa Rica every week, roots them and grows them out to sell in several sizes.
His quickest turnaround is 3-inch ivy, which he roots and sells within 12 to 14 weeks. On the other hand, he grows Neanthe Bella palm from seed, selling some as 3-inch plants. He then bumps the remaining plants into larger pots to grow into an 8-inch crop, which can take longer than two years to harvest.
Insects & Disease
Perhaps Landers’ biggest challenge is dealing with insects and diseases in hot, humid Central Florida. In addition to spider mites, a problem on almost all of his crops, Landers fights thrips, mealybugs and a plethora of pathogens.
“I have the most headaches with ivy and crotons,” he says. “We spray pesticides year-round, but it’s definitely more concentrated in the spring and summer months.”
Though he rotates a catalog of pesticide products for resistance management, Landers always adds the same foliar surfactant to the tank mix. He started using CapSil spray adjuvant from Aquatrols with systemic pesticides or laminar spreaders to help move the product through the leaves of the plant. “CapSil really helps them spread through the leaves,” Landers says. “I’ve also used it as a spreader-sticker for products that don’t stick well to the leaves.”
In particular, crotons and palms have slick, shiny leaves, and it’s often hard to get a pesticide to stick to them.
“Anything you pour on croton leaves usually runs right off,” Landers says. “But if I add CapSil to the tank, the pesticide sticks to the leaves and spreads nicely for thorough coverage. If a product sticks well, it lasts longer and you don’t have to turn around and apply it again as quickly.
“It also saves water. I’ve seen a marked increase on how long I can go between pesticide sprays with CapSil.”
Especially during these trying economic times, anything that can help minimize the number of pesticide applications is a welcome addition to Landers’ growing program. After insect and disease control, his second biggest challenge is planning production. He’s seen a decrease in orders in the last few years, so gauging how much to plant is tricky.
“The good news is I haven’t lost any customers,” he says. “But when we are planting in the spring for fall production, it can be a bit of a guessing game. We have reduced production to a certain degree, but we don’t want to cut back too much. I’m basically optimistic things will improve.”
Traditionally, labor has been a problem, but it’s one thing that hasn’t been bad lately, according to Landers. “Some of my people have been here more than 10 years. I’m blessed to have such great group of employees,” he says.
Despite his optimism, Landers does worry about the future of the industry. “Gardening used to be the number one hobby in the United States,” he says. “Now, it’s the Internet. Kids don’t want to sweat and dig in the ground anymore. Where will the foliage industry leaders come from if no one has a love of growing plants?”