Increasing consumer success is the most important factor for growing our industry, says George Lucas, owner of Lucas Greenhouses. That’s why he is on a quest to produce plants that will perform. “As an industry, I often think we think too short term, what the plant looks like in the greenhouse,” he says. “But when customers buy that plant and put it in the ground and it doesn’t perform, eventually they will stop being customers. If it dies or consumers struggle with it, they won’t buy more. If it works, they’ll tell their friends. One of the good things about pay by scan is it forced growers to grow better stuff.”
Lucas and his growers conduct their own extensive trials and visit others to search for the best plants. This was the second year Syngenta Flowers held its summer field day at Lucas Greenhouses and about 150 visitors came through. The location ties in nicely for those visiting Penn State’s trials and the large number of growers in the Northeast.
Jason Szymanski (pictured), who has worked for Lucas Greenhouses since he was 17, grew the trials and manages a 7-acre section block as a section grower. He studied horticulture at a junior college and interned at Disney before returning. He’s also growing the Big Burley perennials for Gro’N'Sell, taking on hundreds of new varieties.
On Sept. 24, industry members will be visiting Lucas Greenhouses again for the mum field day, which began with Yoder Brothers. Later this fall will be poinsettia trials. “The trials are not just nice for Syngenta, but we can see how the new plants perform in our conditions long term and how they handle heat and rain,” Lucas says. “We want to bring more genetics in. Our head grower, Joe Moore, goes to a lot of the trials. He is looking for new products and making sure we are getting the best we can have, not what’s the cheapest but what we think are the best.”
Moore is amazed at how far vegetative annuals have come in the last 10-15 years. “There is a lot of really good product available, which really gives growers a lot of options,” he says. “I look for new varieties at Pack Trials and summer evaluation trials. We will then try to do production trials of new items the following spring. Since there are so many options, does the new product come from one of the partners we are working with? It’s hard to bring in just one or two varieties from a supplier. There needs to be enough volume to make it work logistically.”
Where Do Brands Fit In?
Although Lucas Greenhouses does support brands by growing young plants for them, Lucas confesses he’s not a big fan of growing branded products for his finished customers. “I always thought that if my product needed a fancy pot, I didn’t do my job,” he says. “The plants should be so awesome that you have to buy them.”
The main objection is the logistical challenge serving 800 retailers on speculation. “The problem with branding is if you have 10 garden centers and each has its own container, you have to sell those plants to them,” his wife Louise explains. “If they don’t take them, you’re stuck. It really limits you. Most of the weekly orders placed are at our discretion, whichever plants look best today. We can pull from any section of the greenhouses.”
Lucas Greenhouses will provide custom tags and labeling for retailers and promotes its seasonal combination plantings with larger tags designed with the John Henry Co.
Beyond branding and performance, George says the next big challenge on the plant side is what will be the next Proven Winners, or group of plants that reinvents our industry. “We had bedding plants from seed and then ivy geraniums and New Guinea impatiens from cuttings,” George says. “Then Proven Winners revolutionized vegetative annuals. What’s next? It’s going to be a challenge for somebody, but it might be nothing.”
Once the next hot crop category emerges, we expect Lucas Greenhouses will be among the leading propagators producing it.