When greenhouses sit idle between the time the last petunia basket is loaded on the truck and the first mum cutting is stuck, that unused space can be a lost opportunity. More and more, growers are looking at producing produce to fill in those gaps.
Depending on a number of factors, including access to local markets, the size and labor force of your operation, your physical facility and whether you have a retail store, growing produce during the times when all or part of your greenhouses are empty might be an opportunity to cover overhead costs, keep valued workers employed and turn a profit.
If done right, tapping into the locally grown food movement with restaurants, grocery stores or a retail market can be a wise move. Experts say the key is planning, planning and more planning. The production process, the markets you’ll sell to and the crops themselves may be very different than what you’re used to. Once you understand those factors, you can select the right varieties to meet those goals.
“I think one of the most important things a bedding plant or ornamental grower would want to consider is what are they going to do with the end product?” says Paul Gallione, who works in research and development at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. “Before seeds hit the ground, there has to be some market research and some thought put into the process. What vegetables do we have a demand for? How are we going to market those vegetables? Then, based on what you want, what you can do and what you have the market for, you can go down the list of varieties and say, ‘Yes, I can do this’ and ‘Yes, I can do that,’ because it also fits into my gap time.”
Jeannine Bogard, business manager for home gardening at Syngenta, agrees.
“Ornamental growers really need to look at the variety and what kind of return they expect on it as well as what kind of customer they’re servicing,” she says. “If you have a specialty restaurant and they want heirloom varieties, maybe you can charge a higher price. But you may be picking a little here, and a little there over the season. Or, you may have a customer who wants all of their tomatoes at once.”
Find Out About Food Safety
Food safety regulations are another important issue.
“As soon as you start growing a vegetable for sale, food safety regulations are going to take effect,” Bogard says. “And they’re changing on a daily basis. A lot of it is tied into the size of your operation. What I would recommend doing before setting up shop in vegetable production is to reach out to your local farm bureau or Extension agent and find out about any food safety regulations that would have an impact on your business or ability to sell vegetables.”
Gallione adds that growers should check with their customers to see what certification they may require.
“If you want to sell to a local restaurant or grocery chain, a lot of them require GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification no matter what size you are,” he says.
“The other thing a grower should do is talk to his insurance company, because there might be liability issues associated with food production,” says Bogard.
Disease Resistance Is Critical
An especially important factor to consider when choosing varieties to grow is the disease resistance of the plants. When growing produce, the options for chemical controls are much more limited, Bogard says.
“You may want to look at biocontrols and you don’t usually use growth regulators on vegetables,” she says.
Disease control is always on the mind of Mike Gooder, owner of Plantpeddler in Iowa. His 350,000 square-foot operation focuses primarily on bedding plants, young plants and poinsettias. But he has successfully integrated growing produce for the last five years. Produce now comprises 15 percent of Plantpeddler’s revenue.
“By far the best tomato series we have found is from an Italian breeder,” Gooder says. “It’s the BHN series. ‘BHN 589’ hands down is the best variety. In our selection process, what we’re after is a determinate tomato with a thin canopy. If you look at classic garden tomatoes — ‘Big Boy,’ ‘Beefsteak,’ — you have a lot of what I call cabbaging of the foliage. There’s a lot of small leaves and interior canopy leaves. All those leaves can impede air and light movement, leading to mildew and pests like whitefly and thrips. We should be able to see through the plant canopy, like a good poinsettia. You don’t want to see a lot of inside leaves because those are the ones that get Botrytis. It’s the same thing with tomato production.”
Tomatoes May Require A Non-Traditional Approach
Gooder likes the big leaves of ‘BHN 589’ in addition to its clean canopy and strong stem structure. “Without a lot of support, it can still carry a pretty heavy fruit load,” he says. It has full size fruit — about ¾ of a pound each.
Because Gooder operates on a “flowers first” principle, vegetable and fruit production, and therefore the varieties he chooses, must fit into the bedding plant schedule.
“Our approach to tomatoes is quite different from the full-time greenhouse tomato approach,” he says. “Most greenhouse tomato operations are using indeterminate tomatoes — they are growing a long-term crop. But when you’re gap-filling, you want a variety you can progress to fruit on a schedule.
“First, you load up the vine with the fruit you want for that period, knowing the days of maturity from the time you see marble-sized green fruit. Then you terminate the plant, topping it off, which will stop it from setting more flowers. You mature only that fruit load. This way you can program it just like your other crops. We grow in a peat-based media in containers. We want to set a fruit load. We want to pick that fruit and discard the plants so we can go to another crop.”
Cherry tomatoes are ideal for this type of production, as well.
“The BHN line also produces some very good cherry tomatoes,” Gooder says. “Other than the cost of picking, cherry tomatoes make good money. We found the best way to win the game in tomatoes is with a mixed fruit pack. We have a yellow, plum, red plum, red cherry and yellow cherry. It was very colorful in the store and consumers were really drawn to it — it looked like a little box of candy.”
He suggests ‘BHN 785’ for a grape tomato and ‘Sweet Canary’ and ‘Sun Gold’ for yellow cherry types. Gooder also likes ‘BHN 871,’ which is a tangerine-colored 10- to 12- oz. tomato. “It’s not the dark red, which is good, because it looks different on the shelf,” he says.
Gallione also suggests ‘BHN 871.’ “It’s a nice yellow determinate slicer,” he says, and echoes Gooder’s recommendation of ‘Sun Gold’ for a small yellow type.
He also recommends ‘Mountain Magic,’ a cocktail-sized indeterminate tomato. “It’s one of the best-tasting tomatoes I’ve ever had in my life. It’s also late blight resistant and is just a really nice choice. We also have ‘Mountain Merit,’ as well as ‘Defiant,’ which was bred at Johnny’s. Both are late-blight resistant, determinate tomatoes that would work well.”
Gallione says just about any cherry tomato would work. “For greenhouse or high tunnel tomatoes, you need to have a high level of foliar disease resistance,” he says. “‘Favorita’ is a variety I would recommend, and also ‘Sakura’ and ‘Clermon.’”
Cucumbers Are A Good Choice
Several other categories of vegetables, including lettuce and other leafy greens, squash, beans, chard and cucumbers can work well in gap-time production.
Parthenocarpic cumbers, which do not require pollination, are ideal for greenhouse production. Gallione recommends ‘Corinto’ as an American slicer, and ‘Excelsior’ for an American pickling type. ‘ ‘Socrates,’ ‘Katrina’ and ‘Diva’ are some other good choices for seedless and thin-skinned cucumbers.
“I do believe that cucumbers can work out really nicely for wholesale growers,” Gallione says. “They can use their existing labor force and pick boxes upon boxes of cukes and ship them.”
Gooder agrees. Cucumbers have been a very successful crop for him. His favorite variety is ‘Jawell,’ a beit-alpha parthenocarpic type. “It’s a small cuke — the perfect gherkin, and it’s seedless. The seed is really expensive, but it has the sweetest fruit, the highest Brix [measure of sugar content], it’s a consistent producer and has the highest fungal disease resistance that we’ve found,” he says.
Go With Greens
Lettuce is another successful gap crop for Gooder. As with tomatoes, he suggests selling mixes. He recommends ‘Fidel,’ a good butterhead type that is easily broken apart to put in a mix, as well as ‘Flandria,’ another butterhead. ‘Lollo Rossa is a good red and he likes ‘Versai’ and ‘Betanto,’ green and red oakleaf types, respectively.
Other greens have worked well for him, too. “Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights,’ which was an All-American Selections winner, is probably the best variety out there,” Gooder says. “We take three different colored bunches and make a grouping with them.”
He sells winter mixes of greens that he sells also include kolrahbi, mesclun, watercress, arugula and dark red beet greens from a variety called ‘Bull’s Blood.’ Spinach is the core item in the mix, and while Gooder uses ‘Space’ and ‘Alrite,’ he says they haven’t seen much of a difference between spinach varieties.
Other Crops To Consider
Gallione says ‘Fortex’ bean, which is also a variety grown by Gooder, is a tender, tasty, one-foot long bean that can take the summer heat. That’s an important characteristic, since for many ornamental growers, the summer is a gap season. Heat tolerance needs to be considered for anything grown during that time.
Gooder grows radishes, and manages to make them not only pay for themselves but for some of his flowering basket production, as well.
“Radish seed is so cheap it’s unbelievable,” he says. “We start a month before the spring basket planting, and drop a dozen radish seeds into the baskets using a template we made. We grow the radishes for 30 days, pull them up and sell them. This actually loosens the media and we plant flowers directly back into the basket. The radishes wholesale for about one dollar per bunch. So if you’re going to fill the baskets and plant them anyway, in just 30 days you pull another dollar out of the basket. You’ve just paid for at least the media, but you’re probably close to paying for the media and the plastic with one pass. Radishes only need 40°F, and you’re heating the greenhouse anyway.”
As with the tomatoes, Gooder has found that colorful mixes attract customers, so he combines red, pink and white radishes in a single package.
“There are commercial Easter egg mixes out there, but we haven’t found them to be consistent enough,” Gooder says. We pick three varieties with the same daylength and produce a bunch that is 25 percent white, 25 percent pink and 50 percent red.” Among the varieties he uses are ‘Fakir’ (red with a white tip), ‘Ping Pong’ (white) and ‘Cherry Bell,’ (red).
Gallione suggests that growers, especially those with retail stores, can break into vegetables gradually.
“Section off a small section of your growing space and start some lettuce seedlings or maybe some fruiting crops,” Gallione says. “That way, when people come to buy bedding plants in the spring, you can tell them, ‘We’ve got some wonderful produce here. Support your local grower.’ When they buy them, make sure they know you will have them all the way through the summer. You’re using your existing customer base and expanding the season.
“The bottom line when it comes to selecting varieties to grow, Gooder says, is finding crops for which there is less competition that are also faster, local, out of season and cannot be shipped for long distances.”