Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bedding Plants

What’s blooming in the area: White and pink flowered trees, including Bradford pear and choke cherry, forsythia still sparse, first lilac, tulips, daffodils, moss phlox; apples leafing.

Outside the walls and fences: Western stickseed, tansy mustard, native and common dandelions, cheat grass; prickly pear, blue grama and rice grass greening; leather leaf globemallow, sweet sand verbena, bindweed and heath asters emerging; chamisa leafing; leaf buds on tamarix and Russian olive; many new leaves on the prairie are emerging next to clumps of grass, not in open spaces.

In my yard: Sweet and sour cherries, Siberian pea tree, hyacinth, tiny pushkinia; coral bell leaves turning green; peonies, Maltese cross, lady bells, tansy, pink salvia, catmints, Parker’s Gold and Moonshine yarrows poking up; cottonwood, spirea, purple sandcherry, privet and Japanese barberry leafing; buds on yellow alyssum.

Bedding plants: Buds on pansies and snapdragons.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Uncovered an earthworm when I was planting pansies near the Japanese barberry; bees around Lapins cherry; stink bugs are back.

Weather: Winds all week, rain Wednesday night; last weekend the arroyo bottom was dry enough to work the calves; 13:27 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The 1970's energy crises changed the definition of early blooming.

When the tetraploid Sensation cosmos was introduced in 1930 as an earlier blooming plant, advertisers meant it would flower before frost. Now, when seed companies tell growers a plant blooms early, they mean it requires less time in an energy-intensive greenhouse.

When OPEC stopped shipping petroleum to the United States in October of 1973, in response to this country’s support of Israel’s war against Egypt and Syria, greenhouses were particularly hard hit by sharply increased prices during their winter growing season. Owners replaced glass and plastic, insulated, improved their lighting, and took whatever other steps they could afford.

However, no sooner did they make an improvement, than increased prices ate the savings, and left them where they were. In 2008, Walter Nelson figured heat represented 13% of the production costs for western New York nurseries, while Wayne Brown found total energy, including heat, light and irrigation, was 25 to 30% in neighboring Ontario. Both suggested it would take only a very small increase in petroleum prices to severely damage the profits which were simultaneously being squeezed by big box customers who were setting low contract prices for vendors while making demands for more services that increased their labor.

Some nurseries tried saving energy by growing their plants at lower temperatures, something pansies especially like. However, Erik Runkle found that, while the resulting plants were more vigorous, they required a longer crop time, so the actual costs were higher. In Grand Rapids, the total energy cost for a 288-cell plug of heat-demanding petunias transplanted on January 29 for sales on April 1 and grown at 58 degrees was 56¢, while it was 31¢ for plants grown at 68 degrees after being transplanted on March 2.

Others have looked at lowering their labor costs, which Nelson says were 45% of the total in New York and Brown set at 30 to 35% in Ontario. The latter suggests larger operations, with greater financial resources, had been adopting some of the automation used in Europe to do such tasks as seeding, transplanting, mixing soil and filling cell packs.

Traditionally, bedding plant growers planted seeds in shallow flats, then hired seasonal help, often women, to transplant the small seedlings into sale packs. Some would eliminate the transplanting by planting several seeds in each cell, then hire local people to prick out all but the most viable plant from each unit. With plants like moss roses, they left the extras to give a fuller look with smaller individuals, even though the plants were probably weaker from having to compete for resources.

When I planted out my pansies last weekend, I discovered the consequences of these attempts to save money. The sale packs had the usual four legs for roots, but the top third wasn’t subdivided. I assume this was done to make it easier for unskilled labor or machines to drop seeds.

In one pack, there was an empty cell. In another, one seed had taken root on the bridge between two legs, and its roots hadn’t been able to develop. In the third, the one that had landed on the bridge sent its roots into the leg with another plant, making them impossible to separate. In effect, each four cell pak had only three plants, which effectively increased my purchase price from 55¢ to 74¢.

Seed companies have responded to higher energy costs by developing seeds that are ready for market sooner. Once people were told to plant pansies in late summer and let them winter over for spring blooms. Now, Sakota tells growers the elapsed time between sowing and marketing for the Crown series is ten to eleven weeks. Stokes tells nurserymen that Karma and Mammoth are ready in ten to twelve weeks, while HPS suggests the total crop time for its pansies is twelve to fourteen weeks. In other words, seeds can be planted in January for April sales, saving five months of worry that something will destroy the seedlings.

The problem for home gardeners is that ready for market means “in flower,” not “strong enough to survive transplanting.” My largest pansy plant is three and a half inches high and four inches wide; the smallest is one and half by two inches. It would take a great many plants to create a massed effect of color, at least nine per square foot at a minimum cost of $6.66.

Brown found consumers had responded to these changes by no longer buying bedding plants, but would buy larger plants in containers and hanging baskets. They simply weren’t willing to nurse along puny seedlings or look at bare ground while immature plants gradually came to size. Plants like pansies, after all, are only good for about a month before rising temperatures stop them from blooming.

The problem with the new seeds for growers is they are more expensive. A thousand Swiss Giant open-pollinated pansy seeds are sold for $3.63 by Stokes and for $4.75 by HPS. In contrast, a thousand Majestic Giants II F1 hybrid seeds are $32.50 and $42.50 respectively. According to Nelson, seeds and plant stock represent 16% of the total cost of production in western New York, more than is spent on heat.

HPS suggests the cost of the Majestic Giant II seed is somewhat offset by the fact the plants are naturally compact and don’t require growth regulators. Most of the chemicals nurseries use, as well as their plastic packages, are ultimately dependent on the same energy conglomerates that supply the natural gas for heat and gasoline for transportation. All these additional overhead costs increase when the price of a barrel of crude oil rises.

I no longer expect much from bedding plants. I only buy those like tomatoes and snapdragons that I can’t grow from seed and that have proven their ability to survive. However, if I ever want to see more than the usual yellow composites in summer, I’m dependent on nurseries to provide me with plants. They must continue to exist for me to be completely happy.

Ironically, while energy costs have radically changed the industry since 1973 - sending cut flower production to South American and Africa where labor costs are cheaper and moving winter vegetable production to the southwest and México where energy costs are less - the high cost of transporting bulky, perishable products with low profit margins has kept bedding plant growers near areas with large population centers. Even though California, Texas and Florida were three of the top five bedding plant growers in the middle 1990's, Michigan and Ohio were still in the top five, while Ontario increased its exports to this country since the middle 1980's.

The pansies I bought two weeks ago came from Colorado.

Notes: 2011 catalogs from Stokes Seeds, Inc., and HPS, the Horticultural Products and Services division of RH Shumway’s.

Brown, Wayne. “A Profile - The Ontario Greenhouse Floriculture Industry,” 1 June 2003, reviewed 18 March 2010.

Nelson, Walter E. “Greenhouse Energy Management,” 2008; it’s possible his price for seed and plants combines the costs of nurseries that specialize in germinating seeds and those that buy the plugs to grow for market; petunias were more severely affected by being grown at lower temperatures than were pansies.

Runkle, Erik, Jonathan Frantz and Matthew Blanchard. “Energy-Efficient Annuals: Scheduling Bedding Plants,” Greenhouse Grower, April 2009. He’s not including the cost of the time for germinating seed when temperatures can’t be manipulated, and heat and moisture requirements are usually higher. For Pansy Crown, Sakota Seed says the pre-transplantation time is 5 weeks and post transplanting time is 5-6 weeks.

Sakota Seed America, Inc. “Pansy Crown,” revised 15 August 2007, available on-line.

Photograph: Pansies, 6 April 2011, 15 days after purchase and 3 days after transplanting; snapdragon in back

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