Posted by: Alison O’Connor, horticulture agent, Larimer County Extension
I like to think of my brother, Jeff Stoven, as an unsung hero. Jeffrey works for Bailey Nurseries, the third largest wholesale nursery in the nation where he’s the head grower at the Yamhill propagation facility in Yamhill, Oregon. On a daily basis, Jeffrey cares for no less than millions of cuttings that eventually make their way to our retail garden centers and nurseries. I have wondered if Jeffrey has one of the most stressful jobs, simply because he’s continually caring for over a hundred greenhouses that are worth millions of dollars.
One of the most interesting aspects of Jeff’s job is forcing plant material for the various trade shows and conferences that happen during the winter months across the United States. If you’re a fellow hortie, you’ve attended ProGreen, Mid-Am or CENTS and visited the trade show. If you’re a homeowner, you may have visited a home and garden show. Have you ever noticed the living plant material at these shows? In the middle of January? Seeing green plants is one of the best parts of attending these trade shows because it brightens up the dull, dreary days of winter.
But back to Jeff as an unsung hero…
It takes A LOT to get those plants (trees, shrubs and perennials) to look good and be in flower when the show happens. Just think—roses and hydrangeas blooming in January is not normal. But Jeff can make it happen. And he does it every year.
The process starts with the Bailey’s sales and marketing team—usually around September. In a large company like Bailey’s, they have a vast amount of plant material they have introduced (such as the Endless Summer hydrangea and the Easy Elegance roses) and plants that are good choices for the region. Because the company likes to feature hot, new items, and plants that sell well, the sales and marketing folks come up with a list of plants they would like to feature at the many trade shows the company attends. The list goes to Jeff and his crew, who look it over to see what plants are feasible for forcing. By early October the list of plants is approved and Jeff and his crew start the process by picking the plants out of the container field, where they select nice-looking plants that are free from insects and disease and have no plant health issues.
The plants are put in a dark cooler, just above freezing, for a couple weeks and then the temperature is dropped to slightly below freezing to trick the plants into early dormancy. It’s important to remember that the climate in the Pacific Northwest is fairly mild in October and they enter the winter more gradually than we do in Colorado.
Then they wait. And use historical records and calculations to determine how long it takes for the plant to push growth and flower to have it in perfect bloom for the trade show. I should also mention that Jeffrey forces plants for several trade shows—from northern California to Maryland—that all occur at different times. Because Jeff has done this a long time, he’s kept meticulous records on how many days to flower (DTF) it takes for specific plants. For example, some roses may only take 45 DTF, while certain cultivars of hydrangeas can take up to 70 days. It’s a lot like plants in the landscape—nothing blooms all at the same time (that’s why we plant for year-long color).
Knowing the DTF is extremely helpful and if Jeff knows that the ProGreen conference will be held February 13-16, he can subtract time to know when to pull the plant from the cooler and place it in the greenhouse to force growth. But he does this for all species of plants…for each trade show and conference…and for multiple plants. The booth may request three Meyer lilacs, but Jeff will force five so he can have a couple back-ups.
After figuring out when to start waking the plants up, he moves them into a greenhouse that is heated at night around the mid-60s and will warm up to the 80s during the day from the sun. Because Oregon isn’t known for its sunny days in winter, supplemental light is also necessary. High pressure sodium lights come on at 2am and stay on for about 10 hours. With the additional 4-5 hours of natural sunlight until 3 or 4pm, the plants receive “long days” which helps encourage blooming (think of this as the amount of total sunlight during June and July). You may think this is stressful on the plants. And it is, but remember the plants do receive several weeks of dormancy before they are forced into flower. And having live plants in a booth makes people stop and chat with the sales people, which generally leads to greater sales.
As the plants approach bloom, it’s time to ship them to their respective trade show. Jeff checks the weather in the destination city (and also local weather) and plans accordingly. For the plants to ship from Oregon, the Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN), sends a truck where individual nurseries can buy space (many nurseries from Oregon participate in the ProGreen trade show). That helps save the nurseries money because they share the cost of shipping the plant material from Oregon. As a point of reference, it cost Bailey’s $246/pallet to ship the plant material to Colorado…not a bad deal, considering! For Bailey’s to ship plants to the MANTS show in Maryland, it’s $370/pallet. Learn more here.
The morning of shipping is a busy time. Jeff and his crew spend time watering, pruning, deadheading, tagging and sleeving all the plants and then load them onto the pallets. Last year (2014) was especially stressful. Oregon had snow (a rarity in the Willamette Valley) and Denver high temperatures were in the low teens. Jeff had the foresight to bundle up the plants with paper, plastic and insulation to keep them from freezing. When they arrived in Denver, pallet after pallet from other nurseries had frozen—except for the Bailey plants. Jeff’s extra care in wrapping the plants resulted in the plants arriving unscathed and ready for show.
All told, Jeffrey forced around 300 plants this year for the various trade shows. And it’s truly remarkable for the time and effort that goes into the process—for just a few days of display. Fortunately, most of the plants go to customers after ProGreen is over (a few have ended up in my landscape). So the next time you visit any horticultural expo in the middle of winter, think of people like my brother Jeff, who provide the color and greenery at the booths. The unsung heros of the horticultural industry. Yay for growers!