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Dutch Rhododendron grower Frans Kortenhorst was looking for a way to get rid of weeds and moss in his pots for good. He cut squares out of a roll of cling film and a bin liner and secured them around the top of the pot with a rubber band. In the middle he made a hole for the plant. Six years later, this idea has a name and it has the support of his horticultural supplier.

With his engineering background, rhododendron grower Frans Kortenhorst from Heeten in the east of the Netherlands is always looking for ways to innovate and automate his business processes. But his best ideas come during quiet periods at the nursery. He was fed up with having to remove weeds and moss by hand to get the plants ready for delivery. “Having 300,000 pots pass through your hands is a massive job that has to be done every year.” Laughing, he says that preferring an easy life makes a healthy starting point for innovation and encourages him to optimise and get creative.

Weed and moss problem

According to René Janssen, Substrate Product Manager at horticultural suppliers Horticoop, the Cleanpot System is an enormous improvement. Unsurprisingly, their enthusiasm has resulted in collaboration with Frans Kortenhorst.
The weed and moss problem in pot plant cultivation is tackled by covering the surface of the pots. Bark chips go quite a way to reducing weeds and moss, but not enough for Kortenhorst’s liking. “The retail channel is not very happy with the stuff either,” the grower says. “Bark makes a lot of mess: it lies loose on the surface of the pot, it falls on the shop floor, on the conveyor belt in the greenhouse and in the customer’s car – those kinds of complaints.”

Step by step

The idea of covering the pots with film was something Kortenhorst thought worth trying. He ran a trial with both transparent and dark film on five pots in the first year, followed by thirty pots in the second year. It immediately became clear that the film didn’t harm the plants. The transparent film was dropped straight away, but the dark film suppressed weed and moss growth completely. All the additional benefits were an added bonus. “We cut our watering by 25% and I got rid of Sciarid fly in one fell swoop,” he says.
Kortenhorst designed a machine to fit the film to the pots and built the prototype in his own workshop. “We introduced it at our nursery in stages – 10,000 pots in the first year, 100,000 in the second year, and our total production of 300,000 after that.”

Longer shelf life

Retailers have welcomed the system. Kortenhorst made sure of that before introducing it throughout his operation. Most of his dwarf rhododendrons are sold in Lidl Europe stores. The most positive aspects for the retailers were the longer shelf life and the fact that the pots were cleaner to work with. The shelf life of the plants is a good four days longer because the potting soil stays moist. What is more, most consumers don’t even notice the film to begin with when they buy the plant. They have to remove it when they get home, of course, along with the handle.
However, from the point of view of sustainability, it is still plastic, and that needs work. Kortenhorst: “We would really like to switch to a biodegradable material. But while the pot, the label and the cover are still all made of plastic, it is better if the film is plastic too. Then they can all go into the recycling together.”

Wide range of uses

A substrate specialist from Lentse Potgrond (a division of Horticoop) spotted the film on the pots during a routine customer visit around six years ago, and it immediately caught his attention. Janssen envisages a wide range of uses for cover film in the trade channel. “We were very impressed with the idea,” he says. “After all, the use of film also has a bearing on the growing medium. It doesn’t physically touch it, as there has to be a 2 cm air buffer between the film and the potting compost for oxygen exchange and to stop mildew from forming.”
Horticoop is keen to raise awareness of the Cleanpot System because it could have potential for many growers and groups of crops. The company has therefore worked with Kortenhorst, the inventor, and machine builders Linthorst Snijtechniek to develop a machine that combines potting up, applying the film and planting the plants in one fluid movement.
Apart from the great advantage of reducing moss and weed growth, the initiators report a whole host of other beneficial effects that occur in the pot. First off, Janssen mentions the homogeneous moisture distribution in the pot. That is because there is no transpiration taking place; the water condenses against the film and drops back into the growing medium. It also reduces the amount of crop protection products, water and fertiliser needed and extends the shelf life of the plant.

Specific reasons

According to Janssen, this is an interesting concept for many ornamentals. From the point of view of sustainability, the water efficiency aspect is something that is bound to appeal to all growers, he believes. “It is also a sustainable way of dealing with soil pests. There are some specific reasons as well. In cyclamen, for example, the film can prevent a botrytis attack on the bottom leaves. And in orchids the system can stop roots crossing into other pots. Sometimes the roots from one pot will grow into other pots nearby, and when you pick up the pot, you drag the other plant along with it.”
The more experience growers gain with this system, the longer the list of applications and benefits gets. Bunnik Plants from Bleiswijk in the west of the Netherlands are also testing the system. Improving shelf life in the supply chain is an important issue for them. Kortenhorst again: “If it was only about moss and weeds, it would have died a slow death. But when it is a question of sales or no sales, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Running own business

Kortenhorst runs the 2.5 hectare rhododendron nursery with his sister and brother-in-law. Plastic film greenhouses are not what you’d necessarily expect to see in the middle of verdant countryside resplendent with farms, villas, cows and sheep. But the oldest greenhouses have been here for almost 30 years.
His sister Gonny set up the nursery after completing her horticultural training, on the spot where their parents’ cows used to graze. Her husband Jos joined her five years later. And five years after that Frans decided to give up his job as a mechanical engineer at a machinery factory and join them. “What attracted me to running your own business is that you can shape it the way you want it.”

Time for innovation

Today’s nursery looks nothing like the one that started out all those years ago. Back then they grew a wide range of plants which they sold locally, focusing mainly on the retail market. Twenty years ago they decided to sell their products via Flora Holland and gradually reduced the size of their product range. These days Kortenhorst is well known as a specialist grower of dwarf rhododendrons. The plants go to retail and all sales take place by auction. The bulk of the plants are exported.
With the exception of the two busy periods – when the cuttings are planted and in the selling season – the three entrepreneurs do all the work themselves. “We are very happy with our present size; we wouldn’t want to get any bigger. We make time to innovate, which we think is very important and fits well with who we are,” Kortenhorst concludes.

Summary

It started out as a solution for suppressing weeds and moss in pots, but the system created by grower and inventor Frans Kortenhorst is much more than that. With a simple piece of plastic film on the pot, the benefits are there for the asking. The system has nothing but beneficial effects during production, for retailers and for the consumer at home, he says. The concept also offers scope for a wider range of applications in horticulture.

Text: Suzan Crooijmans. Images: Rikkert Harink.

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There’s a lot of experimenting with alternative growing substrates going on among orchid growers. Mixtures without bark – or at least with a much smaller proportion of it – are less appealing to the parasitic pot worm. Stef Scheffers of Kwekerij Zeurniet trialled a 100% coco substrate in his Dendrobium crop and found no downsides. More than a year later he is still just as happy with it.

The Scheffers family from Honselersdijk in the Dutch Westland area grow various types of pot plants in the more exclusive segment, such as Livingstonia, Castano, Dischidia and the colourful Vanda and Dendrobium orchids. Up until last year, their Dendrobiums, like many species of orchids, were growing on bark. “That always used to work very well, but two or three years ago we started getting problems with pot worms,” Stef Scheffers says. “Once you’ve got them in the greenhouse, they are very hard to get rid of. The problems were so severe that we had to start looking for an alternative. We wanted to keep this plant in our range.”

Practical trials

The family business was not the only one looking for alternatives. Other orchid growers, particularly those growing Phalaenopsis, were already experimenting with substrates that contained much less bark or even none at all. Although this had not yet led to any breakthroughs, it was – and still is – achieving some very impressive results.
Scheffers: “There are quite a few practical trials going on with coco substrates. Usually they are relatively fine mixtures with a slightly higher moisture content. Most nurseries use cultivation benches with the heating running underneath. This can dry out the pots quite quickly. But we grow on concrete floors where the pots retain moisture for longer. What I was looking for was a slightly drier, coarser mixture containing about 50% air.”

Different buffering method

The search brought Scheffers in contact with MeeGaa Substrates in Den Hoorn, a company that supplies coco-based substrate mixes. It has its own production facilities in Sri Lanka and India, where it processes tropical fruits into different raw materials for growing media. They are then turned into fine and coarse fractions back in the Netherlands.
The substrate manufacturer had recently developed a new coco substrate which it buffers in a different way from usual. “Coco is usually buffered with calcium and magnesium fertilisers,” senior sales manager Peter Zethof explains. “This often makes it difficult to achieve a pH of less than 6, which most plants want. In our new product Shakti Amla we have created coco with a stable low pH. Using a patented process, we can make pure coco mixtures with a stable pH of 4.5 to 6, which makes the nutrients much easier for the plant to absorb.”
Substrate advisor Frank Meeuwisse adds: “It may not sound very exciting, but it was a real breakthrough. Now that it’s possible to supply coco mixtures with a lower pH, more crops can be grown on coco substrate and the proportion of coco in other mixtures can be increased without any problems. This responds nicely to the growing demand for low-peat and peat-free potting soils. In terms of other aspects too, such as the air/water balance, there is nothing to stop this substrate being used more widely.”

Small-scale practical trial

Based on the good experience that has been gained with Shakti Amla in cut Gerbera over the past three-and-a-half years, the Scheffers family decided to run a small-scale practical trial of this substrate. In collaboration with Meeuwisse, a trial was set up in early spring 2015 with different quantities of substrate per pot, giving them a good picture of which density yielded the best results.
“We set aside one irrigation section for the trial, which we monitored for three months,” the pot plant grower says. “What struck us straight away was that the young plants in the specially sieved coco substrate got going faster than on bark. That was not surprising in itself because they are put into coco plugs ‘ex vitro’ in Thailand. We always let them acclimatise here first for two to three months and get back up to strength before we put them directly into the final pot. It stands to reason that coco to coco is a smaller step than coco to bark.”

More uniform and faster

With such rapid establishment and the more homogeneous and more beneficial root environment compared to bark, the growth rate is constantly at a slightly higher level, says Scheffers. He irrigates every five to seven days and finishes each cycle with clean water to prevent silting of the top layer.
“I’d say that the plants are growing between 15 and 20 percent faster,” he says. “Also, there is less difference between them and we are seeing far fewer roots growing into other pots.” Roots growing over the rim of the pot into adjacent ones is a well-known phenomenon in orchid growing, especially on bark. “That makes picking up the pots a lot more time-consuming because you keep having to separate the pots,” Scheffers says. “Now that we have more homogeneous batches and fewer problems with roots growing into other pots, the crop is a whole lot faster to pick up.”

Switched over completely

Just ten weeks into the trial, it was already clear to Scheffers that the new product would make an excellent substrate for Dendrobium. He switched over to it completely for potting up new batches just over a year ago. “We still had to finalise a few aspects around fertilisation because it’s a very different ball game from growing on bark. We took samples regularly to get an idea of how it was buffering, but we soon got a clear enough picture to enable us to take that step.”
“We’re very happy with this coco substrate,” the grower sums up. “The plants are growing better than they ever did on bark. We have reduced the cultivation period from 12 to 10 months and despite that, the plants are a little more robust. I think it’s better for the consumer too. With plants grown on bark, a layer of water can quite easily accumulate in the outer pot after watering and stay there for a long time. Coco substrate absorbs the excess water like a sponge, which makes for more convenience for the consumer.”

Trust

According to Zethof and Meeuwisse, this growing medium is also gaining a foothold in Phalaenopsis growing. “As Scheffers has already said, there are lots of trials ongoing, both with mixtures and with pure coco in different coarsenesses and densities,” says Frank Meeuwisse. “Every nursery is different and it’s a question of finding the best substrate for every combination of cultivation system, cultivation strategy and personal preferences.”
“Some people are already switching over, but they generally tend to be a bit more hesitant than the Scheffers were,” Zethof continues. “Because of the different cultivation phases, growing Phalaenopsis is more complex and growers are right to be cautious. Although we do see trust increasing with experience.”

Summary

Following a successful trial with coco substrate, which has a stable, low pH due to an alternative buffering procedure, the Dutch nursery Zeurniet has switched over to it completely for growing Dendrobium. The plants are growing more uniformly, faster and more strongly, which has enabled them to cut the cultivation period from 12 to 10 months. What’s more, roots are much less likely to spread to other pots in this substrate than with bark.

Text and images: Jan van Staalduinen.

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Wolfgang and André Ripkens have made a lot of progress in recent years. Apart from investing heavily in automation, the German pot plant growers have also introduced three new sales concepts: Silver-Land, Out-Land and Stone-Land. It turned out to be a great move; the market has responded enthusiastically to the combination of a recognisable look and premium quality. This is generating a lot of added value for father and son.

Topfpflanzen Ripkens is situated in Straelen in the heart of the German Lower Rhine region. This area near the Dutch border is one of Germany’s main horticultural regions. It is plain to see in Straelen: nearly every street boasts at least one horticultural business.
Laurenz Ripkens founded the family business in 1971. Initially they grew both vegetables and cut flowers, but from 1980 pot plants started to play an increasingly important role in the business and in 1990 they switched completely to pot plants. “We’ve tried all sorts of things to find out what suited us best,” says Wolfgang Ripkens (56), who joined the business in 1978. “Cyclamen have played a central part in our cultivation plan. They are particularly interesting because the season covers a large proportion of the year: we deliver cyclamen from the end of June until February. At present we ship 400,000 cyclamen every year, all in 11 cm pots.”

Busy year-round

Aside from cyclamen, silver leaf plants are also an important pillar of the business; the entrepreneurs grow Calocephalus, Sanatolina and Festuca, among others. “We deliver around one million silver leaf plants annually, between July and November. Some varieties grow in greenhouses and the rest are kept outside, on the container field,” André explains. He joined the company three years ago and runs it alongside his father.
Lavender became part of the cultivation plan five years ago, and from mid-May onwards father and son deliver around 250,000 lavender plants every year. “We started growing lavender because we didn’t like the container field standing empty for so long every spring,” says Wolfgang. “Our product range is rounded off with Culphea and several Sedum varieties, which are shipped in spring and summer. The variety in our crops keeps us busy year-round and means we can employ our workers throughout the year. We only work with permanent staff and employ ten people in total.”

Expansion and automation

The Ripkens pot plant business comprises 1.5 hectares of greenhouses and 4 hectares of container fields. Most of their greenhouses were built in the 1990s, with 0.4 hectares of new glass being added in 2012. “We use only Venlo greenhouses with 4-metre roofs. Nothing special, really, but it works well for us, especially with the combined energy and sunshade screens that we use.”
In 2012 the container field was also expanded by two hectares, but further growth was not an option, according to Wolfgang. “Our land parcel was packed to the hilt. The only expansion opportunity I can see is if the businesses across the road eventually close. Buying or renting a different location would be too inefficient.”
To boost their existing production, the entrepreneurs recently invested in rolling benches and an internal transportation system. “The optimal use of space that comes with these investments allows us to deliver 20 to 30% more plants annually. That is why this investment more than pays for itself,” André confirms.

Investments in automation

To enable them to process larger quantities and be less dependent on staff, they have also invested heavily in automation over time. In addition to two potting machines with pot dispensers and ejectors, the company works with a special forklift combined with a release fork. “All our potting and ejection machines are supplied by Mayer. We chose Mayer for their quality and service. If there is ever a problem, they always send a mechanic very quickly,” André tells us.
His father emphasises that the high degree of automation helps them to maximise the output of the business. “Despite the increase in production numbers, we haven’t had to hire extra manpower in recent years.”

It doesn’t happen overnight

Father and son Ripkens were keen to up their production as a result of increasing demand, which was all due to the success of the sales concepts they had developed. “It started in 2007 with the Silver-Land concept,” Wolfgang explains. “We had been growing the silver leaf Calocephalus since the 1980s, but because more and more breeders were including this plant in their assortment, the auction price plummeted. That’s when we hit on the idea of combining various silver leaf plants in a single tray, with a recognisable name and look. We called it Silver-Land and put the plants in a blue 12 cm pot with special pot labels. Our triangular blue and green logo also provides a certain level of recognition.”
The market responded well to this concept, which was quite innovative for its time, according to Wolfgang. “But it didn’t happen by itself: we visited many garden centres in the first few years, as well as many trade fairs. We certainly wouldn’t suggest it happened overnight. But we’ve seen great improvements in the past three to four years; our concept is gaining popularity and demand is on the increase.”

Faith in the future

Following this positive market response, the entrepreneurs introduced several other sales concepts. They combine different varieties of cyclamen in a single tray under the name Out-Land, for example, and Sedum varieties are marketed under the Stone-Land flag. “These concepts also embody quality and uniformity. Automation provides added value here as well. In order to be able to deliver a product with optimal uniformity, they always pot large batches of plants and prune the plants every five weeks. Garden centres have indicated that the quality and look of their products give them a competitive edge.
Now Wolfgang and André sell all their potted plants under the Land Concepts flag. This has made supplying auctions a thing of the past; they only sell directly to traders and garden centres. “We deliver to higher-quality garden centres, not to discounters,” Wolfgang Ripkens emphasises. “It goes without saying that selling through this channel yields a better sales price; consumers who buy at higher-end garden centres don’t mind paying a little more for products that appeal to the senses and are guaranteed to be good quality. Because we hold a patent on our products, other businesses can’t just run with them. In other words: our products can no longer be substituted by others. That gives us certainty and faith in the future.”

Summary

Wolfgang and André Ripkens grow a large variety of plants in the German town of Straelen: cyclamen, various silver leaf plants, lavender, Culphea and several Sedum varieties. In order to be able to increase production despite the company’s limited opportunities for expansion, they invested in rolling benches and an internal transportation system a few years ago. They have also made significant progress on sales in recent years, introducing various sales concepts with a recognisable look and a focus on quality.

Text and images: Ank van Lier.

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Contrary to what was assumed in the past, recent research has revealed that water is rarely distributed homogeneously through the root ball following limited watering. Small changes in the composition of the potting soil or the watering regime can also have surprisingly major consequences. “So it’s all the more important for growers to take a closer look at the water uptake behaviour of their substrate and measure it routinely,” specialist Hans Verhagen says.

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Leading Danish kalanchoe nursery Knud Jepsen was looking for a good way to outsource the cutting production. After exploring possibilities in Turkey the idea changed from outsourcing to investment in a joint venture in order to take advantage of the developing local pot plant market. For the Turkish partner Agrico the cooperation opens up a rapidly developing market and export possibilities.

High labour costs in Denmark decrease competitiveness in an international pot plant market. Especially the production of cuttings is very labour intensive. Knud Jepsen A/S, world’s largest producer of kalanchoe, therefore moves parts of the production to low wage countries.
“Initially we just looked for a supplier of cuttings. In our quest we found that Western Turkey has advantageous labour conditions, although not the lowest costs, combined with good weather conditions and moreover a developing pot plant market. There are also logistic advantages: because of the good infrastructure we can supply nearly every destination in Europe with young plants on cc containers in five days”, says Lars Korup, chief operational officer of Queen Tarim. “This combination changed the perspective from outsourcing to cooperation with a local partner, producing both cuttings and pot plants. Such cooperation may look like sharing your profit with a stranger but in return it is easier to develop the company in an unknown environment and steer in an unfamiliar market.”

Fast growing economy

The partner in the joint venture is Agrico, originally a trading company with activities like import of machinery and equipment for the agricultural market, especially young plant nurseries. In 2009 they started producing young vegetables plants in greenhouses themselves. After the establishment of the joint venture with Knud Jepsen all the former activities were ended. “For us the joint venture is an interesting way to enter a rapidly developing market and gain export possibilities, like supplying other breeders”, says Sinan Pulat, general director.
Turkey’s economy has grown fast over the last 14 years: GDP increased on average 5.7% per year, slowing down to 3% nowadays. As a result of the growing wealth people buy more and more ornamentals.

Many different varieties

At the time the joint venture has 6 ha greenhouses (glass and plastic) in Dikili (Izmir region) with expansion opportunities to 25 ha. The company produces both young plants and finished pot plants; the turnover is divided equally between the two branches. The cuttings and young plants are shipped to growers worldwide. The pot plants are sold merely in Turkey.
Pulat: “For the time being our pot plant market is Turkey, because the ever-growing market consumes our capacity, but of course we want to diversify our market as much as possible, and become a pot plant exporting company as well. Our main customers are wholesalers, but we also supply garden centres and small flower shops.”
In order to meet market demands production is diverse: except kalanchoe in many different varieties the company produces pot roses, pot chrysanthemum, campanula, hibiscus, schlumbergera and echeveria.

Innovations

A striking innovative product is the cut flower kalanchoe. “They set a stunning new standard for longevity in the cut flower category as they keep their fresh bright appearance just as long as our potted varieties. Queen CutFlowers (as the brand is named) have a guaranteed vase life of at least three weeks, and often they live longer. The customer doesn’t have to change the water in the vase because it remains clear and odourless”, says Ebru Akgün Özdemir, responsible for marketing and branding. Other innovations include new potted roses and chrysanthemums in a range of bright colours.
The focal point is always longevity: “In our breeding all our rose varieties are focused on drought resistance. Therefore they can handle with less water than the traditional roses. Also they have a high ethylene resistance. During transportation, in shops and living rooms ornamentals are always exposed to ethylene, which causes aging of the product”, says Korup.
Another innovation concerns the constant search for new echeveria cultivars. They are sold as cuttings and exported without roots in cardboard boxes to distant markets like Australia and the USA.

Queen brand

All pot plants for the Turkish market are sold under the brand Queen. Even the name of the joint venture is Queen Tarim.
“The Queen brand implies beautiful long lasting flowers in a broad range of colours,” says Özdemir. The history of the company goes back to 1939 and already in the sixties Jepsen started growing kalanchoe, constantly developing ever since. In Denmark Jepsen uses the brand for het wide assortment of kalanchoe, from the classic four-petalled originals to the romantic rose flowers and the latest line Queen Green, each with their own characteristics.
“The joint venture has expanded the use of the brand to the whole range of pot plants. Our goal is to make the brand famous among the Turkish consumers as a guarantee for high quality pot and balcony plants,” she says. “All our products are distinctive because of their long life, due to genetic properties like the already mentioned ethylene resistance, and the way we grow them. The longevity reduces in-store waste, which is very attractive for our buyers.”

Values

One of the company’s values is trust-based relationships with all the partners in the chain. Queen supports the marketing of the partners with eye-catching packaging and displays for finished plants.
Another value is sustainability. “We do our best to minimize impact on the environment and optimize work conditions for our employees. Focus points are: minimizing our energy consumption, optimizing processes and further developing integrated pest management”, says Pulat.
The nursery is using coal as the main heating source. “Due to heavy tax and availability problems we cannot utilize other heating resources for the time being. But our coal burner is state-of-the-art technology so emissions are kept minimal. We also pay attention to use coal with low sulphur content,” he says. The company is now investigating possibilities to store excess heath in the summer for use during the winter. In the near future also investments in renewable energy resources are planned.

Sustainability

All the irrigation needs are met by rainwater, collected in three basins. “In this way we minimize our burden on the local water supplies. Moreover rainwater is best suited for our plants, because it’s free of sodium and chloride.”
The third aspect of sustainability is integrated pest management: “We use biological methods to combat pests and plant diseases and contribute to a pleasant working environment for our employees. This is both an environmental and a rational choice, as kalanchoe do not tolerate most pesticides. Good hygiene and cleaning up help prevent the spread of diseases.”

Market leader

Queen Tarim aims to become market leader in Turkey and neighbouring countries for pot plants and preferred cutting supplier for world’s most important breeders. Pulat: “As long as we can produce high quality products for reasonable prices and act accordingly to our motto ‘Quality on time’ we will achieve our expanding goals. We should keep our production as flexible as possible to fit the market demands. This doesn’t mean that we will be driven by customer’s demands only: we have to be able to create new trends in the pot plant market in the target countries.”
Also the other branch of the company, the cuttings and young plants, is focused on growth. The director sees interesting matching opportunities as his company can be both supplier and customer for the breeders: “We are able to produce cuttings for them for competitive prices; thanks to the low labour costs and logistic advantages of Turkey. And by producing pot plants – out of the cuttings – we create royalty income for our customers. That means we also become a customer for our customer. It is a known fact that protection of breeder’s rights is not easy in this region, but due to the transparent knowledge flow between the breeder and our nursery there is a 100% control on the royalty fees. Thus we are an attractive platform for breeders to reach the fast growing markets in Turkey and neighbouring countries.”

Summary

Denmark based Knud Jepsen and the Turkish company Agrico formed the joint venture Queen Tarim, which produces both cuttings and pot plants in the region Izmir. Pot plant market in Turkey is growing fast and the company aims at expansion of the current 6 ha, thus becoming market leader for pot plants and preferred supplier of cuttings for breeders. Sustainability is an important issue.

Text: Tijs Kierkels. Photos: Queen Tarim and Tijs Kierkels

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Last week, the major Latin American horticultural fair was organized in Irapuato, Mexico. In the week that Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the USA, Mexico discussed its horticultural future. Surprisingly, the Mexicans were far from shocked. ‘’Whatever president they choose, they will need (affordable) food. It will be business as usual’’, was the most frequently heard comment.

The three Jungle Talks webinars that were organized in the same week pointed in a similar direction. Vegetable production for exports has only started around the year 2000 and has made great progress ever since. It is expected by specialists from ENZA Seeds, Hortimax and Plantanova – Horticonnect that saturation of the (export) market still is far away. Competition from other Latin American countries is not expected to hamper Mexico’s position and in the meantime, Mexico’s competitiveness over North American producers is expected to increase further.

'The sleeping giant'

Production of flowers and potted plants is likely to improve as the sector gets better organized and agrologistics improve according to Akiko and Xochipilli. Besides these expected developments in the local market, exports will increase. When ‘the sleeping giant’ wakes up is hard to predict. But due to the geographical position of Mexico combined with increasing problems in countries like Ethiopia, Ecuador and Colombia (security, politics, increasing cost levels, scarcity of labour), investments in export oriented ornamental production are expected to take place.

Agro Parks

Agro Parks in Mexico have started in 2006 with the establishment of the Agro Park Queretaro. Lessons have been learned in the past 10 years and it has become clear that Agro Parks can create many additional advantages. Joint access to water, energy, labour but also market and infrastructure will reduce costs and will attract more foreign investment. Security is hardly an issue anymore when you establish your facilities in an Agro Park. Freshmex, Wageningen University and United Farms were quite clear on that. ‘’If you intend to invest in Mexican horticulture (and why wouldn’t you), do it in an Agro Park’’.

The Jungle Talks about horticulture in Mexico have supplied tons of information about vegetable production, ornamental production and agro parks in a country that grows with an average rate of 1.200–1.500 hectares of medium/high-tech greenhouses per year. Each session is available on www.jungletalks.com.

Source: Jungle Talks. Photo: Irapuato Trade Fair.

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GreenBalanz, of Kudelstaart, is the first Dutch pot plant grower to introduce organically grown phalaenopsis to the market. Although it is still a small number and a modest range, grower Lennard van der Weijden has full confidence in the production and marketing. However, the market still lacks a supply of other organically grown pot plants.

In 2009 Handelskwekerij Van der Weijden was renamed GreenBalanz. This was to underline the sustainable character of the company and allow the owner to better differentiate his company on the market. “We have a greenhouse without gas, we work with natural crop protection products, we use heat pumps and green energy, recirculate our water and do whatever possible to grow as cleanly and responsibly as possible,” he explains. “Our carbon footprint is therefore very modest. In addition, we conduct an active social policy because this is part of our corporate social responsibility.”
Despite all efforts to make the business more sustainable, in 2008 a Swiss customer felt that things should go a step further. “To be able to call ourselves really green the customer felt we should also grow organically,” says the grower. “That meant no chemicals and only organic fertilisers. The buyer wanted us to do this even if it was just in part of the nursery, because then the retail chain Coop – the client in question – could also differentiate itself better.”

Long search

Van der Weijden picked up the gauntlet but soon realised he was going to have invent the wheel himself. Apart from encouraging words, breeders, substrate suppliers and knowledge centres had little to offer that could give him some tailwind. “Apart from biological crop protection, which we were already using, biological cultivation of orchids was completely virgin territory," he says.
The grower did not give up and instead started years of searching for a solution in which plant nutrition stood and still plays a central role. Two factors raised hurdles: the long cultivation period of orchids and the poor growth medium, which is almost completely composed of bark.

Conversion process

“Phalaenopsis is a epiphyte and grows best on bark,” explains the grower. “Bark, however, has hardly any buffer capacity. For standard production that’s not really a problem because in principle all nutrients can be supplied in an available form via the fertiliser. When you apply organic fertilisers, the organic ingredients first have to be converted into inorganic components. That takes a few days and really you don’t have this time. Every time you water, you flush out a large part of the nutrients that after the previous watering were converted into an absorbable form. In addition, bark is a medium with a very poor environment, without any rich soil life that can promote the conversion.”
It took years for the grower to devise the mixture of vegetable and animal manure with which he now achieves acceptable results. He makes the manure into a thin ‘soup’ in a stock container, where the conversion process also starts. Via a separate watering installation – the organic cultivation is strictly separated from the conventional cultivation – this soup is added to the irrigation water.

Slower response, longer cultivation period

The second difficult factor is the long cultivation period. Van der Weijden: “You can try new things and push many different buttons but the results are only visible in the plants five to six months later.”
The limitations imposed by the use of organic fertilisers and the necessity to keep the crop as generative as possible during the hardening off phase does, however, force a steady cultivation regime.
“The quality is no less than that of conventionally grown plants but a completely organic production takes at least three months longer,” says the Dutchman. For that reason he purposefully limits the organic range to the strongest growing varieties. Depending on the progress that is being steadily made the assortment will certainly be expanded.

Quality mark

It is clear that the development of a profitable organic cultivation method requires infinite patience and cannot be carried out on a large scale. In 2014 Van der Weijden eventually reached the point that he was returning reasonable production results that met the official Dutch guidelines (SKAL). “It took a lot of time and energy because initially SKAL did not want us to source material from meristem culture,” he says. “Fortunately, after two years we got the green light, otherwise I’d have thrown in the towel.”

Share my experiences

The first organic phalaenopsis plants were launched on the market early in 2015. In addition to Coop, which loyally stuck to its promises, the grower also supplies other highly-positioned supermarket chains and garden centres in Europe. Although demand is still growing, the share of organic production on the nursery is still less than 10 per cent. It is understandable that it isn’t storming along due to the higher cost- and sales price. However, the market potential is far from fully exploited.
“Over the last 12 months I've spoken to several buyers who would like to sell more organic products than just phalaenopsis,” says the grower. “They find the offer still too narrow and therefore remain reticent.”
When prompted Van der Weijden says that he has not yet been approached by growers who want to copy his initiative. “That surprises me. I am happy to share my experiences with growers who sincerely want to make a start with organic production. Such cooperation can mutually benefit both partners. But it’s logical that I’m not waiting for other phalaenopsis growers to come along. With more of the same we won’t raise the entire organic segment to a higher level.”

Learned a lot

If colleagues join or not, GreenBalanz continues to search for further optimisation. Trials are running with fertilisers, plant improvers and preparations and new varieties are continually being tested.
“We still have a lot to learn,” says the green grower. “What I find very positive is that this project has also yielded a lot for the conventional crop. For the last two years we haven’t had to treat the entire greenhouse for mealybugs, because due to our approach in the organic section we were overall more alert and scouting was more intensive. Previously it was an ‘effort’ that no one looked forward to. Now it is a responsible task with clear added value, which two employees really enjoy doing.”
Another change that has been implemented throughout the nursery is the disinfection of auction containers by placing them in a freezer cell for 24 hours at -20ºC before and after use. The containers are an important contamination source of aphids but the insects can’t survive a temperature of 20 degrees below. “Actually the auction should do that itself, now we do it,” says the grower. “Fortunately it brings us significant savings.”

Summary

After years of searching, GreenBalanz, of the Netherlands, has developed a workable method for the organic cultivation of phalaenopsis. Grower Lennard van der Weijden hopes other pot plant crops will follow his initiative. He argues that some retailers find the supply of organic pot plants still too narrow to include in their range.

Text and images: Jan van Staalduinen

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Phalaenopsis growers sometimes use artificial lighting for 16 hours per day, totalling 8 to 10 mol/m2/day, especially in the winter. For a crop with a cultivation period of 40 to 50 weeks, lighting is therefore a major expense. Measurements show that the correct timing of artificial lighting is more important than the total light sum. Additional research should show whether growers can indeed save around 30% on the lighting hours. Before making such a big change in mindset and operation, growers want absolute certainty.

Since 2012 light specialists Sander Hogewoning and Govert Trouwborst of research centre Plant Lighting, of Bunnik the Netherlands, have been researching the ideal lighting for phalaenopsis. They’ve been doing that with colleagues from Plant Dynamics. It’s rewarding work because very little scientific research has been carried out on this subject. As a result there’s plenty to discover. The Dutch program Kas als Energiebron (Greenhouse as Energy Source) – whose goal is to save energy – was the most important investor in the trials. The crop alliance for pot orchids, of the growers association, LTO Glaskracht Nederland, also contributes and is actively involved in the research.

How much lighting makes sense?

Hogewoning outlines the situation from the beginning. Phalaenopsis is a CAM-plant, just like pineapple, agave and cactus. This means that photosynthesis is different to ordinary C3-plants. CAM-plants are slow growers who only open their stomata in the afternoon. They take up CO2 during the afternoon and night and store it in cells in the form of malate. Storage space is thereby limited. Photosynthesis takes place during the day because light is needed for this. When the malate is all used up photosynthesis for the most part stops.
“Growers now use a lot of light even if the plant isn’t using the light. How much lighting is actually useful for a CAM-plant? And when?” asks the researcher.

Long night unfavourable

In a study in 2014 the researchers showed that a light sum of 6.5 mol/m2/day is enough to fulfil the maximum storage for malate, under the condition that the leaves remain fairly horizontal. More lighting does not yield any more photosynthesis. In addition, the trials showed that allowing in more light during the later phase of cultivation compared with the early phase did not lead to any extra photosynthesis. Another interesting conclusion: Lighting fully in the early morning and afternoon doesn't make sense: During those hours electron transport in the leaves is low.
Trouwborst: “Nevertheless, it is also unwise to provide no light during these inefficient hours. Continuously lighting for 16 hours yielded better results than maintaining a long night and providing 12 hours of light. Growers in practise experience the same. Therefore we wanted to look for the best lighting recipe.”

Step-by-step or low intensity?

This was the focus of the research in 2015. Hogewoning explains his goal. “The aim is to save energy by using less lighting during the hours when the plant hardly uses the light. The question is how far can you dim in the morning and/or the afternoon without loss of production?"
The researchers trialled the variety Sacramento over two sessions. One trial ran from mid March to end May, the second ran from the start of June to the end of July 2015. They started with plants that had already been through the cultivation and cooling phases. They divided them over eight climate units, each of 25 plants. The units simulated daylight similar to that in a winter situation.
Each unit received its own light recipe using SON-T-lighting for about eight weeks. One of these was the control that received lighting similar to that normally used in practise. This was 7 mol/m2/day dosed over 16 hours. Four treatments were dynamic and based on previous research. “For these treatments we maintained a day length of 16 hours. During the inefficient hours in the morning and evening we dimmed the SON-T light to a greater or lesser extent. We switched them on and off in different ways. This saved between 8 and 33 per cent electricity. In addition, two treatments had a day length of 11.5 hours.”

Dimming the light works

The results were very positive. They confirmed the hypothesis that dimming at certain hours is possible and agreed with the results of previous research. The total CO2 uptake for each of the four dynamic treatments was the same as the control treatment of 7 mol/m2/day over 16 hours - even the same as the treatment that saved more than 30% on energy.
Hogewoning: “The savings are substantial; in practise that can amount to hundreds of thousands of euros, not only on electricity costs, but also because growers can replace the bulbs less often.” Trouwborst adds: “Therefore it’s not about achieving the correct light sum but the right timing. You have to use the right light intensity at the right moment.”
Hogewoning points out another important result. “A long night came out the worst, which we also discovered in 2014. When we continuously lit for 11.5 hours, 7 mol/m2/day, the CO2-uptake by the plant is less than in the dimming treatment with a 16 hour day length and a light sum of 5.2 mol/m2/day.”

Questions from commercial growers

These are spectacular results, but will phalaenopsis growers dare to dim the SON-T-lights early in the morning and afternoon? Trouwborst: “We recently presented these results to the supervisory commission and the crop alliance for pot orchids. Their first question was: ‘Does anyone do this in practise already?’ With millions of euros of plant material at stake growers won’t so easily alter their lighting methods. That’s why it is important to slowly scale up this research. The crop alliance is following this very closely.”
Growers, of course, want to know if a good uptake of CO2 translates into plant quality and number of buds. The researchers have also measured that but Hogewoning points out: “The number of plants was too small to draw conclusions. However we do see that the number of flowers is in line with the CO2-uptake. The treatment with the least uptake – a long night, 5.2 mol/m2/day – clearly led to fewer flowers.”

Repeat trial

Because they want to see these positive results confirmed on a larger scale, the researchers are running a repeat trial with more plants. For this they invested in new climate units of over 2 m2, in addition to their existing smaller units. “In these new units we can even let the sun slowly rise and set. All year around we can mimic the light situation in the winter, without being dependent on the weather conditions,” explains Hogewoning.
The trial was due to run until the end of May 2016. In consultation with the growers the researchers ran the two most successful treatments as well as the control treatment, which is similar to that currently used in practise. Hogewoning: “The crop alliance is very curious about the results. They are waiting with baited breath. In the meantime growers who have questions can discuss it within the group.”

Summary

Commercial phalaenopsis growers use a lot of artificial lighting. Research indicates that the timing of the lighting is more important than the total light sum. It seems that growers can dim the lighting early in the morning and in the afternoon without any negative effects. If these initial results are confirmed it appears that at least 30% can be saved on electricity.

Text: Karin van Hoogstraten. Images: Gert Janssen (Vidiphoto)

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Breeders of pot chrysanthemums have for a long time aimed to optimise the task of the grower. By concentrating on ‘families’ of varieties the crop has been raised to a new level. Now it’s time to make a new step forward, says Elien Pieters, of Gediflora. Marketing and promotion – traditionally not the job of the grower – are getting more attention. Here there is still much scope for innovation.

The number of pot chrysanthemum breeders is straightforward: 11 nurseries in total in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France and the US. Gediflora, of Oostnieuwkerke, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, is market leader with about 60%. Two years ago Elien Pieters took over the nursery from her father. Actually at that point she wasn’t very interested in chrysanthemums; she had studied business sciences. But after one month she was excited.
She saw plenty of opportunities in sales and marketing. Her input brought the nursery into a new phase, just like when her father took over from his father. He brought breeding to a high international level. Breeding remains the core business but promotion and marketing will also get more attention in future.

Keep the green fingers

The nursery has 14 ha of open field (including the selection field) and 3 ha of greenhouses. It employs 31 full-time workers and in the peak season (rooting of cuttings) an additional 40 seasonal workers. Worldwide it sells 70 million cuttings (including licenses), of which 40 million are in Europe. The Netherlands is the largest market for cuttings, followed by Belgium and Germany in joint second place and France in third.
“Our nursery comprises three divisions,” says Pieters. “The R&D-department is involved with classical crossings and selection, breeding of mutations and carrying out projects with institutes. The second area is the propagation. We have partners in Brazil and Africa who produce the cuttings. The cutting are checked here in Belgium and then shipped to the client, rooted or unrooted. The third area is our own production. We do this purely to maintain our green fingers and to get feedback from retail. We then pass this information onto our customers. We make sure that our production does not cross paths with that of our clients.”

Breeding in families

Targeted breeding is difficult in chrysanthemums because the crop is hexaploid. In the past, the emphasis was on extending the season. Now that this has been achieved the emphasis today is on creating families. Other characteristics remain important for breeding she says. “We want the plant to have a nice ball shape without having to be disbudded, so no labour; also resistance to diseases, such as rust, is selected for at an early stage. Sometimes nice varieties are rejected for this reason. Furthermore, the flexibility of the canopy is an important feature. It has to slide well into the sleeve and then unfold again well when at the consumer. In addition we work with varieties that require none or very little growth inhibitor.”
Breeding in ‘families’ has clearly lifted the crop to a higher level. A family is actually a variety that is available in different colours. For example, the Jasoda-family is worldwide number one and is available in colours dark orange, pink, yellow, mauve, red and white. “Producing families gives our clients the highest return. Because they are the same variety you can apply the same treatment to the different colours: the same time for shading; the same kind of inhibition; the same planning. However, there is a disadvantage to growing in families: you can’t suddenly change the colour,” she says.

Very strong genetics

Clear trends are visible in the consumer market: Pink tints are the favourite at the beginning of the season (August), autumn colours at the end (November). But breeding is a long-term affair so it’s difficult to respond quickly to consumer trends. “In the long run breeders have to follow their own line. But during the introduction of new varieties you can purposefully place the fashionable colours in the market. Actually you should be able to fulfil all the trends from your breeding program,” says Pieters. In addition, the leading Belgian breeder wants to reach more market segments by producing different varieties, such as large flowers, new colours and diverse flower types.
In the past, yellow, with 60% of the sales was the main colour. That is now 40%. In traditional catholic countries, such as Spain, white-flowered plants still play an important role in the cemetery at the beginning of November. “Tradition is okay, but we can’t live purely on tradition,” she says. “We have a comfortable starting position with very strong genetics; the challenge now is the marketing."

Belgian beer

This begs the fundamental question whether or not it is the role of the breeder to promote and position the end product in the market. In order to create ideas she meets with, among others, the retailers. This led to the promotion line, Buddies: special varieties that are wrapped in a matching-coloured sleeve, which also gives tips on care and use. A booklet is included to highlight the plant’s role in creating atmosphere both on a patio as well as inside. “The aim is to use these promotional materials as part of the partnership between our clients and their customers,” she explains.
Belgian Mum No. 1 was developed as a promotional eye catcher for selected customers: This is unfiltered Belgian beer that contains an extract of chrysanthemum flower petals. “For the retail market we especially created a duo-presentation: the MumBeer and a glass in stylish black packaging plus a pot chrysanthemum in a black sleeve.”

Unexplored territory

The duo-presentation is a striking way to create a positive and surprising feeling towards the pot chrysanthemum. But it is relatively unexplored territory, says Pieters. “We still have a long way to go regarding the promotion of the end product. It is very labour intensive; it costs a lot of money and you don’t see any direct return. It’s about keeping alive the enthusiasm for the product. And there is still much to do in terms of experience. But it is very nice to create new inspiring concepts."

Summary

Key criteria for breeders of pot chrysanthemums are: extending the season; disease resistance; flexibility of the canopy; and building up ‘families’. The latter has raised the crop to a higher level. With the appointment of Elien Pieters to the board of a Belgian breeder company, more attention is being paid to marketing and promotion.

Text: Tijs Kierkels. Photos: Wilma Slegers