Quality Control

April 18, 2003 - 11:03

After a few days, not to mention how one feels at the end of
a week or more, at the California Pack Trials, it's easy to become jaded about
perfection. There are approximately 30 breeder/marketing companies holding open
houses during the two-week period, and each one has a grand display full of new
varieties and old favorites -- perfect specimens that you would expect to see
gracing the cover of Better Homes and Gardens.

Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by beautiful plants of
every shape, color, size, texture and fragrance. After all, this is the event
where breeders and marketers show off their best. And the 2003 Pack Trials were
no exception. In fact, several companies had more elaborate displays than ever
before.

Over the next few months, GPN and sister publication Lawn
& Garden Retailer will be highlighting some of the best new introductions
from this year's Pack Trials, but for now, with my head still spinning from
color overload and while I am still trying to decide which of the new
introductions are truly new and news-worthy, my thoughts keep wandering back to
those companies that really stood out. I don't mean the ones with the fancy
displays or gift bags. I mean the ones with the best-looking plant material on
display.

The wheat from the chaff

Allow me an analogy. You know how the smallest
hole-in-the-wall restaurant can either serve the best food or cause the worst
case of food poisoning? It's almost impossible to tell from the outside which
you'll get because the things that make a restaurant really good are back in
the kitchen: quality ingredients and skilled cooks. The same is true in
floriculture, only our distinguishing characteristics are genetics and
production.

Pack Trials is a great place to measure differences in the
former. If there are significant genetic differences, this one mounds that one
is prostrate, those become very clear. Perhaps not in the side-by-side
comparisons at a single stop, but certainly a composite of impressions from
several stops will yield some good information. The difficulty lately is that
the lowest acceptable level of genetics is very high, making the differences
between companies less visible, but I guess that's a good problem to have.

The complicating factor when comparing varieties is
production. Over and over, at almost every stop, I saw plants that had been
mistimed, roughly handled and produced poorly. Again, I'm not talking about bad
genetics (after all, with competition so tight, who can really afford to have
bad genetics); I'm talking about the plants that didn't look good. Maybe the
grower wasn't familiar with the genetics, maybe the plants had to be shipped
long distances, maybe the timing was off. Whatever the reason, the plants just
didn't show well. I saw everything from aphid casings to minor and major
nutrient imbalances to over growth regulation. How could this be? Isn't this
the most important green goods event of the year? What's going on?

Experience is Key

When I saw bad plant material last week, I tried to politely
ask what had happened. In one case, the plants had been shipped down from
Canada. In another, back-up plants had to take an unexpected trip up the coast,
neither transporter or transported were well prepared for the trip. In a couple
of cases, plants had been grown in less than ideal conditions; old greenhouse
coverings with poor light transmission had the anticipated effect on
light-sensitive plants. These two problems can easily be fixed with local
growers and quality production environments (for the latest in greenhouse
trends, turn to page 40). The more prevalent problem is a little more troubling
and a lot more difficult to address.

In most cases of poor plant performance, the varieties were
new, either to the market or to the grower, and the grower was simply not
familiar enough with the variety to produce an exceptional-looking plant.
Sounds easy enough to fix, right? Not with breeder companies introducing
approximately 1,000 new plants each year.

Growers have known for a long time that they can't just pick
up something new to the market and grow it in large quantities. They don't know
how to grow the plant, there is often not enough detailed culture information
on the newest introductions, and often times, new introductions are still undergoing
university trials when they are introduced.

Breeders are recognizing this and have started conducting
trials and making available fairly detailed culture information with
introductions. Still, you will need a trial period, so the sooner you can get some
of these varieties into your operation to try them out, the better you will be.
Not wanting to give too much away, I'll simply say that I saw some really neat
plants last week, so don't wait too long.

About The Author

Bridget White is Editorial Director of GPN. She can be reached at (847) 391-1004;* bwhite@sgcmail.com

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