feature story

blooming plant

Techniques to help you create a thriving blooming plant business.
by Shelley Urban

If you’ve ever considered adding or increasing your selection of blooming plants, you know that competition with mass marketers, supermarkets and local garden centers can be fierce. Therefore, carving out a niche, in special types or unusual varieties of plants, could help you build a strong blooming plant business, and maintaining an optimal environment to keep your plants thriving will ensure great value and customer satisfaction. With help from experts in blooming plants and retail plant care, we’ll guide you on how to do both.

Creating Your Niche
In its 2004 Floriculture and Nursery Crops Situation and Outlook Yearbook, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that, over the last decade, orchids have had the strongest sales growth. In addition, while other plant sales slowed in 2003 (including poinsettias), orchids, along with spring-flowering bulbs, increased. Therefore, they have strongest potential although other blooming plants not specifically tracked by the USDA, such as Hydrangeas, lavenders and Christmas/Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera/Zygocactus), are also reported as best-sellers by several blooming plant producers.
To compete with mass merchandisers, many florists opt for out-of-the-ordinary orchid genera (rather than the more traditional Dendrobium and Phalaenopsis) and colors. Suzie Cordero-Schneider, sales and marketing manager for Cymbidium supplier Gallup & Stribling, says that orchids in exotic colors, such as speckled brownish-green, have a strong following among florists.
In addition to Cymbidiums, which, according to Ms. Cordero-Schneider, are usually sold by mass-market outlets only on specific holidays, consider the less common genera such as Cattleyas, Oncidiums and Vandas. Look for unexpected bloom forms and novel colors.
With spring-flowering bulbs, perhaps your best approach is to focus on selling them at less mature stages of development than other suppliers. If customers are educated about the value of purchasing bulb flowers in early bud stages, they’ll be pleased with the plants’ longevity and blooming process. Follow our care guidelines to ensure that your flowering bulb plants are maintained in optimal conditions for longest consumer enjoyment.
And with other popular blooming plants, look for striking color combinations, double varieties and new, exciting offerings. Ask your favorite supplier for help with finding unexpected blooming plant merchandise.

Caring For Potted Bulbs
To keep bulb products looking their best while they’re in your shop and to slow development for maximum consumer enjoyment, Gary Anderson, Ph.D., professor and floriculture specialist at The Ohio State University, recommends the coolest environment with the brightest light. Both, he says, are equally important. “If florists have especially cool areas in their shops with plenty of sunlight, those areas would be ideal,” Dr. Anderson explains.
However, since typical room temperatures (usually around 70 degrees F) will hasten bulb development, Terril Nell, Ph.D., AAF, a professor and researcher at the University of Florida and president of the Society of American Florists (SAF), recommends an even more aggressive approach. “Florists should display potted bulbs in coolers,” he states. “Temperatures around 35 degrees F are ideal.”
Whatever method you choose, Dr. Anderson says that customer education is essential, since most consumers will look for color and fragrance. But if sprouted bulbs show significant color and are even open enough for fragrance to be detectable, their remaining vibrancy will be relatively short.
Therefore, encourage customers to purchase potted bulbs in early stages of development with signage and care tags that explain the benefits of bulbs showing little or no color. And if you think it will help, place a few pots at room temperature to allow them to develop a bit, so a little color is visible.
Most importantly, don’t neglect to water them, even if they’re stored in the cooler. See our watering guidelines on page 70 for more details.

Caring For Other Bloomers
With all blooming plants, Dr. Nell wisely recommends keeping plant care simple and providing the same basic maintenance to all blooming inventory (other than bulbs). “There’s no need for florists to take the time to segregate their blooming plants and try to provide each one different care,” he advises. “The goal is to maintain plants’ healthiness until they are sold.”
For maximum consumer enjoyment, blooming plants should be sold within a week—and hopefully sooner. During that time, meeting plants’ light, water and temperature needs is vital. Here’s what our experts tell us about this trio of all-important plant needs.

1. Light. Inadequate lighting is perhaps the biggest obstacle to thriving blooming plants, which require more light than foliage plants. Although different plants have different light requirements, Dr. Anderson says that blooming plants generally require light in the range of 150 to 400 foot-candles (a measure of light). “However,” he notes, “40 to 80 foot-candles is typical of most retail environments.” This means that, in a typical store, the light intensity needs to be two to 10 times greater than what is provided, with the average being four times brighter.
Another measure of light intensity is “lux,” which is measured with a lux, or light, meter. The minimum acceptable light intensity for blooming plants is 2,500 lux, and 10,000 lux or higher is preferred.
Negative effects associated with low lighting can be visible within just a few days. “Plants decline rapidly in low light conditions,” says Dr. Nell. “We have found that, depending on the species, three to five days of inadequate light can result in premature leaf yellowing, bud drop and reduced flower longevity,” he explains.
Drs. Anderson and Nell say that windows providing southern or western exposures are ideal and should come close to achieving the bright levels of light required (depending on their size). Additionally, only close proximity to windows provides enough light for plants.
For instance, at 3 feet away from a window, the light intensity is reduced to 80 percent or even to 50 percent; at a distance of 6 to 7 feet, the light intensity falls to about 25 percent; and at 10 feet away, the intensity is only about 10 percent. Remember, too, that the quality of natural light is not consistent throughout the year, and the amount of light varies with the length of days.
If you’re fortunate enough to have southern or western exposures in your shop, be sure to use something to filter the light. “Direct sunlight can cause rapid water loss and may burn the leaves of some plants,” Dr. Anderson cautions. If a filter is necessary, both men recommend a sheer curtain or partially open blind, so the sun’s intense rays are less likely to cause damage.
If you don’t have adequate natural light in your shop, consider investing in an artificial plant lighting system. Track-light, spotlight and/or fluorescent fixtures, outfitted with daylight, or full-spectrum, light bulbs (which provide a spectral distribution comparable to natural sunlight) and positioned over a blooming plant display, can provide the proper light intensity. Today, full-spectrum bulbs are available in incandescent flood lights, fluorescent tubes, halogen and more. Ordinary bulbs will not do the trick.
Dr. Anderson suggests placing them about 24 inches above the plants, which is ideal for most plants. African violets, however, prefer a closer light source. He also mentions “light carts,” which can have up to four tiers on which plants can be displayed. Fluorescent tubes provide lighting.

2. Water. Blooming plants’ water needs vary by plant type, planting medium and other environmental factors. “The best way to water properly,” Dr. Nell shares, “is to test the moisture level by inserting a finger about 1 inch into the [planting] medium. If the medium is moist to the touch, then no water is required, but if it’s dry, it’s time to water.”
Perform this quick moisture check when plants arrive at your shop, and water only those that need it. Continue checking moisture daily. And when it’s time to water, take steps to ensure proper drainage, since sitting in water can damage roots, as can allowing them to dry out.

3. Temperature. For most blooming plants, other than potted bulbs, the ideal temperature range is 60 F to 65 F, but since most people are comfortable at higher temperatures, Dr. Nell recommends setting your thermostat at 70 F. Above that, your plants might be harmed.
In addition, avoid placing plants near doorways and other areas with cool drafts. Many types of blooming plants, including African violets, are sensitive to even momentary exposure to cold.
Make sure customers are aware of this, too, starting with the sale. If and when it’s cold in your city, completely wrap your plants to protect them from low outdoor temperatures.
By following these guidelines and selecting items and colors not available in every other floral outlet, you can build a bustling blooming plant business. Ask your favorite suppliers for guidance on sourcing rare, hard-to-find or unexpected items.

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