2018 PPA includes inside look at Amazon

Features - Industry Events

This year’s Perennial Plant Symposium featured insights from Amazon’s horticultural services manager, tours of local growers and scholarship awards for the next generation.

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October 11, 2018
Chris Manning
The Spheres, part of Amazon HQ in downtown Seattle, houses some 400 species of plants from around the world.
PHOTO: AMAZON

This past July, the Perennial Plant Symposium was held in the Raleigh, N.C., area for the first time since 1997. During the event, which took place July 30 through Aug. 3, both established professionals and the next generation were recognized, Amazon’s lead horticulturist presented information about the retail giant’s plant-oriented space in downtown Seattle, and attendees toured several prominent local growers and landscape operations.

Amazon believes in the benefits of plants

2018’s Perennial Plant Symposium was a homecoming of sorts for Ron Gagliardo. Before he moved into his current position as Amazon’s senior manager in horticultural services — and Amazon’s first horticulturist — in 2014, he worked for Tony Avent, a local PPA committee member, at Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh.

Primarily, Gagliardo works on The Spheres, the online retail giant’s take on an urban office combined with biophilic design, which means designing spaces that play to humans innate desire to interact with other life forms. He and other members of the Amazon horticulture team sourced plants from botanical gardens, private gardens and universities across the globe. The Spheres are in the heart of downtown Seattle and are accessible to the public. The overall design of the project, he says, was based on research that indicates that being around nature can improve humans’ brain functionality and boost creativity.

The Spheres project took months of planning and research to find the right plants for the facility, according to Gagliardo. The first plant grown for the plant collection was Herrania balaensis, an Ecuadorean cacao species that produces pods that are often used to create high-quality chocolates. The space is divided into several collections, ranging from the vertical gardens of the Canyon Living Wall to a fernery space. A full overview of the plants at the sphere can be found at seattlespheres.com/the-plants.

But despite the large scale of the facility, pictured above, and the unique plants inhabiting it, the success of The Spheres is founded in traditional greenhouse growing. In order to grow new plants for the facility and to have a safe space for plants that need to be rotated out, Amazon purchased a greenhouse in Woodinville, Wash., about a 50-minute drive from Seattle, to help supplement The Spheres.

Award-winning horticulturists across the age spectrum

In its 21st year, the Perennial Plant Association’s scholarship program offers college students enrolled in a two- or four-year program a $1,000 stipend, full access to the annual symposium and time to network with industry professionals. This year’s winners were as follows:

  • Phyllis Daugherty, Alamance Community College
  • Lynn Lorio, Cincinnati State Technical & Community College
  • Olivia Fiala, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Kayla Goldstein, Community College of Baltimore County
  • David McKinney, Colorado State University
  • Markis Hill, Kansas State University
  • Christian Jay Moore, The Ohio State University
  • Bruce Moore, Kansas State University

Additionally, several industry professionals were recognized. Hoffman Nursery led the way with three different awards. John Hoffman, owner and founder, received the Award of Merit, and John and his wife and co-owner, Jill, were jointly honored with the Grower of the Year award. Their son, David, was also recognized with the Young Professional Award, which honors a student or newcomer “based on their involvement in the PPA, has contributed to the success of their company, and has portrayed a positive image of the perennial plant industry to the public.”

For the full list of PPA award winners, visit bit.ly/ppa-2018-awards

Metrolina Greenhouses currently has 170 acres of covered production space in Huntersville, N.C., and is in the process of adding 40 additional acres.
PHOTO: CHRIS MANNING
Each year, Metrolina Greenhouses produces five million mums in addition to annuals, perennials and poinsettias.
PHOTO: CHRIS MANNING

A look inside Metrolina Greenhouses

On the first day of the event, a group of attendees visited Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, N.C. In Huntersville — one of two locations where Metrolina grows annuals, perennials, mums and other crops — the grower has 170 acres of production space in glass greenhouses. And it plans on expanding in the next few years.

According to Mark Yelanich, Metrolina’s director of research, and Ivan Tchakarov, Metrolina’s director of growing, the business is planning on adding 40 acres of production space over the next five to eight years. The plan is to expand five acres at a time until completion.

And each of the five acres will be constructed in the same way. First, concrete is poured and set to establish a solid base for the facilities. Then, the rest of the greenhouse is constructed piece by piece. Once one five-acre section is completed, the process restarts with the next five acres.

According to Tchakarov, this expansion will present some problems that must be strategically solved. Currently, he says Metrolina employs 625 full-time employees and 800 to 1,000 seasonal employees depending on the time of the year. Adding more space will only increase a need for a labor, and Tchakarov is unsure how robust the local labor pool is.

However, both Tchakarov and Yelanich noted that automation will play a big part in managing labor needs. While noting that it can be complex to manage and organize this automation properly, they believe that it leads to increased efficiencies in the greenhouse during the busiest times of the year. If additional labor is not as readily available as Metrolina might need, automation will likely play a big part in solving the problem.

Sustainable, local lilies

Located near several old tobacco farms in Durham, North Carolina, Sarah & Michael’s Farm, operates a bit differently than its neighbors and sells an entirely different crop.

A lily grower primarily selling to Whole Foods, Sarah & Michael’s Farm plants around 5,400 bulbs a day in the spring. Due to the North Carolina heat, owner and head grower Michael Turner says the business specializes in Asiatic and Oriental lilies that can better handle the hot climate. At PPA, Turner also gave a presentation about the business’ use of biological controls instead of chemicals for aphid management in the greenhouse. He says that since he started using biologicals, aphids have not been an issue for his business.

Additionally, when some attendees toured his greenhouses, Turner showcased how he grows differently than his tobacco-growing neighbors by being more environmentally conscious. At Sarah & Michael’s Farm, lilies are grown in coconut coir imported from Sri Lanka. According to Turner, he decided to grow with coir because it is reusable even though shipping it to his facility takes longer than other growing media options.

To re-use the coir, it is steamed to remove any leftover old bulbs or leaves, which are then moved to the compost pile. The steamed coir is then reused, and reused again, until it is no longer useful. Turner says that this process is not only good for the Earth, but is financially responsible.

Additionally, Turner grows bulbs in the same crates they arrive in and steams the crates afterwards to protect against diseases and weeds before being reused. Bulbs, which are only used once because Turner says it is more economical to buy new bulbs since the second flowers from bulbs are often smaller, are perhaps the only item Turner doesn’t find a way to re-use.

Chris is assistant editor of sister publication Greenhouse Management magazine.