The quality control journey

The quality control journey
From propagation to pulling orders, and every step in between,
growers have many opportunities to impact plant quality
By Kym Pokorny
Plants have personality. Each one
grows at its own speed and habit.
For the wholesale nurseries turning
them out by the hundreds of thousands,
that’s not necessarily a good thing. After
all, customers tend to value an individual
plant’s quality, rather than its quirks.
“For anybody who has an interest in growing plants on a large scale
and making money at it, it’s important
to adopt the mindset that a wholesale
nursery is a plant factory,” said Mark
Buchholz, president of Skagit Gardens in
Mount Vernon, Washington. “You want
every plant to look like it came out of a
plant-growing machine.”
Step one: Sorting and grading
In this uniformity-equals-quality
world, grading is the first key to success.
At every opportunity, from propagation
to pulling orders, growers need to assess
size and health and weed out the weak.
“Each time you touch a plant, you have
the opportunity to grade it,” said Buchholz.
That’s a lot of chances for sorting!
During its life at a nursery, a plant
moves from liner or plug to ultimate
commercial size after being transplanted
several times. Humans put hands on the
plants several more times for spacing
and pruning. Even truck-loading time
offers an opportunity for sorting.
At Oregon Pride Nurseries in
McMinnville, salespeople and other staff
who interact with customers make one final
inspection of the plants as they are being
readied for loading. If a plant or block of
plants isn’t up to par, it isn’t shipped.
“We’ll come back to the customer
and say, ‘You know, you had a viburnum on order, but what we have to pull
from isn’t what you expect,’” said Mike
Lee, the nursery’s production manager.
“Then they have a choice. It’s better than
shipping a plant they won’t want. It’s
our last measure of control.”
From propagation (left) to the growing fields
(middle) to shipping time (right), it pays to
pay attention to quality control, so customers
receive the caliber of plants they expect.
Photos courtesy of van essen nursery co.
Step two: Minimizing
the uncontrollable
The challenges of consistency are
many. Labor, shipping and weather can
drive a nursery owner crazy.
“You can control pruning, spacing,
irrigation and fertilizer,” said Dave Van
Essen, owner of Van Essen Nursery
near Lebanon, Oregon, “but you can’t
control weather or shipping. If a truck
driver turns off the refrigerator or is
three days late, you can’t control it.
It’s the most frustrating and difficult
thing to deal with.”
Lee knows exactly what Van Essen
means. He cited the weather in the
Willamette Valley last year when it
rained constantly in May, keeping them
from their scheduled fungicide applications — an unfortunate situation
february 2015
quality control
Employees at Van Essen Nursery Co. use a
custom-designed lawnmower apparatus to
move down the rows of containerized plants
and shear them to a uniform height.
in an area where rainy springs already
complicate disease control.
But it’s not just the local conditions
that can pose problems. A bad forecast
on the receiving end can be just as aggravating. No matter how ready the plants
may be, they can’t be shipped if the
weather is terrible on the customers’ end.
“You can plan the best you can, but
you have to accept the fact that it’s not
always going to be 100 percent on,” Lee
said. “You have to tell the customer up
front that you pruned a week ago and
the plants are just starting to bud. That
way you minimize surprise on the other
side when they open the truck.”
Step three: Mechanizing uniformity
Like all growers, Robinson Nursery
wants to ensure that customers receive
what they ordered. To that end, the com-
february 2015 ▲ DIGGER
pany started switching out some of their
300-variety stock of trees and shrubs from
bare root to container grown using an
innovative pot that allows roots to grow
through slits in the side and be dried —
or pruned — by the air.
That allows for more direct application of nutrients and water, which makes
for more uniform plants and allows the
company to produce trees that don’t do
well when grown bare root.
“Who drives that quality control?” said
Chris Robinson, the nursery’s production
manager. “The customer does. They tell
us what they need. That’s the key.”
Pruning is another area where uniformity can be graded. Machines, for some
growers, are the way to go. Not only are
they fast, they are also precise, according to Matt Gold of Gold Hill Nursery in
Hillsboro. Once the parameters are pro-
grammed, the machine cuts to produce a
cookie-cutter crop that satisfies the customer’s demand for uniformity.
Optical sensors, calibrated for
size, leaf density and color, are used in
tractor-mounted systems and even drone
applications. These machines help with
inventory and sorting, which improves
crop consistency.
“Aside from the obvious benefit of
quality,” Buchholz said, “these machines
streamline, speed up and lower the cost
of the tedious work of grading small
plugs and liners.”
The cost of such state-of-the-art
systems is about the one-time price
of a small, year-round grading crew.
“You can purchase an optical pluggrading machine, significantly improving the quality of transplanted liners
while at the same time easily quintu-
pling the output of the grading process,” Buchholz added.
Robots, which take on the task of
spacing container plants, cost about
half the yearly cost of a seasonal
worker and can be employed full time,
which makes it possible to complete
critical work on schedule.
Step four: Training the right way
Machines are widespread and robots
on the rise, but simple tools work, too,
said Buchholz. He has used bamboo
stakes, foot-long Felco grass shears, even
marks on Levi’s to teach staff to measure
pruning height correctly.
“It takes out the variability of what
this person thinks versus what that one
thinks,” he said.
Training is important. Robinson
said when the nursery was smaller they
could count on employees to load an
order of plants of the same size, shape
and high quality. Since the company
has grown, maintaining this uniformity
has become more difficult. With so
many different people pulling orders
now, it’s become necessary to mark
plants with tags or paint codes. Workers
refer to the pull sheet and match the
colors to the plants.
“You can’t send someone out
who’s only been here two months and
expect them to know which trees are
which,” Robinson said. “Now we grade
them. Keep them in sections of all the
same size and color-code them. The
staff learns that quickly. Anyone can
look at a pull sheet and pull the plants
for that order.”
Step five: Keeping the pests away
Trained labor is essential when it
comes to weed and pest control, too.
As Robinson pointed out, shipping
plants with pests or diseases can wreak
havoc in the area where it ends up.
That’s not good for business.
To get a leg up on pest control,
Oregon Pride was one of the first nurseries to get accepted into the Grower
Assisted Inspection Program (GAIP)
through the Oregon Department of
Agriculture (ODA). Growers have to
take a proactive approach on plant
health by training employees, having a
team of scouts documenting pests and
implementing best practices.
“Through GAIP, we get priority in
getting our phyto papers for Canada,”
Lee said. “Because of our documentation to ODA, they know we’re on top
of it. That’s really important to us. We
put it out there on our sleeve.”
It’s expensive to get a handle on
pests, especially weeds. Gold esti-
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february 2015
quality control
mated that controlling weeds costs
three to four times more than other pest
issues, most significantly on labor for
hand weeding.
“We use a preventative program for
controlling particular pests,” Gold said.
“If there are employees scouting, we can
time things right and minimize the damage. That’s where knowledge and a program make a big difference. And that all
goes back to training employees.”
As well as scouting, cultural practices minimize pests and diseases. All
diseases need three things: the right
pathogen, the right host and the right
environment. If you’ve got the trinity, contamination will be high. If you
reduce pest-friendly environments, you
can minimize problems. Keeping plants
spaced appropriately to give them
good air circulation is important, Gold
explained, as is avoiding over-watering.
don’t throw away a lot of plants, so that
tells me the system works.”
These soon-to-be-pink-blooming wallflowers
(Erysimium ‘Bowles’ Mauve’) are close to
shipment-ready. Photo courtesy of skagit gardens
“You can always remove a plant
along the way because you think it will
end up in the dump anyway,” he said.
“We are a little more forgiving. We’re
less likely to remove it early on. We
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The goal: Achieving consistency
Much of what separates a so-so
nursery from a successful one is consistency, which is driven by an eye for
quality and an ear for customers. At
every turn, that consistency comes from
grading plants into the same size and
similar shape.
“In the end, it’s uniformity that
drives us,” Gold said. “In the nursery
industry, we’re manufacturers. It’s a
lot harder for us to make it uniform
like someone who’s making Legos, but
that’s what we’re trying for.”
Kym Pokorny is a freelance writer
specializing in gardening and the
nursery industry. She can be reached
at [email protected]