Behind the scenes in Production

So it’s been over a month already and my first placement at Longwood has been in Production, which has been a great place to start and get an insight of what goes on behind the scenes, all the preparations that take place in terms of the growing of the plants before they are used for their epic displays, and for the gardens general and everyday plant needs. The two big displays that are coming up are the Chrysanthemum Festival and Christmas, so there was a lot of handling of ‘mums’ and Poinsettias - Euphorbia pulcherrima.

Outside the Research Lab and Production. Even behind the scenes, beds are immaculately kept and well planted

There are different sections - the Nursery which is off site - is where a lot of the outdoor plants are too, the Estate Houses and the main Production houses are near the central hub of the actual garden. I was mainly based in the latter. The Production greenhouses are described by a friend who recently visited as being like in ‘Thunderbirds’. I think Americans generally use technology more readily and it is definitely not an exception in Horticulture here, but I may see different in less well resourced places. In this specific area they have doors that come up with a tug of a rope and everything that can be controlled, is, from the light, heat/ cooling, ventilation to irrigation. Many of these asides from watering & feeding which a lot is still done by hand are computerised and automated. Every bench has bottom heat and the adjustment of this is controlled by the computer.

The cooling pads was a feature that was prominently different - not having to put up with so much heat and humidity in the UK I have never come across this. When I arrived here end of August it was still hot: 30°C plus (around 90°F) and very humid - much like the tropics. The cooling pad seems to consists of a cellulose based pad treated with an anti-rot salts, stiffening and wetting agents which looks like large corrugated card. Water is consistently and evenly dripped onto it from an overhead pipe water supply which has bromide in it (usually found in sea water). Air is pulled in from the back and then drawn out by big fans on the other side of the room - essentially an evaporative cooling system. There are benches in the houses on rollers and we have to be careful that plants are not too close to the plant because the bromide burns the leaves. It is a great place to stand next to it when it is hot.

The cooling pads

The production schedule is such that there is a specific person - Jonathan Webb, Crop Inventory Specialist, is assigned to just making plans for what is required, matching it up with demands of the garden, and working out what bench spaces are required and which house the plants are best placed in. John also takes care of the plant orders and buying in stock from different nurseries.

Example of the bench plan for one of the houses

I helped reduce the growth of Clerodendron quadriloculare ‘Starburst’ trained into standards, essentially helping to shape them/ keep them shaped. They have large attractive leaves dark green with purple undersides and give an impressive ‘flowerwork’ display of light pink flowers with long thin dark pink throats. Their growth habit is very vigorous and like some clerodendrons (e.g. C. bungei) suckers readily. They are short day plants so will generally flower under glass in winter here. Native to New Guinea and the Philippines they are commonly grown in South Florida here.

Pinching out Clerodendron quadriloculare ‘Starburst’ standards. Also removing suckering shoots at the base.

They have been progressively pinched back, it has taken two and half years to train them like this, they have some new ones growing to replace these already. They can generally last 7 - 8 years+, but they replace them about every 3-4 years to keep them at their flowering impact best. I was pinching all new shoots back to when they were last pinched to either 1-2 nodes depending on the length of the internode. I left a few unpinched ones just in case they were needed to fill in any gaps. Shoots were tied back to the main stems to train them. The main stem was held in by a metal support that was pushed into the soil in the pot and had metal clasps that held onto the side of the pot.

They grow a lot of tropical plants indoors and outdoors, taking advantage of that hot and humid window in summer, achieving substantial size and growth. When they do have sun it is definitely a more intense light than we have in the UK. They also grow a lot of plants from the Gesneriaceae family things like Saintpaulia, and some much rarer genera like Kohleria and Seemania (formerly known as Gloxinia). Streptocarpus and alpinian Petrocosmea are the plants I am more familiar with in this family, and they do seem to be very ‘fussy’ plants but it would seem that gardeners in the Conservatory has a taste for them like an exotic, hard to acquire delicacy. One of the merits going for them though it that their flowers seem to last a very long time even when cut - a potential unusual cut flower…?

One of the unusual tropical genus that they grow here Gloxmannia ‘She’s Dancing

Another Gesneriaceae genus - Kohleria - in cultivation they are quite high maintenance, they do not like too much sun on their leaves or they will scorch, nor water or they will rot and they are brittle and snap very easily when handled.

I spent a lot of my time staking, tying, pinching and disbudding chrysanthemums and poinsettias. Disbudding refers to the pinching out of buds or shoots that would lead to flowering buds. For Chrysanthemums there are many flowering buds especially at the top, where there is usually the king bud - visibly bigger than the rest and quite central.

Tying in Chrysanthemums with handy turntable device for spinning the pot and ease of getting the string around - there were usually 4 stakes I would tie a cloves hitch knot on the first one, loop the string around each stake including the last one then tie it off first one direction then another.

Chrysanthemum after disbudding.

Chrysanthemum before disbudding.

Some standard experiments.

The chrysanthemums are trained into all shapes and sizes. Longwood’s Chrysanthemum festival takes place for a month from October - November, mums are already making an appearance in the garden, but the pinnacle of the display will take place then which will include a dome of over a thousand chrysanthemums flowers all stemming from one single plant. It would seem that the Americans have an affinity with Chrysanthemums as the British do with roses, even Walmart sells them enmasse cheaply and they are commonly used (badly)in domestic gardens. The mums at Longwood are more like ‘designer’ plants with the amount of care and work that goes into them. Chrysanthemums are prone to Chrysanthemum virus B spread about by sap sucking insects like aphids. At Longwood they have been doing micropropagation to breed it out and to maintain good viable stock.

Chrysanthemums trained to be 8ft+ tall, staked and pinched out all the way up to have one big flower at the top. Additional stake(s) were tied and added to the first stake to help support the plant all the way up.

Close up of tall Chrysanthemums, if the top bud is lost, a side shoot is trained upwards to replace it. They are tied all the way up with string, which the stalk can end up absorbing and growing around - but this does not matter for the short time period they are used for.

We were given a brief introduction to the mother of the mums activity that goes on in the nursery off site. Many hands work on the mums but the master of these creations is Yoko Arakawa.

A Chrysanthemum dome with a just mere 100 or so blooms or so grafted onto one plant.

The Thousand Bloom Mum is a manipulation of one plant, but the ones with different flower species and cultivars on one plant have been grafted, with a mere 100 different blooms done over four days. They train the plants around a shaped frame, the plant is allowed to wilt a little so that the stems can be more pliable to train around the frames. Consideration for each bloom is taken in terms of colour, cultivar, if they will match/ be compatible and if it’s going to flower at the same time as each other. When they disbud these they might take out the obvious central one if it’s a little too vigorous and choose the one next to it, just to make sure flowering times are aligned. There are also chinese style Chrysanthemum pagodas that are grafted and an Artemisia rootstock is used. I have yet to find out how this mind boggling art began. We had the opportunity to do a grafting workshop with Yoko to get an insight of how it’s done - for a novice of this particular skill this was definitely not easy.

My attempt at grafting Chrysanthemum

Grafting Chrysanthemums, what's a good graft join and what's not.

Longwood has quite a collection of Poinsettias, including cultivars that are not available on the market and old standard types. The story of Poinsettias is fascinating, originally from Mexico, in the wild they are suppose to be tall and straggly shrubs/ small trees. But breeding has been done on them to make them more bushy and their coloured bracts to be more showy. Ecke’s nursery in California are the ones responsible for the plant’s association with Christmas. Once upon a time they monopolised the market because of their top secret method of growing more branching and bushier plants. Poinsettias are grafted to obtain the desired shape and form, but it is said that a ‘disease’ was purposely introduced to the plant to cause them to be like this too. The plants are short day flowering plants and to get them ready for Christmas time they have to have no less than 12 hours of darkness. The importance of them is such the case that they have black out materials built into their greenhouses, that can be set to automatically open and close.

A wave of Poinsettias - at different stages and sizes.

From small the plants are reduced to three/ four strong stems preferably not pointing too lateral as they have a tendency to snap, not too far down the bottom of the main stem, and to bush out as evenly on all sides as possible.

Disbudding/ reducing the Poinsettias to three strong stems. We had to wear vinyl gloves when handling Euphorbia because not only is their sap a potential irritant, it is very sticky and hard to wash off.

A Poinsettia half basket to be mounted on the walls in the Conservatory, every new shoots was pinched out to encourage it to bush out. They were placed on a handy support mechanism on the bench, to facilitate easier handling of them.

As well as Poinsettias, there are other Euphorbias - E. leucocephala, E. fulgens, both were pinched and the height of it reduced regularly to encourage bushing out.

Other radical things that I learnt whilst I was on the department was that although the buds on Begonias are predetermined to be leaf or flower buds, you can change this by controlling the light intake of the plants. Begonias are short day flowering plants - so less lights means more flowers - more light means more leaves. But if the plant has buds that are about to flower or have partially formed if you give it more light, those flowers can morph into leaves?!

Begonia flower morphing into a leaf.

You can tell when a Begonia is about to flower - it has ‘blind nodes’ along its stem - i.e. it may have already opened leaves along it but there does not appear to be any buds above each pedicel, which is usually the case if it is in leaf mode. We had to mindful of this when pinching them out to encourage them to bush out. Begonia’s are also directional growing, so to make a good pot display here they put three plants in one pot pointing outwards, so that when it flowers the flowers will be more visible. They also did this unusual method of propagating foliage type Begonias which involved dissecting the petiole into 3 or 4 pieces with a section of a leaf still attached. They called this a wedge type cutting.

The wedge type cutting

Different ways of leaf cuttings on Begonias

As I mentioned everything is controlled and everything is also meticulously measured, they know exactly what they are getting in their soils and growing medium as they mix their own and have it tested. Potted plants, particularly the important ones have their soils tested every fortnight - samples are taken with a dutch soil auger and sent off to a specialised company. No chances are taken, they need to know exactly how much or little to feed the plants and what proportion of nutrients is required. They also measure the Electrical Conductivity of the plants, which is something I still need to get my head around, but related to getting the right dose of nutrients to the plant. They do not want to treat it when they see the nutrient deficiency symptoms, but actually to prevent the symptoms from occurring in the first place. They have a huge soil making machine that consists of a series of chutes and conveyors, where individual ingredients like their own sterilised homemade compost, sand, pine bark and vermiculite are poured into separate chutes, then the machine mixes the desired mixture together and pours it out.

One of Longwood soil mixes.

I would say with the pressure and demand of getting plants to perform at desired times is the closest I have come to a more commercial way of growing, but probably with more time and investment made to each plant. It also gave me a more scientific understanding of plants and horticultural methods.

Extracurricular activities - asides from their big events, Longwood has a lot of mini events and activities all the time. On September 11th there was a Dahlia Show. It was one of the most amazing flower shows that I have ever seen, it was held in the most beautiful setting in what is usually the organ room. There were floral arrangements with Dahlias and cut specimens in glass vases and they generally seemed to be graded from one side of the room to the other in terms of size, from ones as big as dinner plates to the smallest pom pom one that couldn’t have been more than 3cm in diameter. And of course all the variations - cactus, single petalled, collerette etc.

The Dahlia show.

On one of our Thursday trips we went to judge at a local Community Fair at Unionville - this is a small fair that has been running for approx. 100 years and originated from presenting the best of agriculture around the area. It was fascinating to see the judges look at sweetcorn - to see how far up to the tip the corn had grown and how straight they were, and looking at soybeans (how much beans and pods on each plant) and how good the quality of different hay were - assessing whether they had been cut at the right time and what nutrition it provided animals. There were also stands for art, specimen flowers, shrubs with the best berries, educational displays by children, mushrooms and houseplants, as well as pumpkin throwing and rodeo shows.

Painting in the painting contest of the Unionville Community Fair

Some great planting examples:

Hank’s Diner - one of the best container displays I have come across.

Hank’s Diner from across the road

A sea of sunflowers just on a field by the road side, an example of when a mono-planting works and can’t help but have such an allure.

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