When we started working on this issue, I knew automation was going to be exciting. But perennials? Google spit out results on ‘cannabis’. Go figure. So I picked up my next most trusty technological tool – the phone.
When asked about the most common problems associated with growing perennials, Jim Devereux of Green Fuse didn’t hesitate. “Getting them to bloom at the correct time of year,” he says. “One of the problems with leucanthemum for most people is they don’t bloom naturally until June, so the season’s already over by then.” As it turns out, pretty much all perennials have some sort of daylength requirement to initiate flowering – and they differ between varieties.
“So to get them into bloom,” he continues, “most growers have to use supplemental lighting to trick the plant.” This way, it’s in flower when people are in the mood to purchase. “It’s hard to sell something when you don’t have customers, and it’s even harder to sell a green plant.”
Consumers love perennials because of the value-add, but traditional perennials don’t make returns until the second year. How are breeders working to change that?
The new breeding on perennials within their program, and within others too, is to have them respond like annuals, but still zone-hardy, Devereux explains. On an annualized schedule, his First Light leucanthemums can be grown like petunias – brought in around Jan/Feb, set on a 12- to 14-week schedule, and then finished. No vernalization needed. “Our breeding takes roughly 20 weeks out of a grower’s production,” he says. For Canada, Devereux’s advice is to do multiple medium-sized crops. He schedules his leucanthemum to come on every two weeks, so deadheading is never needed.
But time isn’t the only savings. Labour and energy costs can be cut as well. Plus, Devereux’s First Light varieties are sterile, and bloom times don’t end when seed set begins as traditional genetics do. Given all the possible advantages, do growers still stick with older perennial varieties?
“Some of them are,” he says, because seed is cheaper than cuttings. But based on his experience, five extra months of labour is more expensive than the initial input costs. Growers who really stay on top of trials have all switched to first-year blooming, daylength-neutral varieties, he says.
Right now, Devereux has six to seven hundred leucanthemum waiting to be trialled. “I’ll be lucky to get one or two with the capabilities we want,” he says. Rather than using radiation, Devereux and his team prefer old-school population trials, looking for genetic anomalies and breeding for the right traits. “Sometimes you get it in the first cycle, sometimes you get it in the 20th cycle. We let Mother Nature dictate it, and you know you have a stable variety.”
At the end of the day, both perennials and automation are bringing fresh, new ideas to help alleviate issues of labour shortage and input costs. I guess there’s common ground between them after all.
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