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Growing profits from poinsettia

Most poinsettia growers in Ontario shipped all that they grew in 2019. But was it profitable? Here are some cost-saving measures learned from this past year.


March 3, 2020
By Melhem Sawaya

Topics
One cutting in a 6.5” pot has 10 blooms and can easily fit a 7”. All photos: M. Sawaya

Other than a few growers who were looking for a few specific colours, there was no demand for extra poinsettias this year. Because a few buyers were hunting for product last season, some growers were optimistic this year and grew a small percentage based on speculation, and yes, you guessed it – these growers were stuck with the few poinsettias that they speculated on. Later on when we discuss costing, you will realize that every plant that we cannot ship takes away from the profits of ten plants sold.

Sales
In Ontario, most poinsettia growers shipped all that they grew, as long as they did not speculate. The question is, did we make any money on the poinsettia crop last year? The answer is only known to those who calculated the cost of growing poinsettia as a separate crop; not pooled together with the rest of their other crops and awaiting their year-end statement to know whether they were profitable or not.

Here are some observations from a few growers who shared their costs with me.
Soil, pots, and cuttings do not vary much from grower to grower. However, the number of cuttings per pot makes a big difference. Most growers use two cuttings in an 8” pot, not three, and the quality of the two cuttings is much better because they have more space and can receive higher light intensity throughout the whole growing cycle. This leads to stronger, healthier plants that will have better shelf-life in stores and greater consumer success. The same goes for 10” or 12” pots with three cuttings, which tend to show larger blooms and last longer.

For the few that grow in 7” pots, it is a crime to put in more than one cutting, especially when you see how one cutting looks in a 7”. This is my favourite pot-to-plant size ratio, resulting in a good number of blooms and a healthy, durable product. Big plants in small pots is a recipe for failure from the get-go.

Utility overhead costs vary only depending on spacing, which is determined by the finish size of the plant. Poinsettia is a crop that needs its space, and crowding the crop in many cases leads to an unshippable product.

Labour costs were underestimated because no employee is 100 per cent efficient. Good employees are 80 per cent efficient in most cases. This varies, of course.

Many growers did not properly calculate the indirect cost, which includes all expenses that occur even if the greenhouse is empty. It is normally calculated as a percentage of total sales, and that cost is naturally higher if sales are lower.

Shipping varies among growers and is mainly due to distance, how full the truck is, and whether the grower is picking up racks. Many times the cost triples, which eats up any little profit that exists and definitely is not the type of green-thinking that many stores are trying to adopt. One solution is to buy different products from the same grower or have different products from different growers go on the same truck.

It is very important to calculate your costs in detail. This will help you see where you can be more efficient and prevent you from selling below cost. Download this template for calculating costs. Poinsettia Costing Tool 2020

Production
With cool nights and higher-than-average light levels, weather conditions were optimal for flower initiation. On average, every greenhouse crop was ready a week earlier than other years. Yes, Mother Nature rules.

Micro drenches of Bonzi can be used at any stage of production, and it will not decrease the bracts to an unsellable state. Proper application of Bonzi will produce a much higher quality product. Here are guidelines to consider when using Bonzi:

  • Applications should be uniform, especially if you are using a drip system. Use lower rates with high volumes so that the whole root ball is covered.
  • Treatments are more effective when applied to plants in the fast-growing stage. This goes for any growth regulator.
  • Avoid any Bonzi applications overhead, but if that is the only way you can apply it, then rinse with clear water using your sprayer and not watering nozzles.

Note that if you are spraying Cycocel, be aware of your clear water EC. High EC’s will cause leaf damage. For Botrytis control, the best solution is to lower humidity.

All in all, timing is the best growth regulator. If a later crop sale date is required, grow a later flowering variety in its own section where you can control the temperature separately without affecting other cultivars. Some crops that were shipped later in the season, but not programmed for it, showed signs of botrytis on the bracts, flowers or both.

The best crops are produced when all aspects of production are done on time. It’s also a big part of growing ‘green’, because fewer to zero chemical treatments are needed. You may remember seeing this from my previous articles, and this will not be the last time: to grow crops successfully, 15 per cent is knowledge, 15 per cent is application of said knowledge, and 70 per cent is doing everything on time.

Varieties
There were many new, promising poinsettia varieties. At the poinsettia open house at Jeffery’s Greenhouses late last year, we saw some very interesting varieties that were improvements over the older ones, allowing you to choose some that could fit a certain pot size or shipping date.

Varieties that are good for one pot size may not necessarily be good for other sizes without changing the timing and culture. The same goes for shipping dates.

There were varieties that flowered by November 10th without any blackout treatment. They can be grown in any sized pot with adjustments in scheduling.

Sales history tells us that those early in-store poinsettias lead to low sell-through and greater shrinkage.

Red poinsettias make up at least 93 per cent of the total colours grown, along with 4 per cent white, 2 per cent pink and 1 per cent miscellaneous

Regardless of which variety you choose, growing media should not be flush with the pot rim. This gives the stores and home owners a small reservoir to be able to water the plants more effectively.

Diseases
Almost all growers experienced no issues with any kind of disease, except for a few Erwinia incidents that were directly related to plant stress before sticking.

There were no known root problems, and no preventative fungicides were applied. Diseases do not want anything to do with happy plants, and happy plants do not welcome diseases. Proper watering, regularly checking EC and PH values and proper environmental conditions lead to healthy plants with no need for fungicides.

Insects
The whitefly saga continues. Some growers who properly applied biological control treatments on poinsettias encountered no issues with whitefly, some had to clean the crop at the end with chemicals, and others who only used chemicals had a very rough road all the way, especially if the cuttings had not been dipped.

At the end of the season, this was the consensus on how to best control whiteflies in poinsettias:

  1. Before propagation and planting, the planting areas should be thoroughly cleaned. No pet plants or other crops should be left around.
  2. Open the boxes in a cool room and dip the cuttings in a BotaniGard solution, then put them in a cool room at 10 degrees overnight or at least 4 hours before sticking, making sure the cuttings are never dehydrated.
  3. Before sticking, dip the cuttings in an insecticidal soap.
  4. Before planting, dip the cuttings in a mixture of Botanigard and horticultural soap.
  5. Start biocontrol treatments soon after, until around October 10 or 15.
  6. Shift to chemicals if needed at finish.

Key takeaways
Here are the key takeaways from last season:

  • Grow varieties that you are familiar with and try new ones on a small scale.
  • Calculate your cost for any required specs and do not forget about packaging and shipping.
  • Take an order when there is still some margin and not just dollar sales.
  • Never grow on pure speculation.
  • When you run out of plants at the end of the season and you need to buy more, that is when you are starting to make headway profit-wise.
  • Do not cheat on what the crop needs to grow properly; it will cost you much more at the end if you do.
  • Start a study group with the growers in your vicinity.

Last but not least, if all the factors that took place last year are repeated in the next, and all the suggestions in this article are taken, then growing poinsettia could be profitable.

Three years ago, a study group of growers and educators in southwestern Ontario met once a month starting in June to discuss production issues, but they mainly concentrated on whitefly control this past season. The study group met in different greenhouse operations, had discussions and toured the host grower’s crop in a very informal and beneficial way. Next season, we are planning to do the same and will try to include more topics than just whitefly control. If you are interested in being a part of the group, send me an email with your contact information.


Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Contact him at mel@focusgreenhousemanagement.com.