The Quest for Organic Ornamentals

That flat of petunias at the garden center may come with a chemical catch.

March 2, 2011

Stop at any garden center this time of year, and you’ll find row upon row of lush flowers just begging to be bought. Pansies and petunias, Gerbera daisies and geraniums, all close to perfection with their healthy leaves and brilliant blooms.

How do nurseries create these uniformly

good-looking specimens? As you might guess, it’s rarely done organically. Companies that raise ornamental plants, as opposed to edible ones, are major users of chemical additives. Nursery plants are often doused with pesticides to kill bugs, fungicides to prevent mildew, and synthetic fertilizers to push their growth. Chemical growth regulators are used to slow a plant’s progress and promote compactness, so it will arrive at the retail store at just the right size to appeal to shoppers.


While a few small-scale nurseries raise their flowers, shrubs, and trees organically, almost no major plant companies do so. A key reason is financial: It can be expensive to do away with the chemical aids and transition to organic methods. And major growers are already hurting from several slack years due to the recession and the declining number of new homeowners. “Growers are just trying to survive until the housing market comes back,” says Chris Beytes, who edits and publishes several magazines for the plant company Ball Horticultural aimed at nursery owners. “I don’t know of anyone investing the time and money into a whole new product category that’s so niche.”

Another reason big plant companies aren’t itching to go organic is the expectations of consumers. The ornamental plant world for decades has used chemicals to produce flowering plants that have few flaws, and changing ingrained practices rarely comes easily. At the first sign of leaf-nibbling bugs, growers reach for the pesticide spray. Going organic could mean the plants you see at the home-improvement store or garden center would have more spotted leaves or be less evenly sized than today. While consumers have grown to accept some blemishes when they shop for organic apples or cabbages, would they be okay with imperfections in their dahlias and foxgloves?

Then there’s the real question of whether organically grown flowers, trees, and shrubs would find a viable market. After all, if you’re not going to eat the plant, does it really matter whether the marigold or dianthus earlier in its life was sprayed with synthetics?

Monrovia, a major producer of landscape plants, has been working to reduce its use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and other chemicals. It recently launched a line of organic potting mixes, but there are several obstacles to going all-organic, says John Keller, vice president of operations at the Azusa, California, company. One is the potential cost. Organic fertilizers are more expensive than synthetic ones, he says, and hand-weeding is more labor-intensive than spraying herbicides. Then there’s the issue of regulatory requirements for pest control, which usually involve using chemicals. For instance, Keller says, “Nurseries certified snail-free are required to treat the plants if snails are found.” The same goes for fire ants. Still, Keller says, “We have considered the idea of an organic line of [ornamental] plants, and it’s conceivable we would try it in the future.” But first, demand from customers needs to materialize.

“One of the reasons I believe you’re not seeing a lot of organic flowers is there has been a lack of interest,” says Juan St. Amant, product development manager for Plug Connection, a Vista, California, company that sells plugs, or baby plants, to commercial growers around the country.
 Plug Connection was one of the first big plant providers to be certified organic by the USDA, St. Amant says. Its vegetable starter plants, such as lettuces and herbs, find a ready market. After the company was certified for organic production of edibles in 2005, St. Amant thought demand for nonedible organics would also grow, for such things as flower displays at all-organic weddings. But “while we’ve had a couple of inquiries, it really hasn’t been the demand I thought there might be,” St. Amant says. So far, Plug Connection sells a few organically grown varieties of flower plugs that are aimed for use in salads.

Another big commercial grower is trying a different way to jump-start organic ornamental plants—what it calls “organic anonymous.” Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses in Portage, Michigan, has been growing more of its flower plants organically each year, but not because its customers are demanding it—and it doesn’t advertise the change.

Elzinga & Hoeksema already grows vegetable plants organically for some big retailers. By slowly transitioning to organic methods for bedding plants, such as impatiens and annual phlox, it hopes to lower its costs of organic production, says Mark Elzinga, who owns the company.
 “We love to grow organic. The real thing of organics is creating healthy plants that don’t get diseases or bugs,” Elzinga says. As he converts more of his 30 acres to natural methods, the cost of the organic “living soil” he buys goes down. Still, “we’re not sure how to market it yet. Nobody’s asking us” for organically grown flowers. And if anyone does ask, he adds, “we want to get paid for it,” because organic production still costs more than conventional chemical methods.

Both St. Amant and Elzinga say the chemicals they use in raising ornamental plants are quick to degrade and unlikely to leach into a consumer’s flowerbed or container. But if you want your garden to be 100 percent organic, you don’t want to plant anything in it that wasn’t raised organically. This is especially a concern if you’re following the trend of mixing flowers with vegetable plants. Some nursery-grown plants come with slow-release synthetic fertilizer pellets sprinkled atop their soil—another threat to your garden’s organic integrity.

It would be a good thing for the earth if greenhouses, nurseries, and tree farms used fewer chemicals, which can run off into sewers and streams and end up in drinking water. It could also benefit the health of workers at these companies. But don’t expect to find organically raised flowers and shrubs at big-box retailers or your local garden center anytime soon. Unless enough customers start demanding organics, retailers aren’t likely to push their growers to change their ways.

Bart Ziegler is an editor, reporter, and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.