Thursday, October 22, 2009

IPPS Southern Region Paper

Below is the paper I am submitting for the IPPS Southern Region Meeting.  Just a background of sorts of the nursery here.  I am just happy it is finished before we start driving, driving and typing don't go together!!!

A Behind The Scenes Tour of Young Plant Production in Magnolia, Texas at Magnolia Gardens Nursery.

April Herring
Magnolia Gardens Nursery Liner Division, 18810 Turtle Creek Lane, Magnolia, Texas 77355

Magnolia Gardens Nursery is a medium sized nursery with 3 locations in Texas including, Magnolia, Waller and Plantersville.  The nursery has two divisions; one that grows finished containerized stock and the other that grows lining out stock.  The focus of this paper will be the liner division at the Magnolia, Texas location that specializes in young plant production through the use of micropropagation, in particular that of Nandina domestica.  To many the process of micropropagation can seem mythical.  This is mainly due to the fact that not every nursery deals in this method of propagation as they would with conventional means such as cuttings, grafting and seeds.  So it is the purpose of this paper to show that micropropagation is not mythical, just unfamiliar.  This will be done by going through some of the daily activities at the liner division of Magnolia Gardens Nursery.
Magnolia Gardens Nursery has a product line that is constantly evolving to keep up with market demands, the major products that are produced at this time include Agapanthus, Iris, Loropetalum, Nandina and Yucca as well as a variety of ornamental grasses and perennials.  Nandina domestica is at the top of the list when it come to production and sales numbers at about 3 million units sold per year, with Nandina ‘Firepower’ selling at around 1.4 million units alone.  The owner of Magnolia Gardens Nursery, Tommy Marek, started the liner division back in 1983 in an upstairs bedroom of his home.  The container nursery had already got its start in 1978 and tissue culture was just a hobby of sorts as the process was still rather new and was just starting to become popular as a means of commercial propagation.  It didn’t take long for the hobby to outgrow the bedroom so the lab was moved to a few rental houses near the nursery.  This is where the lab experienced troubled times and was nearly shut down because it was generating no profit.  It took the smarts of a new lab manager to turn the lab around by making processes more efficient and concentrating on products that would generate profit, this made it the place it is today.  Once the orders starting coming in, the rental houses started feeling cramped and plans for an actual building where made.  A formal lab structure was built in 1994; the building totals 6240 ft2, 2288 ft2 being growing space.  This original structure has the capability to hold 1.9 million plantlets at any given time.  In 2004 the lab was expanded to make room for new crops the lab was pursuing.  The expansion brought in an additional 3900 ft2 of growing space.  At capacity the new space can house around 3.4 million plantlets, total lab capacity coming to 5.3 million plantlets.  Currently there are 15 hoods with 2 spaces each or room for 30 technicians.  Outside there are 4 greenhouse structures and the total growing space is around 3 Acres.  There is room to wean 360,000 plants at any given time and at full capacity room to finish 2.5 million plants for sales. 
The right product mix  The first step to a successful lab is to grow the right product, one that the operation can grow with success, one that has high demand yet little supply in the market and one that cannot be easily propagated conventionally.  For Magnolia Gardens Nursery this product has been Nandina domestica but with market conditions continually changing this may not be the case in the future.  So to remain successful, the hunt is always on for new potential products.  Micropropagation is not a process for impatient people.  There is a notion that tissue culture is magical, producing thousands of plants very quickly, it can be depending on the definition of “quickly”.  To put it into perspective, i.e. put a plant into the lab today it will not be ready for sales a year later.  Although there are plants that multiply rapidly in tissue culture, these are generally not the type of plants Magnolia Gardens Nursery produces, as many of the products grown are hard to propagate woody plants.  With crop times of 6 to 10 weeks and multiplication rate of 1.5 to 3 the benefit of putting a plant in tissue culture is not seen quickly as many think it should be.  To see the magic of tissue culture one must look at the overall effect, as an example the propagation of the plant Nandina ‘AKA’ will be reviewed.  In November of 2004 this plant was discovered in a crop of Nandina ‘Firepower’, there were 2 plants at the time, the first step was to grow them to a larger size for the initiation process.  The plants were initiated in 2005; by the year-end we had 200 plants.  So already over a year into the process we only had 200 plants, this is were many people get frustrated, thinking they should have 1000’s by now.  By the end of 2006 we had 2,700 plants, 2007 we had 4,700 plants but 16,000 were taken out for rooting.  After this it was decided to bulk the crop up so less rooting was taken and by the end of 2008 we had 48,000 plants and had rooted 14,000.  Once larger numbers are reached the gains are exponential and one can easily see that in 3 years conventional propagation would have not have produced the yields that the process of micropropagation did.   So you can see the cumulative effects of using micropropagation can be magical, it just might not be as quick as many think it should be.  
Initiation  There are many factors that come into play when deciding what steps to take in getting a plant clean.  Plant type, plant age, growing environment the plants were in, time of year, etc.  We have a general sterilization procedure for woody plants and for herbaceous plants that is changed up depending on the factors discussed above. At Magnolia Gardens Nursery we use a combination trimming techniques along with differing concentrations of Sodium Hypochlorite, Ethanol, along with sterile distilled water and Tween.
Media  Media is made in house in 36 Liter batches about 4 times per day.  Stock solutions are made up in 5-gallon batches to keep pace with the amount of media needed per day.  We use 4 media formulations for the bulk of our crops, which helps keep processes efficient. The media is dispensed using a mixer to keep all solids such as sugar and gelling agent suspended while an automatic dispensing machine dispenses the proper amount of media into test tubes, baby jars or magenta containers.  After everything is dispensed the containers with media are sterilized in an autoclave that heats to 250ºF and pressurizes to 20 PSI.  Once the containers are sterilized they are only opened under the laminar flow hood to maintain sterility.
Working the Crops Average crop cycle is about 6 weeks but many plants can go longer than this and actually do better if they are left longer.  For the most part woody plants have longer crop cycles than herbaceous.  Herbaceous plants will start to go downhill much quicker than a woody.  Woody plants also do better when cycles are longer; when the cycles are too short the plants start to perform poorly.  All plants are screened for contaminates as well as uniformity by supervisors before the technicians cut them for either multiplication or rooting.  The supervisors are in charge of getting plants to and from the growth room so that there is little traffic in the growth room keeping it clean and organized.  When crops are worked a certain portion will go for stage 3 or rooting while the remainder will stay in stage 2 as mother stock.  This percentage will fluctuate depending on season and market conditions.  Crops are kept healthy and clean through the screening process, only the best will remain as mother stock.
Acclimatization  The plants become accustomed to living in a perfect environment now they must be able to survive the great outdoors which is higher in light intensity, less humid and for most of the year it is warmer.  We help plantlets as best we can with the transition by using a variety of shade and cooling systems.  All soil is mixed onsite to ensure quality.  In 2009 we started using mychorrhizae in our soil mix to help produce a stronger root system that will be a great benefit to growers once the liners are potted up. Most plants take an average of 10 weeks to finish depending on season with Agapanthus taking the longest time to finish at 15 weeks.
In the liner division there is one sales person that handles all orders from start to finish.  Including answering the phone, taking the orders, printing invoices, organizing shipping and more.  To date this has worked very well for us.  Products are shipped the most efficient means possible including by truck, air, FedEx, and UPS.  Most of the product grown is shipped within the U.S. but we also ship internationally, with the bulk of that material going to Canada.  The product grown and numbers produced are dependent on communication with customers too see how they are doing and what product they will need for the upcoming season using a prebooking system. Even with communication it can be hard to tell when things are going to come to a stand still and when things will start moving again in a bad economy.  With the downturn of the economy as of late, the prebooking system has not been as effective of a tool as in years past, as many growers are very cautious placing orders until they see an economic upturn.  The goal now is too keep product in the pipeline at all the various stages, to maintain the quality of product that customers expect and to predict what products will sell in the near future.  What this means is that product must be discarded once it is past its prime, through planning we try to keep the discards to a minimum.
Even though the present looks a little bleak we are excited about the future.  We are taking this time to start new product lines such as perennials and succulents.  Also we have a new line of Nandina that will be featured in The Southern Living® Program.  We are learning a lot during these slow times, how to use labor, chemicals, fertilizer and supplies more efficiently.  As the motto says “That that does not kill us only makes us stronger.”  We look to be a stronger, more efficient young plant nursery once we make it through this.
The liner division at Magnolia Gardens Nursery started over 26 years ago.  From our humble beginnings we have slowly grown to what we are now by using careful planning and not making rash decisions.  Our success can be attributed to two things; the first is our employees, 7 of which have worked for the division 20 years or more.  The second is our product line, which will continually be monitored and changed according to market conditions.