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Produce Expansion Guide - 2016 Produce Expansion Guide: Edible Crops

Choose the right edible varieties for your operation to make a successful transition from blooms to food.

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February 24, 2016

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No matter your business, the key to staying profitable is staying relevant: relevant to the changing needs of your existing customers and new customers you need to recruit. What drove big sales and high profits for you 20 years ago may not be the answer to improving your bottom line today. Big shifts in consumer behavior and priorities have ornamental growers turning a keen eye toward edibles.

It’s no secret that food is a big driver for today’s younger consumers. Gardening and growing potted plants may not yet seem relevant to their lifestyle, but consuming healthy foods certainly is. Even if these new consumers have no intentions of growing their own food currently, they are already prioritizing cleanly grown edibles that are locally sourced. Farmers markets are having a hard time keeping up with demands for local produce, as are restaurants in many larger markets.

If, as an ornamental grower, you’ve found yourself with some empty greenhouse space due to a drop in demand for blooming material, food crops could help you recapture some of that ground. However, incorporating edibles into an ornamental production system will present you some new challenges.

If you don’t have supplemental lighting in your greenhouses, that’s an investment you may need to make depending on the crops you grow. With hydroponics often offering up better yields, growing in soilless media has become the preferred method for produce production. However, many consumers are demanding chemical-free and organically grown produce, so investing in bio-controls and organic production presents yet another learning curve.

With the shifts in production techniques you may need to learn in order to make the jump to produce, starting off with varieties that are relatively easy to grow can give you the best chance for success. Balancing your production schedule so that you are harvesting crops throughout the seasons will help provide consistent cash flow. Paying close attention to the specific health benefits of the crops you choose to grow, as well as culinary trends, will give you a marketing advantage.

Leafy greens are by far the easiest crops for ornamental growers to start with. Loose leaf and Bibb types of lettuces being the easiest of the easy. Chard, collard and mustard greens are also easy to produce. Most types of leafy greens typically thrive in similar conditions that already exist in most ornamental production greenhouses. When grown through the cool season and winter months, most don’t require supplemental lighting and can be easily grown either in soil or hydroponic systems. Due to packaging needs and a short shelf-life, quick local sales are best.

Note that spinach can be a little trickier, as it’s a long-day plant. Plants will bolt (go to seed) at longer day lengths, but typically grow too slowly during the short days of winter. A supplemental day-length of about 12 hours through winter produces the best yields. Also, remember that greens such as kale, collards and spinach need colder temperatures for best flavor. Fall through early spring is the prime growing season, depending on your area’s climate.

Although you may have to utilize supplemental lighting and heat, winter tomatoes may be your best bet to jump ahead of competition before springtime.
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Microgreens are still on an upward trajectory of popularity, and supply has yet to meet current demand. While restaurants have been the primary customer for microgreens, home shoppers are getting in on the game. Microgreens are a quick turn crop for local sales and any number of mixes can be custom created for your customer’s needs. Orach, cress, beet and pak choi microgreens are a few of the most popular varieties at the moment. Again, local sales are your best bet, as you can produce microgreens year-round in protected environments.

Tomatoes are hard to ignore as the second (or third) most popularly consumed fresh “vegetable” (behind potatoes and also sometimes lettuce). However, good greenhouse production of tomatoes can come with some important production challenges. For best profits, winter tomatoes may be your best bet, although that means using supplemental lighting and heat. Peak profits from hothouse tomatoes can often be better between November and January, before heavy supplies from Mexico in mid-winter and early spring and a glut of summer supplies from many locations flood the market. You also need to think about focusing on specialty and slicing varieties. There are very large growers already producing heavy supplies of smaller cherry type tomatoes. Heirlooms are in big demand, but can be trickier to grow. Study your local market closely to assess variety and timing demands.

Growing and packaging fresh herbs, either with our without roots, is relatively easy. Herbs that prefer cooler temperatures, such as cilantro, dill and fennel can be easily grown and harvested fall through spring, then replaced with heat-lovers such as basil through the summer months. Depending on your climate and temperature control capabilities, you may be able to grow most herbs year-round for continuous harvest. Fresh specialty herbs are in high demand at restaurants and farmers markets, especially unusual varieties. Choose specialty herbs and unusual flavors to meet niche ethnic culinary demands.

While watercress (Nasturtium officinale) can fall in to both the leafy green and herb categories, this fast-growing plant is also one that beats out most leafy greens, including kale, in the nutrition department. In fact, it really is the superfood of superfoods. While it’s one of the oldest leafy greens eaten by people, modern foodies have yet to fully catch on to its health benefits. Watercress is traditionally grown outdoors in flooded beds, but is well suited to greenhouse production using the float bed method. The typical harvest period for watercress is March through October. Packaging is tricky and shelf-life is short, so local sales are a must.

Unique varieties of green beans can be a profitable addition to your edible line-up.
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While bell peppers can be a bit tricky to grow under glass, as they have very exacting temperature and humidity needs, hot peppers and chilies can be an easier choice for the beginner. Hot peppers tend to be less susceptible to pests and diseases and more heat-tolerant. They are also in big demand for certain types of ethnic cuisine. While hot peppers do like it hot, they don’t like excess humidity. Humidity control and good air circulation are important. Plants can be overwintered in a cooler greenhouse to get a jumpstart on spring flowering, or you can keep them flowering and fruiting with supplemental lighting at temperatures between 65°F/18°C and 85°F/29.4°C.

Green beans are probably not the first crop you’d think of to grow in place of petunias. But specialty beans are in high demand, especially in larger urban areas. They might just end up being your most profitable edible crop. Late fall and early spring are good times to jump start beans under glass. They key is to grow unique varieties that are particularly suited to indoor production. Varieties such as French pole beans, Louisiana purple pod peas, yardlong beans (also called Chinese long beans or asparagus beans) are all quick turn, long-producing and high-price commanding crops.

Tiny cucumbers, also known as Beit types, may be a better choice than long cucumbers if you’re new to growing the crop. Traditional large cucumbers can be difficult to produce and require more substantial packaging to protect the fruit. Just as tiny snacking varieties have become popular in the sweet bell pepper category, so have small snacking cucumbers. The Beit Alpha variety is burpless, sweet and easy to package. Cucumbers in general are sensitive to warm temperatures and humidity control is a must.

You don’t have to step too far away from your ornamentals to offer edibles. Producing edible flowers for the culinary market offers year-round profits with little to no deviation from your traditional production schedule. Organic practices and biocontrols would need to be employed, however, as chemical-free edible flowers are a must for most buyers.

As consumer demand continues to evolve, and food-centric gardening culture gains momentum, growing edible crops could be the new future of profits for many ornamental growers.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, marketing strategy, digital content creation, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies. www.lesliehalleck.com