Ron Arpin has always loved experimenting with plants. When he started working as a propagator in Colorado in the late 1970s, there was plenty to explore, as perennials were just starting to become popular.
In 1981, Arpin joined a new nursery just outside of Denver, where he focused on perennial propagation. Back then, the company now known as Little Valley Wholesale Nursery rented about 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space off-site from its 15-acre nursery. Arpin manually tracked production as he investigated different methods of propagation.
“I started collecting seed from perennials and tried to figure out how to germinate seeds and how to root cuttings,” says Arpin, who studied agriculture with a minor in horticultural business at Kansas State University. “I loved experimenting and doing research to find the best way to produce each plant.”
As perennial production increased, the business expanded and Arpin’s role evolved. In 1998, Little Valley moved its perennial and greenhouse growing onto its main nursery site in Brighton, Colorado, and asked Arpin to supervise all aspects of production. Now, as head grower and nursery manager, Arpin oversees two acres of gutter-connected greenhouse production, four acres of outdoor perennial production, 16 acres of container shrubs and about 100 acres of tree production.
As Little Valley celebrates its 40th year in business, Arpin looks back on the pivotal changes that have set the operation apart.
“My career has changed and developed with the company,” Arpin says. “Since I’ve been here for so long, I’ve seen the innovation of technology. As we’ve started doing more on the computer, the company has continued to grow to more than $11 million [in sales].”
Transitioning to technology
In the early years of his career, Arpin managed inventory and production planning on paper. Then, when computers came along, he sat down with a local software developer to explain his manual processes — sparking the development of Little Valley’s custom production planning software.
The software automates inventory control with real-time projections of every item that Little Valley produces. Plants are entered in the system as soon as they’re potted, and then the software calculates how long each plant takes to finish — and how much soil and space they’ll require along the way.
“It tells you how many to pot, when to order a truckload of soil, and projects what your inventory will be for that finish month,” Arpin says. “We try to plan and project everything that we can, so it makes my job a little easier when production peaks in the spring.”
Building improvements over time
When Little Valley built the greenhouse on its nursery site in 1997, Arpin got the chance to incorporate new features that improved the operation’s efficiency over time. Those included a shade system, a fog system, programmable booms and computerized climate control.
The site, which housed the nursery since 1979, came with inherent challenges — but Arpin leveraged experience and experimentation to make the most of it.
“We’re on a shallow well, so we have poor water quality, high in salinity and sodium. We knew that water wouldn’t work for propagation, so when we built the greenhouse, we installed water filtration systems,” he says. “We also have to tailor our fertilizer program to compensate for poor water quality. We continue to make adjustments to get a better response.”
Arpin constantly tweaks inputs to maximize the output. A few years ago, he tested several types of potting mix to find one with lower salinity levels that worked better with Little Valley’s water. By making these small changes over time, Arpin has optimized production “where we can finish material faster and throw away less,” he says.
Arpin is always exploring new plants to experiment with. He works closely with Little Valley’s new introduction committee, which is a multidisciplinary team made up of people from sales, production and purchasing who trial new plant varieties.
“What we try to determine in our intro committee is how well these plants perform and how readily available they will be,” Arpin says.
Little Valley partners with Colorado State University and Denver Botanic Gardens to trial, grow and distribute new Plant Select varieties every year. Lately, Arpin says, delospermas and nepetas have been popular introductions through the program. Native grasses, like Plant Select’s Blonde Ambition blue grama grass, have also been trending.
Since I’ve been here for so long, I’ve seen the innovation of technology. As we’ve started doing more on the computer, the company has continued to grow to more than $11 million [in sales].
Though he entered the horticulture business because he loved experimenting with plants, Arpin has become a seasoned troubleshooter — not just with plants but also with technology, labor, production and overall improvements to the operation. His insatiable curiosity continues to push him forward.
“If you think you’re going to sit there and do the same thing, you’re going to get passed,” he says. “Your competition is always looking for better ways to produce plants, so you have to have the drive to look at new ideas.”