Peak performance during peak season

Features - Spring Survival Guide

Three growers share their advice and best practices for navigating the busy spring season.

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For almost every greenhouse operation in North America, spring is the busiest time of the year. The holiday season and increasingly earlier orders for poinsettias make winter busy, but it isn’t the same. The spring stands out because an entire growing cycle builds up and crescendos right around Mother’s Day. At no other point in the year is everything that makes greenhouse growing stressful — the long hours, the lack of labor, potential order changes — all coalescing at once like this.

“There’s a lot of different complexities in the spring,” says Plantpeddler owner Mike Gooder. “As an industry, we’ve allowed our peak around Mother’s Day to keep getting bigger and bigger, at least on the ornamental side.” Gooder notes that roughly half of Plantpeddler’s yearly wholesale profits come within the two weeks around Mother’s Day. Every year is different too. This year, for instance, Plantpeddler added on more greenhouse space and is thus overseeing a larger space than it ever has before.

“You’ve got to hit the crescendo with a lot of gusto,” he says. “You have to have your team prepared, understand the challenge and stay focused.”

Below, Gooder, Juan Ponce, head of propagation at Metrolina Greenhouses, and Mark Ruibal, vice president of growing operations at Ruibal’s Plants of Texas, share their tips for surviving the spring season.

Top Photo © Dean Riggott

Mike Gooder

Operation: Plantpeddler

Main crop: Young plants

Location: Cresco, Iowa

Title: Owner

Tips: Advice he received a long time ago from Joan Mazat, head of new product development at Ball Horticultural: “Put your blinders on, look straight ahead and do the most important task at hand. … I use the strategy of winning and [winning is doing] what’s most important now. … You really have to make sure the tasks that seem relevant are really, truly relevant to getting through the spring. Or are you getting distracted by things that aren’t driving revenue? And revenue is king when you’re looking at surviving the spring and maintaining the lifeblood of our business.”

Identify your weaknesses and learn from them: “We don’t see our own weaknesses so what we do is constantly evaluate. We take note on our thoughts and things that happen during the season so we can adjust going forward. … We try to identify our bottlenecks and where production is getting slowed down so we can speed things up. And that’s on the growing side, but more importantly on the shipping side of getting product out in a very narrow window. We are always trying to make fundamental improvements each season to capture more of the opportunity at peak.”

The power of lists: “I’m a lists person. Having good lists helps me prioritize what needs to get done over a set period [of time], whether it’s a week or a month or a day. Having good, thorough lists matters. Being able to set your priorities allows you to stay on task and not be distracted. And making sure you prioritize those items that can wait until after peak. We write them down, but for example, we tell non-staff to get the hell out of the greenhouse until June. And it’s for a reason: If we lose that hour of key time with key staff, we aren’t helping ourselves drive to the finish line.”

On coming out of peak and onto what’s next: “There used to be a time where we had these valleys where we had time to reflect and that gets tougher to do as business has increased. But with that intensity, you still have to recap and it’s really important to recap once you’ve gotten through a season and you review sales, production, all of the successes and failures. You want to do that while it’s still fresh. We try to get everyone together in the first part of June and we go through it and start setting up the following year’s program. After every peak season, we try to have a very clear idea of where we were successful and where we need to improve.”

Bottom Photo courtesy of Juan Ponce

Juan Ponce

Operation: Metrolina Greenhouses

Location: Huntersville, North Carolina

Main crops: Annuals and perennials

Title: Head of Propagation

Tips: Staying on track in a large facility means delegating: “This is a big, big facility and I’m just the head of one area — propagation. So I’ll be in the propagation area. For finished products or vegetables or perennials, they make their own decisions because those crops are different. … For propagation, we have procedures that are set in part with Ivan Tchakarov. Ivan is our head of growing and we meet weekly and prepare ahead with procedures and plans and everything. We look at what is going to keep us busiest and plan to make sure everything is planned ahead. That way, when spring comes, we have a course to follow.”

In-person communication helps: “The weekly meeting is very important because even when we have the procedures and protocols in front of us, things can change based on seed availability or anything else. We work with suppliers and we are dependent on them a lot of the time. … Weather can also impact us. Like right now, it’s cloudy and rainy [in North Carolina] and there’s not enough light. And if that’s not happening, that means we need to adjust. So when we meet every week, we do it so we can adjust based on what is happening so we know how ahead we are, how behind we are and what we need to do to get back on schedule to be sure plants are ready when they need to be.”

Maintaining sanitation: “This time of the year, we talk about staying clean a lot. We have procedures for sanitation established. Before the spring comes, in December, we review everything that’s in there and train the new members of the team to make sure they are up to speed. There [are] procedures from receiving that make sure everything looks normal when it comes in. Then, on the sticking line, there’s checking things and using gloves and separating suppliers as well as varieties to prevent any issues from spreading if there are any. Then, when they go to the greenhouses, they stay separated. … We have a lot of algae issues and also deal with things like fungus gnats, so we have to use chemicals. And getting rid of algae is the best way to get rid of fungus gnats. … We have to be comprehensive at all times.”

Photo courtesy of Matt Ruibal

Matt Ruibal

Operation: Ruibal’s Plants of Texas

Location: Dallas, Texas

Main crop: Bedding plants

Title: Vice President of Growing Operations

Tips: Timing is everything: “[The most challenging thing] is probably getting the plants ready when they are supposed to and just getting them shipped out. Weather is always an issue too. … You have to have backup plans, get a system in place and stick with it, and pre-book and pre-schedule everything you can as far as deliveries and shipments go.”

A good backup plan means having time to enact it: “If a landscaper calls us and says they need 500 flats of pentas for the week of the 10th, hopefully we’ll have enough time before that, but also if the crop is growing too fast, we can switch them to a different crop and push the customer a week one way or the other. Logistically, we have everything pre-scheduled, but things can change and that’s where you really feel the time constraints. … I don’t contract grow anything for anyone other than myself, but I encourage landscapers to call me and say, ‘Hey, we are going to need X number of flats for the next 12 weeks,’ so we can have that color or that plant on hold for them.”

Use technology to limit mistakes: “We have a custom-built computer program that allows me to enter information right when it goes into the computer. So, for example, it allows me to enter in that I’ll have X number of flats of pentas ready in six weeks. Once that’s in the pipeline and a grower calls, I can call and see exactly what crop I can pull from and put on hold for that customer. And when sales looks at inventory, they then know it’s not available. …“I’m sure there are vendors that do that, but James Perrin built that for us. We’ve been using that for 10 years and he twists and tweaks it for us. Before, there was a lot of paper and pen and a lot of marking with tape to note that things were sold which was a nightmare. … It would be so much chaos [without the program], it’s not even funny.”

“You have to have backup plans, get a system in place and stick with it...” — Matt Ruibal