I write this article in anticipation of my first hydrangea flower harvest of 2005.  I’ve been bragging to everyone how beautiful this year’s crop is – six acres of adolescent plants packed full of jumbo, coastal-grown hydrangea blooms.  I’ve been involved in the production of hydrangeas for nine years now.  It’s been quite a ride…
I still remember the day I picked up my first unrooted hydrangea cuttings 9 years ago.  I was so excited: rather than having them shipped FedEx, I drove 9 hours south to Brookings, Oregon to pick up 5,000 cuttings from the Oregon Hydrangea Company.  I was hoping that by driving I would get a glimpse of some hydrangeas in production and at that time, any excuse to get off of the dairy farm was a good one.  It turned out that I wasn’t able to see any hydrangea plants and I was scolded for having walked into their production area.  Three minutes after arriving I was back on the road.
It didn’t matter, though.  I was pumped to start this new venture of mine.  I had dollar signs in my eyes.  I was going to get rich growing cut hydrangeas and nothing could stop me.  The next day, with some help from my family (they too were intrigued with this new venture of mine), we stuck all the cuttings using rooting hormone and propagation sand.  It was great.  Afterwards we watered them.
The next day I couldn’t figure out why they were wilting.  The sand was plenty moist.  I was watering them twice a day.  After making a quick call to my supplier, they told me I needed to have a misting system to keep the leaves hydrated until the roots began to grow.  By this time the cuttings looked dead to me, but in an effort to revive them I quickly drove to Portland (2 hours away) to buy a propagation timer and all the supplies needed for a misting system.  By the next day we had that installed and besides some dessication on the tips of the leaves, the cuttings recuperated surprisingly fast.  I was glad I survived.
We were using greenhouses from some friends who purchased a one-acre range through an estate sale (always use a mask when spraying—both partners died of cancer).  Everything that was worth anything was sold at an auction and it was quite a mess.  One of the requirements of using these greenhouses was that we would clean everything up.  I remember it took 3 guys over a week to get everything cleaned up.  We especially did a good job cleaning up our 500 ft2  production area.  
Up until this time, it was rainy and cool, so the temperature was ideal.  And then one rare day on the Oregon coast the sun decided to come out.  And it stayed out.  Temperatures in the 70s quickly rose to over 100 in the unvented greenhouses.  We immediately saw that we needed some ventilation exhaust fans to keep things cool.  Maybe even some shade cloth.  My father, where most of my business sense come from, suggested that it was better investing in structures of your own than investing to make it work with someone else’s.  So 10 days after sticking the hydrangea cuttings, we moved them and the propagation system onto my family’s dairy farm under a makeshift shadecloth structure on the side of building.  
Soon the bottoms began to swell and roots began to grow.  I was checking them probably 10 times a day to make sure everything was okay.  Within about 3 weeks they had pretty good root balls, and we transplanted a surprising near 100% of the original cuttings into 4-inch pots.  They seemed to resist transplant shock quite well.
But after a few weeks they seemed to be yellowing and didn’t look so good.  I started watering them more—maybe that was problem.  After a month or so they were getting worse so we took some plants into the Oregon State Nursery Research Station.  They told me that the plants were starving and they needed some fertilizer.  So on the way home we purchased an injection system and some Peters foliar mix and started fertilizing.  They did improve quickly, however, by this time we had already lost half of them.  Fall was quickly approaching, so we needed maximum growth prior to transplanting in the ground.  
In October we eventually planted them into nicely shaped raised beds.  People were slowing down as they drove by on the highway.  It was not often that something besides grass for pasture had been grown in Tillamook.  Because of their poor nutritional state, the plants went dormant prematurely.  But at least I had a half an acre of  hydrangeas in the ground.  I was so proud.
I was told by a chemical supply house that I could spray Roundup over the top of them when they were dormant.  So one bright, sunny day in February I was elated to try out my new (at least to me) crop tractor by spraying Roundup over the top of the beds to simplify my weeding.  I was on top of the world.  
Until spring advanced, when  I figured out that this application of Roundup killed them all.  At the end of this first year I was left with nothing.   
Prior to purchasing that first batch of hydrangea cuttings I spent a lot of time budgeting how much money I would make.  I went down to the local nursery and saw the size of the hydrangea plants they had.  Based on that, I calculated I could plant 6,000 hydrangeas per acre (today I have 1000 plants an acre).  My neighbor’s hydrangea had about 60 stems that year.  I figured 40 was a conservative number to use.  At the flower market, they were going for $2.00 per stem. And my goal was to put in 5 acreas within 5 years. My final budgeting went something like this:  6,000 plants x 40 blooms/year x $2.00/stem x 5 acres = $2,400,000 per year.
Wow, I was going to make over 2 million dollars per year growing hydrangeas!  It truly was a quick way out of the dairy business.  I didn’t bother budgeting any expenses.  After all, I was able to pay for the cuttings with some of the money I had left over from college.
I did start over the second year and things obviously have been much more efficient since then, but we don’t have room in the Quarterly to continue discussing my frustrations and mistakes the past 8 years of growing hydrangeas.  But there are a few points I would like to point out to beginning growers:
First, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  It is the best way to learn.  I’d like to say that I haven’t killed another plant with Roundup or another herbicide but that wouldn’t be true.  Since that day I always double-check information I receive from others. I do most of my own research now.  But if I was scared of making a mistake, I would still be milking cows.  
Second, until you have a sales history be extremely conservative when budgeting. Until I had a sales history, I found budgeting on a per plant or per bulb basis was unrealistic. Once I had a sales history, though, it is easy to know the true income and expense per plant.  You can then carry these numbers over for the following year’s budget based on the number of plants you have in the ground and speculative market conditions.  But from my experience it doesn’t work by figuring out how much one good plant will produce and multiplying that by all the plants you want to put in the ground.  I would be retired by now if that system of budgeting worked.  
And last, if this is what you love to do, then never give up due to frustration.  After my first year I could have just said that it was easier just to keep dairy farming (okay, I probably couldn’t have said that, but you get the point, right?).  2005 will be my best hydrangea year yet.  If you keep at something you will improve every year.  Yes, there are ups and downs, but overall you will be moving forward.  There are many crops that are not economical to grow.  From time to time we need to honestly and objectively evaluate which are worth growing or not.  If you’re in the business to be make money, then there may be some seeds you shouldn’t plant this year.  Don’t do it just because you’ve done it the past ten years, do it because makes sense.
Be sure to sign up for the Northwest Regional Meeting July 27th up at Janet Foss’s Nursery in Washington.  We all have something to learn as well as something to give.