Quality, Quality, Quality

Have you noticed a recurring theme that is the topic of many articles dealing with retail business?  It is the battle between big and small. I first started noticing it in articles discussing the impact of Wal-Mart’s entry into organic produce.  Discussions and subsequent articles got me thinking about the pros and cons of big vs. small in the world of food products. There are many examples—coffee, for instance.  Many welcome the easy availability of the ubiquitous Starbucks, but not everyone perceives endless expansion as positive.  Some Starbucks sites in Portland have been picketed to save independent coffee shops from going under.  What about micro-brews?  Does your perception change when you find out your favorite beer is actually not a micro-brew at all but instead owned by one of the huge mega-breweries like Anheuser-Busch?  What about the big vs. small organic debate?  Some folks are saying that so-called “big organic” is somehow less pure than small organic.  How does the debate play out in flowers?  Somehow there is an extra “feel good” when you purchase blooms from a local source compared to those churned out in huge farms via agribusiness companies located in Latin America.                

Or is there?  What really matters to consumers when it comes to coffee, organic produce, micro-brews or flower bouquets?  Quality! If quality is not part of the equation, John and Jane Public turn away regardless of how warm and fuzzy the product positioning may be.  In the case of flowers, vase life is the overwhelming consumer barometer indicating quality.  Vase life answers the ever-important consumer question “Did I get my money’s worth?”

It is no secret that quality starts with careful variety selection and sound production protocols, but the quality equation doesn’t end once blooms are harvested. Correct postharvest treatments make a significant difference in customer satisfaction. As an independent businessperson, you want to know about new treatment innovations to determine which ones best fit your flower types.  Let’s start with new products.              

One of the newest products available is safe, easy to use and inexpensive: slow-release chlorine pills. The continuing surge in popularity of gerberas fueled this product development. Gerbera per-formance is all about cleanliness.  Those hollow stems get easily plugged with bacteria if they are not placed in clean buckets with clean solution. Lots of flowers are prone to getting clogged with bacteria and droop because flow is blocked.  Think of sunflowers, celosia, amaranthus, daffs, stock, hyacinths, etc. These pills are a different formulation of chlorine than common household bleach.  Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is aggressive, but short lived—as short as 4 hours depending on temperature and light conditions.  The new chlorine pills are “active” for 2-3 days, long enough for flowers to get a good (sanitized) first drink and become fully hydrated before they are sold at the local market or packed for shipping.                     

Both Chrysal and Floralife have developed slow-release chlorine products. Chrysal offers 2 sizes: a small pill for 3 quarts of water or a large pill for 3 gallons of water. Although the product focus is on gerberas, slow-release pills are suitable for all kinds of crops, especially field-grown flowers that are loaded with bacteria (from wind and mud splash) at time of harvest.  The pills are easy to apply out in the field when you fill buckets, but keep in mind, it is a waste of time to use any kind of chlorine in dirty buckets because the “active” antibacterial power of chlorine is a one-time expenditure. Whether it is fighting the bacteria in a dirty bucket or bacteria clinging to the stem of a flower, once chlorine kills microbes, it is rendered inactive.  This means that flowers going into dirty buckets never receive any benefits from chlorine’s “kill” power, because the antimicrobial action is completely depleted just fighting the pollutants in/on the bucket—it never gets around to cleaning up the solution the flowers will drink.                 

Vase performance and longevity of flowers from bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers are much improved with new postharvest innovations. Flowers in this large “family” are not hard to hydrate nor do they suffer major problems with bacteria plugging stems, but they do suffer an imbalance of plant growth regulators (hormones) when harvested. The symptoms are easy to spot: premature yellowing foliage, bud or bloom stagnation, short vase life and loss of color vibrancy.         

New treatments are available that act to rebalance the hormones thereby obviating the symptoms. To keep lily foliage green, consider using a lily/alstro t-bag. This solution is a pre-measured dose of food and hormones formulated to give energy to open buds and hormones to keep foliage vibrant and green. Iris, freesia and glads suffer from bud stagnation and are best treated in water containing a bulb t-bag. This formula contains a different hormone mix of plant growth regulators designed to insure bloom opening and food to insure a long vase life. T-bag technology has been available from Pokon & Chrysal since the early 2000s. It is an easy way to deliver the right amount of treatment per bucket and have a visual aid (empty t-bag) to remind you the flowers are in treated solution.                     

Postharvest information would not be complete without mentioning ways to protect flowers against ethylene damage. Ethylene is a naturally-occurring hormone that hastens maturation in some flowers, fruits and vegetables.  Borrowing a tagline from  Raid commercials, ethylene kills flowers dead! The most effective protection is a first drink after harvest of silverthiosulfate (STS). The commercial name is Chrysal AVB. This solution is a must for any flower that is ethylene sensitive like delphinium, larkspur, sweet pea, monkshood, freesia, agapanthus, veronica and agapanthus. STS is not new, but there is some confusion about it because it is not registered for use in every state. In fact, it is legal to use only in CA, TX, OR, WA, FL and MI.  Because silver is a heavy metal, STS must be neutralized prior to disposing. The neutralizing process involves precipitating and filtering out the silver before the spent solution can be dumped in the sewer or soil. If you live in a state in which STS is not available for use, consider another method of protection: 1-MCP (commercial name is Floralife Ethylbloc). This compound works as a gas and is now available as sachets that are activated by dipping them in water immediately prior to packing.             

Considering it costs a fraction of a cent to treat flowers, using the right product is the cheapest and most effective insurance policy in which you can invest to guarantee customer satisfaction.