Two Michigan growers, suppliers to the world
Walters Gardens Perennials
Display gardens open to the public
Cloning on a global scale
Meanwhile, down on the farm
Spring Meadow, specialist in
Produce a shrub from a cutting? You
Human eye still vital to the process...
...except where the computer's camera can see
Ten years to get to market
They've proven themselves winners
We were invited to tour two wholesale nurseries in southwest
Michigan that produce many of the plants sold in local retail
nurseries. Both of these nurseries are involved in the development
and propagation of new plants. They both work with plant
propagators from around the world to produce the latest plants.
Neither one sells directly to the consumer but to other nurseries
that then grow the plants to larger sizes.
Walters Gardens specializes in perennials. They are one of the
leading growers of perennials in the U. S. since 1946. They sell
plants as plugs and bare root. It's an innovative and cutting edge
company and you can visit their website at www.waltersgardens.com for more
Display garden open to the
Whenever we're at Walters Gardens we always visit the extensive
display gardens. These gardens have many of the plants Walters
produces growing in garden conditions, very different from those in
the greenhouse or in their growing fields. These display gardens
are open to the public. If you're in the Zeeland area of southwest
Michigan, we recommend a trip to Walters Gardens. All of the
plants are labeled so you can note which plants you like and have
the correct scientific name. There are some brand new plants, not
yet on the market, so you can also see what's coming up in the near
There was a behind the scenes tour of the growing greenhouses.
The size (500,000 square feet of greenhouses), organization and
quality of the products are amazing. Learning how they produce
plants is eye opening. These plants have to meet standards of
uniform growth (makes it easier to package and ship), excellent
root systems, and MUST be disease and pest free. The quality of the
plants they sell is important to Walters Gardens and it shows. The
greenhouses are clean and modern with the ability to control the
temperature, humidity, amount of sun, and water.
Cloning on a global
Next we saw the area where tissue culture plants are placed in
cells and flats to grow up. Walters Gardens was one of the first
nurseries in the United States to have their own tissue culture
lab. Many of the plants they sell are tissue cultured there. Some
are grown for Walters in other labs around the world. They have
quite a set up to get these plants from petri dish and gel media to
a pot and growing media. The plants are all put into cells by hand
which requires a gentle touch and knowledge of the plant to insure
quality. Once in the flats they are placed in the greenhouses to
grow on to sellable size. Some of these plants are eventually
transplanted to one of Walters' fields so they will grow to a
larger size for bare root sales.
Meanwhile, down on the farm
The next stop on our tour was to one of the growing fields
(farms, actually). Depending on the species, a plant may stay in
the field for up to 2 years. Seeing the fields made me want to go
in a hot air balloon just to photograph them from above. The lines
are perfectly straight, thanks to GPS on the tractors and very
colorful with flowers and foliage. Being outside in an
uncontrollable environment means constantly monitoring the plants
for insects and diseases. Walters Gardens has anywhere from 400 to
600 acres in production in any one year. The balance of their 1,500
acres is sown in cover crops to help improve the soil.
grows flowering shrubs
The other nursery we visited was Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand
Haven, Michigan. This nursery specializes in propagation of shrubs
and growing them to liner size. Those then go to other nurseries
where they are grown on to the size we buy from retail
Spring Meadow Nursery started in 1981 and has grown to be one of
the largest providers of plant materials in the country. There are
over 20 acres of greenhouses and 30 acres dedicated to stock
plants. The tour was an eye opening experience in the production of
Produce a shrub from a
cutting? You bet!
The plants grown by Spring Meadow are mainly from cuttings taken
from stock plants. The cuttings are taken at various times during
the growing season, when the cuttings are most likely to root. They
are then held in a cooled storage room and removed when they can be
placed ("stuck") in flats. These flats are moved to greenhouses
that are set up to provide the best environment for encouraging
that particular type of cutting to produce roots.
All the cuttings are placed in flats manually in a production
line process. Usually three workers work on one type of plant at a
time. Each one of the trio places some cuttings in a flat as it
moves past on a line. The last person fills out the flat and makes
sure the cuttings are all in place.
Every one of those tubs contains thousands of
cuttings -- thousands of shrubs!
The flats of cuttings are moved to specialized greenhouses,
geared for encouraging rooting. These greenhouses have a
computerized controlled environment that includes high pressure fog
systems for keeping the humidity high, bottom heated floors to warm
the growing media, and controls for air temperature and amount of
sunlight. All these help create the best environment possible for
encouraging cuttings to root.
Keep in mind that every one of those tiny plants is a
Human eye still vital to the
Once the cuttings have rooted they are moved on to other
greenhouses that are controlled for plant overall growth rather
than just root growth. These plants are constantly monitored for
disease and insects, which are rare because of the controlled
environment. However, the human touch is essential since it takes a
knowledgeable eye to recognize if something does get into the area,
and control it right away. In two of these greenhouses the floor is
designed to be flooded if necessary so that plants can be watered
from the bottom if they are susceptible to foliar diseases if the
foliage gets wet. Roses are a prime example.
Tiny as they are, they must all be monitored daily for
trouble. That scout in the photo can see even the earliest, most
subtle signs of trouble.
These plants are now almost of the size Spring Meadows will ship
to other growers.
The plants are not only monitored continually for pest problems
but for root growth and uniformity of appearance and size. The more
uniform the growth, the easier it is to package and send off to the
nurseries that will grow them to sellable sizes for the
Many of the plants must be sheared to ensure uniformity. At one
time this job was done manually by workers with hedge shears.
Spring Meadow helped develop a machine that rides above the plants,
fluffs them, shears their tops, brushes off the clippings and
dumps them into the aisle for easy clean up.
There's the wonderful shearing machine. We sure wish we
could have one for when we have those long, long hedges to clip...
especially because it will clean up the clippings!
...except where the computer's
camera sees quicker!
Quality of the product is what helped Spring Meadow grow and
maintain a position as one of the largest growers in the U.S.
Quality control has now moved into the computer age. Because all
plants grow at different rates, even flats containing all the same
type may include some poorer quality plants if not sorted. This was
done by hand but is now done by a computerized grading machine.
Flats of plants are placed on a conveyor belt. They go through
two stages that cut the flats so that each plant is now on its own.
The individual cells are then routed to another conveyor that runs
through a light box connected to a computer that grades each plant
-- at 4 plants a second! The machine sorts the plants and places
them in flats according to grade. Those flats go to shipping, back
to greenhouses to continue growing, or are discarded and
Ten years to get to
The last stop on our tour was where plants are evaluated for
future production. It may take 10 years or more for a plant to be
introduced and produced in enough quantity to go on the market.
What we saw was just a part of the overall process: the plants are
bred/hybridized and sent to various areas for trials. Some are
selected for possible production and are trialed for a few more
years. Sometimes plants perform differently than expected: they
don't stay dwarf; they don't bloom as expected; they aren't
consistent performers, etc. If a plant survives that final testing
then it is put into production and introduced.
They've proven they're
Walters Gardens and Spring Meadow Nursery are both growers of
Proven Winners™ brand plants, among others, so you may be enjoying
the fruit of their labors.
We thank them both for giving us insight on the creation and
production of plants.