With the enviable ability to plant during the rest of the country’s cold season and a year-round gardening window, Florida ranks second nationally in the production of greenhouse and nursery products.
It is also “one of the largest segments of agriculture in Florida, making the largest impact on the state as far as jobs, economy and sales,” says Jennifer Nelis, director of communications and public relations for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA).
Working With the Climate
Florida’s unforgiving summer heat can hamper planting, but for caladiums, there’s no better place than Lake Placid. Called “the Caladium Capital of the World,” Lake Placid supplies 98 percent of the world’s caladiums and is home to Happiness Farms, the world’s largest commercial caladium farm, dedicating 350 acres to the crop.
“Florida has the right temperature, rainfall and muck source,” says Steven Phypers, third-generation caladium farmer at Happiness Farms, explaining that where other plants would struggle, the low-pH lake bottom has proved perfect for caladium development.
“We start planting in April, grow all summer, then harvest from November until the end of February.”
With this cycle in place, Phypers and his family have been selling caladiums to all 50 states and 40 countries since the 1960s.
“Because they are sun and heat tolerant, caladiums produce color even during the hot summer months when other plants die,” Phypers says. “Every year, we have buses come in and lots of people want tours.”
Taking a Scientific Approach
As suppliers of wholesale tissue culture starter plants, Agri-Starts has gained widespread recognition for its development of top-quality and unique plant varieties. The secret is in the science.
“Everything we put into culture is grown in sterile laboratories on sterile growing media, and those plants need maintenance every four weeks,” explains Ty Strode, Agri-Starts’ vice president and marketing director. Agri-Starts’ labs produce millions of contaminant-free plants that consistently demonstrate vigor and superior branching.
Utilizing state-of-the-art, environmentally controlled greenhouses, the company also relies on sustainable growing techniques, including sub-irrigation and recycling water.
“We harvest rainwater off our roofs, so for every 6 inches of rain we get half a million gallons of water,” Strode says.
When it comes to selecting which plants to grow, customers’ feedback and market demand is important, however, “we also try to expose the industry to plants we think are cool, too,” Strode says. In offering these more uncommon varieties, growers keep coming back to find something that wows even the seasoned gardener.
Combining Tourism With Horticulture
“Tourism is the number one industry in Florida, but part of tourism really is agriculture,” adds Nelis of FNGLA, and this is certainly the case at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Theme Park during the Annual Flower and Garden Festival. For 21 years, the resort’s expert horticulturalists have brought Disney characters to life through beautifully shaped topiaries.
“We are very fortunate that we get to create great Disney characters out of plants. We had 79 Disney character topiaries and over 100 altogether at the 2014 festival. The hardest part is fashioning the frame so that it has character integrity,” says Eric Darden, Walt Disney World horticulture manager. The whole process from framing to planting can take five months.
Other horticulture highlights include outdoor kitchens featuring edible plants, special gardens for children and gardening seminars.
“There are a lot of people who visit and leave inspired to start gardening – I think over time we are creating more gardeners,” Darden says.
If this holds true, Florida’s horticulture industry has many more bright years ahead.