Variety is everything in flower growing. Customers will spend many minutes – an eternity in the bustling farmers’ marketplace – perusing the bouquets and bunches of gorgeous, brightly colored flowers that are offered for sale each week. You can mix and match on a color theme, select fillers and greens, go wild with out-of-control curly willow and four-foot long tiger paws, or pick up a dainty bunch of in-season tulips.
Farmers say they always want to add something new to their mix, and if you watch the flower selection each week, you will notice how it changes. Certified farmers who grow flowers for sale at farmers markets are issued a “certified producer’s certificate” that lists everything they grow. Skyline Flower Growers from Oxnard has a certificate that runs to 30 pages.
Tom Turner is a flower grower from Carlsbad who realized about ten years ago that variety is important but that specialization is necessary if one wants to stay in the flower growing game. Carlsbad in northern San Diego County was once a flower growing center in California. Many of the original growers who set up greenhouses in the area were Japanese American. They had worked in field crops but switched to carnation growing, constructing acres of greenhouses and producing easy-to-grow carnations for the wholesale flower market. By the mid-eighties, most of the carnation growing had moved to Colombia, and California flower growing greenhouses were left empty.
Tom grew up in Carlsbad and worked in the carnation greenhouses throughout high school. He attended Chico State, where he earned a bachelor’s in horticulture and then returned home to resume work with wholesale flower production. In 1984, he set up his own flower-growing business, leasing a greenhouse from a Japanese farmer. At first, he specialized in specialty lilies – including the white Asiatic and the varied tiger lilies, which grew from bulbs imported from Holland. Growing was relatively simple Bulbs were planted and produced blooms in ninety days, and the plantings were staggered so that a constant supply was available. Tom’s flowers all went to the wholesale market, but then he discovered direct sales at farmers’ markets and he began to grow more specialty items for his customers.
By the mid-nineties, Tom had settled on Gerber daisies as his specialty crop. Gerbers enjoy a lot of sunshine and they do well in the Carlsbad climate, and the number of Gerber growers had been steadily declining. Today, according to Tom, there are only about three or four growers left in the area. Gerbers originate in Holland as a tissue culture that is grown out at greenhouses in Carpinteria in Santa Barbara County and sent back to Tom as small plants. Tom plants the young Gerbers at a rate of 25,000 plants per acre in his greenhouses, and in about eight weeks he is able to harvest the tall, brightly colored blooms. Gerbers produce one bloom per plant per week over the course of their production cycle, which can last for up to two years. Gerbers must be grown indoors to protect them from rain, wind, and other natural conditions that would damage their big round blooms.
They come in a kaleidoscope of bright colors and many other pastels, so by specializing in Gerbers Tom has lost none of the variety that flower buyers crave.
As with the popular dependable chrysanthemums and other hardy flower staples, new varieties of Gerbers are constantly being experimented with. We have seen lacy spider mums, puffy round mums, and other variations on the same theme. There do exist different types of Gerber daisies as well , such as an exotic looking spider Gerber, but Tom has tried it out and it does not produce dependably. Also, the cut blooms do not hold up well, and that is the second major consideration of fresh-flower buyers after color and variety. Tom’s regular Gerbers are cut with very long stems – up to 24 inches in length. To keep flowers fresh, Tom recommends that the water be changed and the stems cut down an inch about every other day. This keeps the uptake of fresh water going, and my Gerbers have lasted up to two weeks, although they are considerably shorter by the end than when they started.
Tom now participates in 23 certified farmers’ markets in Southern California. He operates a five-acre greenhouse devoted almost exclusively to his Gerbers, and another five acres of outdoor flowers for his “fillers” and bouquet mixes. He is still looking for specialty flowers to grow, and is intrigued with exotic lilies, as long as he can find varieties that will have the same sturdiness and dependability as his Gerbers. He has seen the demise of 90 percent of the fresh flower growing business in his home town of Carlsbad, and he knows that the only way to stay in business is to diversify and offer the best, freshest product on the market. Tom keeps buckets of single stem mini-Gerbers at his stand and offers one free to every child who walks by. Kids love to select a flower and walk around the market carrying a stem that is almost as tall as they are. There is something about a daisy that just makes everyone smile.Special Event – At the Wednesday Santa Monica Market on September 28th, the chef series “Buy It Fresh, Make It Now” will feature three chefs from the Culinary Academy at the Art Institute of California – L.A. demonstrating how to prepare a dish right from the market. Chefs Christophe Bernard (department chair), Tom Hugenberger, and Daniel Drumlake will select and cook produce at the market from 10 a.m. till 1 p.m. in the tent at Third Street and Arizona Avenue. Recipes will be available. Cost – $1 – $3 per item.