Take A Visual Vacation Inside Oberlin's Massive Flower Factory

This week brings the first week of spring, time we hope, to put away those snow shovels and dust off the garden tools. But while we wait for the first blooms outside, let's take you inside one of the largest greenhouses in the United States – for a visual vacation and some spring stimulation.

As ideastream producers Mary Fecteau and Stephanie Jarvis discover, engineering the perfect plant – indoors or out – involves far more than a seed and soil.

Orchid Overload

The temperature outside sits just above freezing on this mid-March morning, but inside Green Circle Growers’ climate controlled greenhouse, it’s a perfect spring day -- critical for fostering rows and rows of orchids. Vibrant purples, bright whites and vivid pinks cover about 35 football fields worth of space at the Oberlin complex.  

“When you walk in the greenhouse, it’s kind of like sensory overload,” said Green Circle co-owner Scott Giesbrecht. “You’re smelling plants growing, you’re seeing all different kinds of colors. You’re feeling a warm temperature. You’re hearing different things going on… roofs opening, water running, all different things.”

Orchids represent one-third of Green Circle’s production. The company grows more than 8 million orchids annually.

“You’re looking at 70 to 80 different varieties, but really about seven different color subcategories,” said Giesbrecht. “So we grow, for example, 18 different whites, 15 different purples, but they all have little variations in them.”

That color variation contributes to high demand by consumers. The orchid is the most popular potted plant in the United States.

Marcel Boonekamp is one of the head growers at Green Circle’s orchid range. The splash of color that fills the space is thoughtfully designed and scientifically engineered -- a process Boonekamp describes as time consuming, but necessary.

 “The only colors we can’t create naturally (are) blue and black and red,” said Boonekamp. “But other colors and mixes of colors, it’s all possible by breeding… which takes a long time. In total that process takes between five and eight years.”

Orchids at Green Circle begin as tissue culture. Growers use plant tissue instead of seeds to create color consistency in larger quantities. The tissue goes into a “coco plug,” that wraps around the roots and allows for easy potting transfers – and gives an orchid its best chance to thrive.

As the orchids grow older, they travel through various areas of the facility, each with different climate controls and light levels, before they can move to a bigger pot size. One critical moment mimics a Hawaiian winter, exposing the plant to a cooling period. The temperature change triggers the orchid to “spike,” creating a new flower stalk.

Greenhouse Technology

Sophisticated technology allows workers to track each orchid’s progress through the two-year grow period.

“Once they move into a bigger pot size, they get a barcode on the pot,” said Boonekamp. “We scan the pot, so then we know this plant is this variety and this old. And then we keep track of that plant throughout the greenhouse.”

Orchids aren't the only plants growing here. In one area of the complex, four robotic helpers pick up, move, and space hydrangeas. The company says this reduces repetitive strain injuries, by removing the constant need for humans to bend down. Elsewhere, a machine meticulously picks up petunia cuttings and sticks each one in its spot in a tray. 

“Humans are still key in the whole process…we always need them,” said Boonekamp. “What we try to do is automate the things that machines can do better.”

Sustainability

Along with investing in high-tech automation, Green Circle emphasizes sustainable production practices.

“Our very structure is a collector of rainwater that goes to seven different retention ponds,” said Giesbrecht. “We try to minimize the amount of city water we use. Primarily we are self-reliant on the water that gets collected by the greenhouse roofs and then sent through filtration.”

Wood boilers heat all 110 acres of greenhouse. And in an effort to cut down on pesticides, insect-grabbing sticky tape hovers above plants.

“What we’ve found in our journey of sustainability is what’s good for the environment is good for our business.”

Orchid Care

Back in the orchid plant, Boonekamp shares some tips for home orchid care – including ice watering.

“Ice melts slowly so the roots have time to absorb water, and that’s the biggest benefit of the ice cube. The easy way to see the difference is in roots… looking like this, it definitely needs watered.”

Three ice cubes a week provide enough hydration for the plant.

 

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