From the beginning, I treated the nursery land as if I were just a temporary caretaker, and one day it might be sold to an investor or passed on to one of my children. I didn’t want the next owner inheriting property that had been polluted with hazardous chemicals or was dotted with caches of buried junk. We decided not to take the easy way around a problem, but do the right thing from the start, even though it might cost more money or take more effort.
I bought my first 15-acre block of land in 1981. One of the first jobs we tackled was to renovate our office, an old 1000 square foot wooden barracks moved to the property from the University of Florida campus where it had served as married housing for returning WWII vets. Since the roof leaked, we began tearing off the old asphalt shingles only to discover that there were six layers of roof nailed one on top of the other. After many hard days levering out nails and scraping with flat point shovels, we were able to get it down to the wood decking. We could have taken the old shingles and nails to the back of the property and buried them in a pit or thrown them down a sinkhole, but we opted to laboriously stack them into my pickup and haul them to the county landfill.
Fortunately, Alachua County has a very active Environmental Protection Agency, and although it was often a nuisance to deal with their surprise visits and strict rules regarding waste storage and disposal, I’m glad they kept us from doing the wrong thing and taking shortcuts we might later regret. Triple-rinsed insecticide containers went into the dumpster, used anti-freeze, oil and oil filters were hauled off by a professional waste disposal company. Our large diesel and gas tanks as well as our used oil container were placed in secondary containment to prevent leakage and environmental catastrophe. Even shop rags were sent to a professional cleaner.
One place we didn’t skimp was in building a state-of-the-art chemical storage facility with special floors, fire-proofing and extra ventilation. Whatever pesticides, herbicides and fungicides we purchased, we didn’t want to worry about them leaking out into the ground and finding their way down to our drinking water, just 100’ below our feet.
My basic nature is to be a pack rat, never throwing away anything that I might someday find a use for. Call it being frugal or maybe I’m just plain cheap, but I can’t stand waste of any kind. So as the business grew, we implemented rules to re-use, re-cycle, and protect the land and the aquifer below it.
It came down to making simple logical choices. We never knew how long we might be in business. Perhaps the land would become so valuable that we might eventually sell it for a development. So do we pave the roads with asphalt, an oil-based product, or do we use lime rock, a naturally-occurring material quarried just two miles up the road? Should we pour a lot of concrete for greenhouse floors or just use easily removable black poly and ground cloth? As we grew larger, we were constantly faced with these choices, and we always chose the more earth-friendly alternatives.
We also learned from our mistakes. In the early years, we used Methyl Bromide to sterilize our containers. The cost was $1.00/cannister. One day a can of Methyl Bromide rusted out and leaked. Several of us were exposed to the chemical and were rushed to the hospital. Although no one was injured, it was a very scary incident, and after that we vowed to no longer purchase, stock, or use restricted pesticides.
Since then, we have concentrated on using IPM with a focus on scouting and a better understanding of the life cycle of the insects and disease organisms that we were trying to control. We have switched mostly to soaps and oils, plant extracts like neem, and chemicals that disrupt a bug’s life cycle without poisoning us. We follow BMPs (Best Management Practices) like proper spacing, timely spreading, proper pruning, cyclic low volume irrigation, and night-watering to reduce or eliminate disease problems in the nursery.
In some cases, even though we see insects and their damage, we don’t spray at all. Since we supply butterfly nectar and larval plants to many butterfly museums and farms throughout the southeast, having caterpillars chewing on an Asclepias may be viewed as a plus, not a minus. It is certainly proof that the plants can safely be used as caterpillar food, and the buyer gets free larvae to boot. If we have aphids on those plants at the time of shipment, a strong stream of water may be all the treatment they get.
In drought years when water for irrigation was short, we saw the need to capture and re-use the water we pumped out of the ground as well as trapping our erratic rainfall. We started designing new fields and adapting older ones to catch and channel all run-off back to a two-million gallon holding pond. The water is cleaned as it flows through our man-made swamp of native plants and further purified by the lake’s one-acre cover of hyacinths and water lettuce. Water from this pond irrigates two-thirds of the nursery, greatly reducing the amount of water drawn from our deep wells.
The nursery has 27 greenhouses that are each 100’ or 150’ long. Of these greenhouses only a handful are equipped with propane heaters. We also have a retractable-roof Cravo structure for perennials that measures over 2 acres. Almost all of these structures rely on passive solar heating supplemented on the coldest nights by well water that emerges from the ground year-round at 72 degrees. Surprisingly, we have many nights of frost and several hard freezes each winter in North Florida. Our goal is not to force perennials to grow in December and January, but just to keep the plants alive by maintaining temperatures in the houses above freezing. There is a grid of poly-tubes lying in the aisles between blocks of plants. The tubes are studded with small emitters every four feet that throw a low volume of water in a fine spray in the aisles at the base of the containerized plants at night when freezing temperatures are expected. Amazingly, this low-tech heating method does the trick, and runoff is channeled through swales down to our pond for recycling.
Employees at Grandiflora go far beyond conventional waste reduction programs such as newspaper and aluminum can re-cycling. They are taught to accumulate, properly store, and send back for recycling empty plastic bottles, dead batteries, florescent light bulbs, cardboard, motor oil, oil filters, anti-freeze, oil-dry, and office paper. Employees are encouraged to use both sides of all white paper before it is finally re-cycled. Grandiflora workers utilize every piece of reusable construction material from old golf cart parts to treated wooden posts with rotten bottoms to bell-ended scraps of PVC pipe.
Here are some examples of other sustainable nursery practices…
Our soil no longer contains peat moss. We have switched to “new peat” which is just a fancy name for compost. All our soil mixes contain long-term slow-release fertilizer. We do no fertigation in the field and only a small amount in the annual production houses. To further reduce nitrate run-off, even our 4” annuals and poinsettia crop are top-dressed with a slow-release fertilizer.
Plastic liner trays are saved and used under flats of plants in the propagation greenhouses and bedding plant division to lift the trays off the ground for better air circulation and sanitation.
Clear “winter” polyethylene taken off greenhouses in the spring is often trimmed and reused on smaller greenhouses or end walls the following fall. Sometimes we line swales with old poly and then cover with ground cloth. This is to help water to run through our swales, not be absorbed into them.
Wood and Plastic Pallets:
Fertilizer and bagged soil are shipped to the nursery on wood and plastic pallets. Plastic pallets find new life as bridges across swales, work tables, and benches for small plants. Wooden pallets are returned to fertilizer suppliers, re-used around the nursery, or sold back to a company that fixes and re-sells them.
All of the furniture in the offices at Grandiflora was purchased at surplus auctions. This includes desks, chairs, computer tables, bookcases, blackboards, a conference table, lockers, and file cabinets.
Computers, Phones and Other Electronic Equipment:
Old malfunctioning computers are broken down for parts which are used for assembling additional workstations or repairing other computers. Outdated computers and aging cell phones are sold on Craig’s list, given to employees, or donated to local charities.
Plastic Pots and Trays:
A buy-back and deposit system is in effect for plastic pot and tray recycling. This program significantly decreases the amount of new pots and trays that must be purchased and helps customers dispose of their plastic containers without sending them to the landfill. The environment benefits, and Grandiflora customers receive a credit toward future purchases for their recycling efforts.
All off-road vans and pickups, semi-trailers and golf carts used at Grandiflora are “pre-owned”. Most are bought through surplus auctions and rebuilt by our full-time mechanic. Broken vehicles get cannibalized for spare parts until none are left. At that point, they are hauled to a scrap yard for final recycling. Bread vans, boxes from straight trucks, and semi-trailers that are no longer road-worthy are stripped of their tires and other reusable parts and turned into sheds for storage.
Mulch from tree trimming companies is dropped at the nursery and spread along boundaries and other waste areas for weed control and to prevent it from being hauled to landfills.
Larger pieces of wood from dead trees or fallen limbs on the property are sawed up for firewood that is given to the employees.
Old potting soil from dead plants is piled in the back of the nursery and used as a soil amendment for planting projects or shared with employees.
The nursery has employed top-dressed wood mulches, coco-fiber disks and fabric barriers to reduce its dependence on chemical pre-emergent herbicides.
When our plants are no longer retail quality, we donate them to our local botanical garden, civic groups like Habitat for Humanity or Keep Alachua County Beautiful, or just let our employees take them home.
TOOTING OUR HORN
We let our customers know about our efforts to be sustainable through our catalog and web site, nursery open houses, our trade show booths, articles written for trade magazines, activities within our nursery association (FNGLA), and public speaking opportunities like this one. We tell them why our product is a little “greener”, and explain the care we take to protect the environment. We reinforce the lesson by taking back their used pots and trays. Hopefully, all these little things add up to help influence Joe Landscaper and Suzy Retailer to choose Grandiflora Grown plants.