Pollinators, Saffron, and Cool New Perennials; The Northeast Greenhouse Conference

We kicked off the Trade Show Season at the Northeast Greenhouse Conference in Boxborough, Massachusetts this past week. Shows like this pull together experts in many fields of the greenhouse and garden center industry, from university researchers to the owners and innovators changing the way the industry approaches both the customer and the ecosystem.  It seems as though every conference and tradeshow I attend contains more and more seminars on pollinator friendly plants, cutting edge IPM research, and other alternatives to neonicotinoids. There is still a fair share of conventional biological control seminars and turf management round tables there, but as an organic perennial nursery it is refreshing to see so many options relevant to our needs, and the interest among our colleagues in less environmentally harmful growing practices.  This swell of interest has created a new wave of research and innovation that offers hope in the face of an uncertain future. Our most important insect allies are in increasing danger from the changing environment and the poisons humans create, and this idea has finally gained traction among the wider gardening public.  

While most people understand that our honey bees are being threatened, many other pollinating insects get overlooked. In Vermont alone, there are over 250 different species of bee! Some are large, such as bumblebees and mason bees, while others are small like squash and sweat bees. Some of these bees live in the hollow stalks of dead perennials left out in the garden, others burrow into exposed sandy ground and live solitary lives.  Each are active in different ways, at different times of the year and need a diverse and intact ecosystem in order to thrive, which is increasingly rare in our country.  The bottom line is that all of these species are important to humanity-  at least half of our crops rely on insect pollination to be successful and save tens of billions of dollars in labor every year globally. We are in serious trouble if they continue to decline- imagine how many people it would take to hand pollinate all of the crops that rely on insects! The Xerces Society is an amazing organization with lots of useful information on this topic and more.

Saffron- both beautiful and tasty!

Saffron- both beautiful and tasty!

NEGC also contained some fun and interesting ideas presented by both academic institutions (shout out to UVM!) and growers who trial new introductions to the perennial world. One of my favorite nuggets was the seminar led by Margaret Skinner of UVM and focused on recent trials of saffron production in high tunnels in Vermont. This is an almost mystical spice renowned for its flavor, color, and cost.  If one looks at the global retail price of saffron (20$ a gram) by weight compared to gold(40$ per gram), it is roughly half.  We learned that it is a fall blooming crocus, can be grown in hoop houses in a few different methods, and can produce more value per square foot than tomatoes, the current reigning champion of hoop productions. Who would have thought such an interesting and warm climate-linked crop could be compatible with Vermont’s less-than-balmy weather?

As always, there were several different seminars focused on new plant varieties.  Every year, breeding programs create all kinds of new varieties of almost every species. It’s hard as a nursery to know how they will perform in a real garden setting, so these trial reports are always valuable.  When there are literally hundreds of varieties of Echinacea, for example, how do we figure out which ones will be the best and most hardy? Over the years we have ordered in some amazing varieties, as well as some memorably terrible varieties that do not grow as advertised. Some of our favorites from this year are the new ‘Moody Blues’ series of Veronica and the fantastic Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’. It may not be the showiest Phlox we’ve ever seen, but it offers two amazing benefits: it never (never!) gets mildew, and it’s a nectar superstar in the pollinator world! Consistently swarmed with bees, it contains a higher volume and concentration of nectar than almost every other tested plant.

It is impossible to fit everything from this conference into this post, so I won’t, but it was amazing to me how practices and causes near and dear to the entire Arcana staff are finally making their way into mainstream horticulture. Not only are growers becoming more active in sustainability and pollinator friendly practices, but consumers across the spectrum are starting to look for and ask about these practices and products.  Knowledge is key- the more informed the gardening public is about pollinator and ecological health, the more plants and resources we can offer.  Coming up later this month is the New England Grows conference, a larger but similar event in Boston. Already the programs being offered reflect this growing interest.  I look forward to sharing what we learn there in December. Until then, happy gardening!


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Posted by Caiti Hensley

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