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Foliage Plants: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

United States of Department of AgricultureCooperative State Research Service Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

Foliage plants come in all shapes-rounded, spread, upright, cascading or weeping, oval and rounded. They can be maintained in dishes, terrariums, hanging baskets totem poles, large individual pots, troughs, or boxes. They can range in height from a few inches to 20 feet or more in large patios or entries. They cover a wide color range and may or may not have flowers.

Ten States dominate sales in the highly competitive indoor foliage plant industry. Florida leads. Acreage in production in Illinois soared some 2,500 percent over 10 years. The other significant producing States are California, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Acreages are values of foliage plants, generally tropical, have grown over recent decades. From 1970 to 1980, foliage sales increased 834 percent.

A small-scale entrepreneur who is a good marketer might make substantial profits every spring on a part-time basis by growing certain foliage plants in 3,000-square-foot greenhouse, according to Dr. Davis S. Koranski, floriculture specialist at Iowa State University. The least costly greenhouse could be used, he said, and plant sales could gross from $9,000 to $18,000. Seeds or cuttings, labor, and other costs should not total more than 40 to 50 percent of gross, he said. His estimates apply to the northern tier of States; farther south, lower heating costs could boost returns.

An enterprising marketer could emphasize individualized personal service and fresh ideas. Talented growers sometimes branch out into interiorscaping, the newest service in the nursery business. Competitors include many large grower-firms, some of which do their own retailing with mail-order sales.

Key book sources of data on foliage plants include Interior Plantscapes: Installation, Maintenance and Management, by George H. Manaker, and the highly technical Foliage Plant Production, edited by Jasper N. Joiner. Both were published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632 in 1981.

Many Sources

Other sources of information on foliage plants, their production and marketing, include county Extension agents; wholesale florists; State nurserymen's associations; experts at State Universities; U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agricultural Library (NAL) with its AGRICOLA computer data base (Horticulture Information Center, NAL, Beltsville, MD 20705); the Society of American Florists (1601 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314), which has a growers' division; the information center of the Producer Marketing Association (PMA); and major private commercial magazines, such as GrowerTalks. The latter's publisher is George J. Ball, Inc. (250 Town Road, West Chicago, IL 60185). A year's subscription costs $19. A colorful cyclopedia, Tropica, by Dr. Alfred Byrd Graff, sells for $125 at Roehrs Company (19 Prospect Terrace, P.O. Box 125, East Rutherford, NJ 07073). It has about 7,000 color photos.

PMA's information specialist, Julie E. Stewart (1500 Casho Mill Road, Newark, DE 19714-6036) Can provide a bibliography on foliage plants at a minimum charge for nonmembers of $20 per search plus $10 for up to 10 printed pages and $1 per page for anything over 10 pages. Her latest foliage plant bibliography is 5 pages long. IT includes items dealing with prices, consumer buying trends, shipping temperatures, and marketing ideas.

PMA also has a Floral Marketing Division which annually produces Floral Marketing Directory & Buyer's Guide($20). Foliage plant producers are part of the floral industry. Besides listing floral growers and suppliers, the guide notes supermarkets that buy floral items and may provide consumer interest survey information. It also may describe the latest boxing or shipping standards and list floral holidays.

Other published information sources include the Produce Marketing Almanac, issued every year by PMA; thePacker newspaper; Produce News; Florists' Review; Produce and Floral Retailing; Nursery Business-Retailer,and Florida Foliage.

Many local libraries can supply addresses and sometimes copies of the above or other publications that discuss foliage plants. Local newspapers and general magazines often provide indications of trends in foliage plant decoration.

The NAL's Horticulture Information Center can provide potential entrepreneurs with a bibliography. It lists articles and books, such as Practical Horticulture: A Guide to Growing Indoor and Outdoor Plants, by L. W. Rice and R. P. Rice; and the Greenhouses, an annual.

Quarantine Laws

If plant growers make interstate shipments of plants and soil, they must remember State and Federal plant quarantine laws. Penalties apply to violators. Growers should seek information from their State plant regulatory official at the State department of agriculture or USDA officials with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS, Plant Protection and Quarantine, Regulatory Services Staff, Federal Building, Hyattsville, MD 20782)

Marketing foliage and foliage plants is basic to success, as indicated by Koranski. If beginning entrepreneurs can find a large floral retailer or jobber with whom to become associated as a supplier of plants, they will have solved some marketing problems. Sometimes growers also can find retail florists who have a need for seasonal plants such as forsythia, forced peach blossoms, spirea, and pussywillows, to mention a few, as well as plants such as ferns that are used the year round.

A grower also might work out a sales arrangement with the owner of a local store with a large parking lot where plants can be displayed.

For those who would like 11 pages of ideas for use in marketing, Allen C. Bjergo, community development specialist with the Montana State University Cooperative Extension Service (1018 Burlington, Room 200, Missoula, MT 59801), has developed "Your Marketing Plan Outline," available free on request. (He also has "Earn Extra Money From Your Farm or Ranch" and "Financing Your Ideas")

Meanwhile, in Florida, where one grower said 95 percent of foliage plants are grown on speculations some marketers are trying to beat the competition and interest new customers, either retailers or final consumers, by moving away from the "bread-and-butter mainstays" among foliage plants. These include Schefflera Aboricolas ("Hawaiian elf"), Dracaenas marginata and D. frangrans massangeana (corn plant), Ficus benjamina, (rubber trees), and Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (Areca or "butterfly" palms). Such growers look for harder-to-grow but attractive plants, or new ones. With fresh items, they also may avoid the problem of selling plants at 1970 prices.

A couple of the more colorful plants such growers are introducing are the hibiscus and the croton. Other, harder-to-grow varieties include the Dracaenas detrmensis 'Janet Craig' and 'Warneckii.' A few producers are developing new cultivars.

Competition Stimulates

Pressured by competitions, growers also look for other ways to save, by:

  • Selling directly to the public as well as to retail sales outlets and interiorscapers.
  • Doing interiorscaping in addition to growing.
  • Establishing inventory control.
  • Scheduling production on the basis of past sales.
  • Maintaining low sales overhead.
  • Mechanizing to reduce labor.

Some nurseries join others to combine marketing, billing, shipping, and retailing.

For those interested in doing direct marketing to consumers, a 32-page 1981 publication, Direct Marketing by Farmers to Consumers: Some Legal Implications, is an information source. It discusses employment regulations and marketing liabilities such as warranties in direct marketing. By D. L. Uchtmann and J. T. Archer, it was published by the University of Illinois and may be obtained for $1.50 from the Agricultural Publications Office (54 Mumford Hall, 1301 W. Gregory Drive, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801).

2 Acres Enough

Foliage plants nurseries range in size from backyards to 60 to 70 acres. One successful Florida grower said "you could make money" with 2 acres, with properly controlled overhead.

A North Carolina grower, self-described as a nonworkaholic, is surviving on a full time basis with 30,000 square feet and nine greenhouses, a prefabricated portable hut, and a coldframe. In the Deep South some growers shade plants and don't build greenhouses. In Northern States, however, sturdy, well-insulated greenhouses are essential for full-time foliage operations.

Insulation and heating methods change. Coverings that hold in infrared light for use as a heat source are recommended in certain areas. Solar energy also is often used as a heat source.

Joiner's book, Foliage Plant Production, illustrated how to achieve greenhouse efficiency and set up a systems approach that allows expansion. Many growers recommended movable benches to make best use of space.

Cost for several types of greenhouses range anywhere from $10 to $40 per square foot.

In his book, Joiner says, "Polyethylene houses or steel frame and fiberglass covered houses would make best use of investment funds where a 10 percent minimum return on an investment is required." He cautions that "availability of investment funds is usually a major problem."

Joiner's book also analyzes yield per square foot of greenhouse space for various foliage plants such as philodendrons, pileas, dieffenbachia, aglaonema, ferns, hoyas, and Norfolk Island pine.

Many Problems

Pest challenges facing foliage producers are those of any greenhouse manager. 'GrowerTalks' in June 1987 profiled 10 of the worst greenhouse problems, namely: Among insects, whiteflies, thrips, spider mites, mealybugs, and leafminers; and among diseases, powdery mildew, Xanthomonas, Rhizoctonia, Fusarim, andPhytophthora. The biological-controls approach to pests is usually recommended by USDA and State Extension and university specialist when possible, and 'GrowerTalks' also calls for its study, calling it the "technology of tomorrow." A feature of Joiner's book is a 10-page table listing symptoms and possible causes of foliage plant problems, ranging from nutrient deficiency to inadequate light and humidity, chilling, plant spacing, air pollution from gas, and many pests.

Besides various botanic gardens around the country, another location where potential growers might see some useful foliage plants is the U.S. Bontanic Garden, administered through the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, just west of the U.S. Capitol at Independence and First Streets, SW, Washington, DC 20024.


by George B. Holcomb of the Office of Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Program Director).

Published December 1987

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