The Quest for Organic Ornamentals

That flat of petunias at the garden center may come with a chemical catch.

By Bart Ziegler

Photography by Rob Cardillo


petunias-300“One of the reasons I believe you’re not seeing a lot of organic flowers is there has been a lack of interest,” says Juan St. Amant, product development manager for Plug Connection, a Vista, California, company that sells plugs, or baby plants, to commercial growers around the country.
 Plug Connection was one of the first big plant providers to be certified organic by the USDA, St. Amant says. Its vegetable starter plants, such as lettuces and herbs, find a ready market. After the company was certified for organic production of edibles in 2005, St. Amant thought demand for nonedible organics would also grow, for such things as flower displays at all-organic weddings. But “while we’ve had a couple of inquiries, it really hasn’t been the demand I thought there might be,” St. Amant says. So far, Plug Connection sells a few organically grown varieties of flower plugs that are aimed for use in salads.

Another big commercial grower is trying a different way to jump-start organic ornamental plants—what it calls “organic anonymous.” Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses in Portage, Michigan, has been growing more of its flower plants organically each year, but not because its customers are demanding it—and it doesn’t advertise the change.

Elzinga & Hoeksema already grows vegetable plants organically for some big retailers. By slowly transitioning to organic methods for bedding plants, such as impatiens and annual phlox, it hopes to lower its costs of organic production, says Mark Elzinga, who owns the company.
 “We love to grow organic. The real thing of organics is creating healthy plants that don’t get diseases or bugs,” Elzinga says. As he converts more of his 30 acres to natural methods, the cost of the organic “living soil” he buys goes down. Still, “we’re not sure how to market it yet. Nobody’s asking us” for organically grown flowers. And if anyone does ask, he adds, “we want to get paid for it,” because organic production still costs more than conventional chemical methods.

Both St. Amant and Elzinga say the chemicals they use in raising ornamental plants are quick to degrade and unlikely to leach into a consumer’s flowerbed or container. But if you want your garden to be 100 percent organic, you don’t want to plant anything in it that wasn’t raised organically. This is especially a concern if you’re following the trend of mixing flowers with vegetable plants. Some nursery-grown plants come with slow-release synthetic fertilizer pellets sprinkled atop their soil—another threat to your garden’s organic integrity.

It would be a good thing for the earth if greenhouses, nurseries, and tree farms used fewer chemicals, which can run off into sewers and streams and end up in drinking water. It could also benefit the health of workers at these companies. But don’t expect to find organically raised flowers and shrubs at big-box retailers or your local garden center anytime soon. Unless enough customers start demanding organics, retailers aren’t likely to push their growers to change their ways.

Bart Ziegler is an editor, reporter, and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.