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Shopping for plants in Eagle County

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Looking at the forecast it appears spring may be making an extended appearance in the valley. The operative phrase being “may be.”

I was down on the Front Range last Monday and it was chilly and rainy. It was kind of nice to climb back up here above the clouds and savor the fine weather we were having. It was a nice juxtaposition that doesn’t occur often. Lately, we’ve been getting the cold shoulder from spring while Front Rangers have been embracing some of those rare days that occur in a year which lead one to pause and consider living down there.

Not really. One insufferably hot week in July with bona fide traffic jams every evening would curb that jones in even a Broncos cheerleader.

All the same, the signs of spring are waning down there, while ours are just tentatively beginning to show. Their trees have leaves that are fleshed out and reflect the dark green fullness of summer. Our leaves are thin and faintly bright green and about a tenth of their full size. There are all kinds of flowers planted in Front Range flower beds while some of our flower beds sport a few spring bulbs and some snow-toughened pansies.

Their greenhouses are picked over, little left to sell except the last ten wizened plants from what was once a robust block of thousands, while ours have. . . Hey, wait a minute.

We get a good portion of our plants from Front Range greenhouses. If they are picked over, what are we going to do for plants? Panic? Pitch a snit? Throw a hissy? Maybe ” judging by some customer’s reaction to any possible posy shortages ” which will gain us approximately nothing.

So are we going to settle for less? Substitute? Do without?

No way. We’re going to do what we in the Vail valley do better than most anyone anywhere else. We’re going to shop. We’re going to shop early, we’re going to shop late, and we’re going to shop right now. We’re going to shop around.

Here’s the dynamics of why we should shop early, now, later, and around.

Early on, greenhouse owners up here planned for this shortage and laid in a stock of hard-to-get-after-Memorial-Day items. After all, spring has been occurring here in June after it has occurred a lot earlier most anywhere else for several millennia. It’s not like this doesn’t happen every year.

You might want to hit it right now, though, to pick up the prime stuff. Early is a relative term because the seasoned local folks tend to reserve their favorite plants well before planting is possible, like in February. Bear in mind, the greenhouse warehouse space up here is as plentiful as cheap real estate.

Further complicating things, Front Range greenhouses are reluctant to reserve space. In May, there’s only so much respect paid to plants reserved in wholesale greenhouses on the Front Range for haute dwellers that want to take plants in June. There are several reasons why.

First, the obscure: For the past month growers and their workers on the Front Range have been loading trucks as fast as they can pull them into and out of a loading dock to deliver their crops to spring feverish Front Range cities in time for Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. It’s hard stop labor. The growers love for the plants they lovingly helped tend and grow goes out the door about two minutes before Mother’s Day weekend begins.

Imagine walking the length of a football field along an 18-inch wide gravel aisle sandwiched between sharp-edged aluminum benches carrying in each hand hanging baskets weighing 15 to 50 pounds apiece and trailing three feet of fragile flowers all for $9 to $12 an hour. Do that 40 times an hour. Do that all day ” for a solid month. Could be a buzz kill for some people. By the end of the day, a loader might just ship a crumpled red newspaper flyer and believe it’s a geranium.

With the exception of growers serving one customer, there are few to no bar codes being actually utilized, and signs draw a blank stare. Loading plants into trucks attracts people marginally literate in both English and Spanish. A red ribbon draped over 200 red geraniums stating “Mr. and Mrs. Zweiten Alpenhaus ship 6/15” doesn’t mean a whole lot. At the end of a long week, it might mean “Please ship me,” because the last red ribbon encountered stated “Red Geraniums ship 5/15,” which is why some realistic growers know they can’t protect a small custom-grown crop in a large greenhouse.

A more obvious reason wholesale growers resist reserving space into June is the turn. Greenhouse profits increase when 2 crops are grown in the same space in one season. The industry term for that is a “turn.” Multiple turns take advantage of spreading all the fixed expenses and some of the variable expenses of growing plants across more plants. In short, growers can make more money when they can sell more plants in a season. There’s a revelation. Reserved space that is vacated beginning in June limits the turns in that space to 1 or 2, instead of 3 or 4, and, consequently, less money is made on reserved plants than on plants sold rapidly “off the rack.”

Which leads me to why shopping late can be productive for us, doing so takes advantage of the natural scheduling advantage enjoyed by growers serving the alpine areas. We offer them a second season. As soon as space is cleared out, which occurs about a week before Mother’s Day, it is re-planted with crops that will finish in about four to six weeks. That, conveniently, is about the time of our last frost date and planting begins here in earnest.

Unfortunately, it takes about 8 to 12 weeks to grow those large, luxurious hanging baskets, and blooming flats of Balcon cascading geraniums, an alpine and European favorite. Without prior planning, those products are pretty much unavailable until after the Fourth of July.

Nonetheless, about mid-June some great-looking plant material again becomes available to us in the mountains, and because it was grown without additional heat, some of it is cheap. That’s a perk on par with lack of a need for air conditioning up here.

Tom Glass writes a weekly garden column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments or questions about this column to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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