Should You Grow Your Own Tropical Plants in a Greenhouse?

The rising costs of interior foliage paired with shrinking selection and availability makes the prospect of growing your own ornamental foliage for your interiorscape business very tempting.  With your own tropical inventory, turn-around times for replacements could be hours instead of days. Shipping costs would disappear.  Most of all, the major expense of purchasing plants would dramatically decline making profits increase, at least in theory.

I’ve often dreamed of sliding open large industrial doors to a giant greenhouse full of dracaenas, succulents, bromeliads, palms and all types of vines hanging down from the rafters.  Any tropical plants I would need for an install or replacement would be there, ready to go. To fulfill that dream, I moved from the suburbs to a town with one street light, one general store and dirt roads. 

I’ve started one small hot house and already, memories from my past life working at a commercial greenhouse are flashing in my head like bright neon signs that say “warning!”

Commitment

The first memory I vividly recall is finding out that operating a greenhouse isn’t a Monday through Friday, nine to five job.  While those were my hours in the sales department, the head growers, maintenance staff often complained it was their weekend to work.  At the time, I didn’t understand why an automated greenhouse would need someone 365 days of the year.  

Even if there are automated irrigation lines built in, there are other factors that make daily supervision necessary.  Whether mechanical or human, certain mishaps can damage an entire crop within a 24-hour period. 

In October, during hurricane season, I encountered one of those situations when I went away for the weekend.  When I got home on Monday, one side of my shade house was torn away, the roof caved in from extreme wind and rain. Floor plants had toppled over, branches broke, and shelves were knocked down that left all my table top tropical plants upside down in two inches of mud. Although most of the foliage survived, the majority was so damaged, it will take months of regrowth for the plants to look good enough to use in accounts.  Not having someone watch over the shade house, was costly. 

Unlike servicing plants in an interiorscape account where they can be fine every week or every other week, maintaining plants in a hot house are much more vulnerable. Giving them constant attention has been quite an adjustment.  

Labor

From my experience working in a commercial greenhouse, plants inside these conditions need more attention in order to keep them healthy and thriving. 

The first issue is the constant light and trapped heat that requires you to make sure soil doesn’t dry out.  Even with moist soil, certain varieties—especially the delicate tropical plants that have paper-like foliage—can get stressed out and the leaves will curl inward or get a permanent droop.   Unlike indoor plants that are happy with quarterly fertilization, plants growing in high-light structures will need a lot more nutrients in order to maintain their color and not turn pale.

If you worry about disease in your interiorscape account, the possibility of disease spreading in a greenhouse where plants are in close proximity to each other is even greater.  Fungus gnats, spider mites and mealybugs thrive in these environments because they’re protected from the elements and there’s plenty of fresh foliage readily available. 

Handling the maintenance of my greenhouse is almost overwhelming at times compared to being able to handle over fifty interiorscape accounts by myself.  Having the staff and budget to help with this type of horticulture endeavor could make the difference between success or burnout. If this is a project you’re going to take on and you’re already stressed for time, the unforeseen amount of time required could lead to serious burnout.

Operational Costs

One specific comment I remember hearing a very successful greenhouse owner saying, “the expensive part of a greenhouse isn’t purchasing the building itself, it’s the cost of running it.” 

If you’re in a very warm climate, fans run almost constantly.  In cold climates, the heating bills can get extremely high. Even with free well water, the energy cost to run the pumps can be steep.  In his facilities, there were backup generators and propane tanks to be filled for power outages and for the few months during the winter when temperatures at night dropped in the forties.  He had a full-time maintenance man that fixed broken irrigation lines, faulty wiring, sun panels and a wide variety of other issues to keep the facility running smoothly. 

No matter the size of the greenhouse, these are some of the challenges you will encounter to some degree. For many of these reasons, horticulture industries tend to stay within their own specialty.  Knowing what you’re up against, can make your decision to invest in a commercial greenhouse a wise one or a costly mistake.

Sherry has been part of the interiorscape industry for over fifteen years, starting at an entry level job at North Florida's largest greenhouse and currently owning two horticulture companies. At UMaine, Sherry majored in English where she worked part-time writing scripts for a local college TV studio.

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