Meeting market needs through applied research
Effective technical and research support is proving vital to the development & success of the relatively new cut foliage enterprise.
Given the exacting market requirements for the continuity of supply of quality cut foliage, developing production and management protocols for ornamental and minor forest species is a large part of the research on growers holdings in Wexford and Kerry & Kildalton College.
The delivery of uniform stems of suitable length and spray form can only be achieved when optimum plant density coupled with best management practices of pruning, nutrition and pest & disease control is met.
The applied research work on foliage aims to meet these exacting requirements.
Plant Density & Weed Control
While extensive low density planting systems of (2500 trees/ha) have proved to be satisfactory in meeting the specifications for key tree species like Eucalyptus and Pittosporum, recent work on the more shrubby species such as Brachyglottis & Viburnum suggests that they should be planted more intensively on beds at high density (16,000 plants/ha) to deliver the necessary stem length and quality sprays. Controlling weeds in such high density plantations is particularly challenging and the move away from reliance on chemicals is becoming an important aspect of production. Given Ireland's year round weed growth, the solution to this problem is unlikely to be achieved easily but RMIS funded work is evaluating the use of mulches as a sustainable means of weed control for the future.
Most plant species flower at a particular stage in the season but trials work aimed at preventing the flowering phase and inducing vegetative growth is more desirable in cut foliage production. Techniques such as timed pruning and altering the nutrition levels on plant species is helping to deliver product which is demanded in high volume at the key periods like Christmas & Valentines Day.
A recently completed MSc by Catherine Gavin in Kildalton College has helped in plugging information gaps on optimum pruning treatments of Ozothamnus - a core foliage species for the Christmas market. Pruning young plants to 50 cm frameworks in early spring prevented flowering and resulted in high yields of suitable stem length & quality.
Pests & Diseases
When ornamentals are mass planted they become much more susceptible to pests and diseases. More sustainable control measures fostering eco-friendly production which are now desirable under the Sustainable use Directive and in Integrated Crop Management is a major cornerstone of the current research programme in Teagasc.
This is currently evidenced where Dorothy Hayden of Teagasc Botanic Gardens is completing a PhD on the biological control of a leaf beetle which threatens the viability of Eucalyptus cut foliage which can render the foliage unsalable. The technique proved successful a few years ago in the control of Psyllid, a green fly-like pest of Eucalyptus and other foliages and with good research support, this problem was rapidly cleared up by the release of a tiny parasitic wasp from Australia in a technique known as biological control.
The success of biological control techniques allows for the elimination of chemical pest control measures in crops. Pest monitoring and the development of trapping technologies that encourage growers to target pesticide application under sustainable production of foliage is an important aspect of the work being carried out in Kildalton and on extension sites on growers holdings in the south west and is an area that is going to require greater attention in future work programmes.
Screening for innovative new plant material for the cut foliage Industry in Kildalton College.
Innovation in new products and keeping a close eye to the ever changing market place is vital for most Ornamental businesses as trends change in colour and designs. To that end, Teagasc in conjunction with Bord Bia set about putting in place a screening trial of plant material specifically focused on screening for new innovative species for the fledgling cut foliage Industry five years ago. A 1 ha dedicated plot was established of a wide range of material with the following three main objectives:
- Establish contact with key players in the market and seek guidance and direction on trends.
- Identify and visit sources of new material in Ireland, the UK & Europe.
- Capture sample material and place in plots Kildalton College for further technical and market evaluation.
Over 150 species of a wide variety of trees, shrubs & perennials have been established on 1 ha dedicated plot. As well as plant hardiness and susceptibility to weather conditions, species are technically evaluated for suitability for cut foliage by examining in detail characteristics of interest in cut foliage selection including: Leaf Colour, leaf shape,leaf form,scent,volume/ unit area,annual stem length,tree habit,spray formation,susceptibility to weather conditions.
One of the most critical aspects to the screening trials is an evaluation of the acceptability of the new products by the trade and the response from market which is the determining factor as to whether further works takes place. The market evaluation is an integral part of this task and involves bringing some of the main cut foliage/flower buyers from UK and Holland to participate in the evaluation process. These include personnel from the leading supermarkets such as Tesco, ASDA, Morrissons and the main processors; Finley's and Flowerworld.
In addition, Irelands leading florists represent the florist sector on the assessment panel. This project has created great interest in the market place, no other country is so engaged and most of the big players are signed up to the process.
A number of species have shown potential and are now being further evaluated in agronomy trials that will lead to production blue prints in the species expansion phase.
Whilst green will remain the predominant coloured foliage in the market, other coloured & scented species that reflect seasonality and in particular Autumn time are especially sought after by the market.
Species showing potential include Hypericum & Rose hips which provide a range of coloured berries for late summer/autumn period. A number of herbaceous perennials are being trialled including Eryngium characterised by its thistle like spiky flower heads and newer types having deep blue colours which have a showy appearance. Others generating market interest are new cultivars of well known garden plants such as Weigela, & Pittosporum bred for their purple/black stemmed foliage. These species are currently undergoing post harvest tests in conjunction with processors which is a key aspect of the research work necessary before release of a species for scaling up by the industry.
Research on Protected Foliage Crops
Kildalton College assistant principal Grainne Mc Mahon and Andy Whelton Teagasc Foliage Specialist have been undertaking trials on developing production protocols for the continuity of supply of foliage fillers which aim to supply foliage and meet supermarket demand for product in the off season to compliment the main production period.
This provides Irish producers with a clear market advantage.
Using protected structures for early and late season cropping, coupled with a range of varieties and pruning regimes, production blueprints have been developed for bouquet fillers; Solidago and Ornamental Brassicasare just twoplants developed to date and currently being scaled up by growers in the industry. Flower crops such as Paeony Roses and scented stock are currently the focus of agronomy work which aims to provide the Irish industry with a suite of products demanded by a discerning developing market currently under supplied both at home and in other EU countries.