Organic Ornamentals: Canadian Researchers Look Beyond Organic Food

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

A growing sector of Canadians select organically produced foods for their households, often paying a premium to get what they want. While organically produced flowers, houseplants, or garden transplants may not have the same direct health benefits as organic foods, they have many positive features, including a less dramatic environmental footprint as compared to conventionally-produced ornamentals.

Canadian consumers who are concerned about environmental and social issues around conventionally grown flowers and plants will embrace the option to purchase Canadian, organically-grown ornamentals. With this idea in mind, Canadian scientists are looking into economically-viable organic methods of producing cut flowers, potted plants and ornamental transplants that will have no or minimal impact on the environment.

Researchers from Université Laval in St-Foy, Québec, along with scientists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Horticulture /Research and Development Centre in Quebec City are working with greenhouse industry stakeholders to develop a sustainable, organic growing system for greenhouse ornamental cuttings and potted plants. 

These systems could then be used by commercial greenhouse operations where demand for organically grown ornamentals has been increasing. This work is being done under the auspices of the Organic Science Cluster, a collaborative effort led by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) and the Organic Federation of Canada.

Nursery production of cut flowers, potted plants and ornamental cuttings for gardens presents a variety of challenges for the Canadian grower. Even when growing crops in the protected climate of a greenhouse, producers are subject to challenges with light and temperature, fertility and nutrient distribution, and pests and diseases.

The timing required to produce certain crops on a particular schedule—poinsettias for the Christmas market, roses for Valentine’s day, to name two time-sensitive crops— necessitates the growing of plants under lights for optimizing growth, while growing during spring, autumn and winter requires supplemental heating sources.

Customers purchasing cut flowers or potted plants expect perfect flowers and foliage, so it’s imperative to have effective disease control as well as good handling methods to ensure unblemished plants.

There is the need to have an appropriate growing medium, proper feeding schedule, and preventative or curative treatments when disease or pests become a problem.

When a producer is growing for an organic market, these factors have the additional challenge of requiring organic solutions: appropriate substrates in which to grow crops, the correct fertilizer and other amendments for the crop, and pest and disease management all must be approved as well as effective.  This is where the researchers come in, helping to optimize the system for Canadian organic growers.

The OSC research team is working with seven separate facets to their project. They are examining and testing various organic containers as to suitability in organic production: life expectancy, durability and ease of use of containers, cost per unit, and the ecological footprint (whether containers are recyclable or compostable).

Crops require a suitable organic growth medium designed for optimal growth so the researchers are working with already-fabricated media as well as experimenting with their own recipes for their potted plants.

Greenhouse-grown plants require appropriate fertilization and watering, so the researchers are developing effective schedules for organic delivery of nutrients and water. They are also studying the effects of organically-acceptable plant growth promoters, such as soil-borne bacteria, on plant growth and quality.

Even the best of greenhouse production facilities can have challenges with pests and diseases. The OSC team is examining biological control systems to combat pests such as whitefly and aphids, as well as disease caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses.

There is as yet little data available with regards to consumer interest in or demand for organic ornamental plants and flowers, other than the success of various growers and retailers in other locales. The research team is conducting a consumer survey to gauge interest in organically produced ornamentals, as growers like to see possible economic benefits as well as environmental benefits to help encourage their investment in new infrastructure or growing techniques. The final facet of research will compare the economics and environmental footprint of an organic ornamental production system with that of a conventional greenhouse growing system. When completed, the researchers hope to be able to provide optimized growing system advice that will help nurseries, florists and consumers be even greener.

This article was written by Jodi DeLong on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners. For more information: or 902-893-7256.

Posted May 2011