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Growing Flowers: The Improbable Industry (1998)

I love growing flowers.

I love the miracle of it, to plant an almost microscopic seed and watch it grow into a bush crowded with fragrant blossoms of mystical complexity.

I love the therapy of it, to work my fingers delicately in soft rich soil, to yank out firmly established weeds, to prune and shape and guide a young tree or an elderly rosebush.

And I love the fantasy of it.

I have intermittently pondered the notion of having a little nursery or a field of flowers destined for sale.  This is the same sort of romantic and hopelessly misguided dream that causes otherwise rational people to open bed-and-breakfasts or mystery bookstores, and I think it has afflicted most serious gardeners at one time or another.

One of the unanticipated benefits of moving to Carlsbad eight years ago turned out to be that people here actually do raise flowers for a living.  Floriculture is a major industry in North San Diego County for the simplest of reasons: this is one of a handful of virtually perfect flower-growing microclimates in the entire world.

I wanted to know more about this industry, and one of the few unmitigated perks of writing is that when you find a subject that interests you, you can legitimately wallow in it for a while.  So I decided to set Tangled Roots inside the world of San Diego floriculture.

I visited greenhouses and flower fields.  I talked to large and small growers.  I attended seeds-and-stems seminars.  I rose before dawn to be at the cooperative Flower Auction where thousands of magnificent blooms change hands every morning.

The first thing I learned was that commercial flower-growing is farming.  The end product may be more glamorous than soybeans, but the intermediate steps and problems are essentially the same.  I discovered that flower farmers are notoriously poor businesspeople (see bed-and-breakfasts and mystery bookstores, above).  And I learned the critical nature of timing: the roses must be ready by Valentine's Day, and if your bronze mums bloom too late, you'll just have to compost them, because the day after Thanksgiving the market demands only red and white.

I found unexpected social, ethnic and international issues.  Japanese-American internment during World War II altered the industry dramatically, and ever-changing immigration policies mold the Mexican labor force which has traditionally worked in the field (and in the fields).  NAFTA threw the business into a tizzy, and the Colombians continue to dump flowers on the American market at prices no local grower can match.

I learned things that are fun to know.  Rosebushes in greenhouses are set eight inches apart, growing tall and slim through wire supports.  Greenhouse operations have walk-in refrigerated rooms where, a Flower Auction official suggested helpfully, a body might easily be hidden.  Tissue culture makes it possible to produce thousands of identical plants from a single parent.  And flower plants are basically grown to death, heavily fertilized and pushed to the max until, exhausted, they are replaced by new seedlings and the cycle begins anew.

By the time I finished Tangled Roots, I no longer fantasized about flower farming.  It's an occupation so wildly unpredictable and capricious that it makes professional writing appear stable, secure and consistently remunerative.

Although perhaps just a little greenhouse might be nice...


All content © 2005-11 by Taffy Cannon.