< Steve, Bill & Laura Bancroft

Ten Mile Creek Nursery and the
Auburn Lotus Project Team Up -
Can you force lotus to bloom for a spring market?

The Great Lotus Experiment (Works)

by Laura Bancroft
Click images to enlarge


N. 'Jun Jie', Outstanding Talent

On a crisp October afternoon in 2007 an “international” meeting of sorts took place in the unlikely setting of the potting barn at Ten Mile Creek Nursery in Hartford, Alabama. Dutch and Costa Rican accents blended with deep Southern drawls as Oscar Warmerdam, Dutch entrepreneur and nurseryman of Moerings, USA, Warner Orozco-Obando, a doctoral student in the Auburn University School of Horticulture, and Dr. Ken Tilt, PhD, Auburn University School of Horticulture, met with nursery owner Bill Bancroft to discuss a new venture.  

The chance meeting of Warmerdam and Orozco at a conference in Thailand would become a giant experiment to force thousands of lotus (Nelumbo cultivars) in greenhouses for early spring sale across the United States. Dr. Tilt had been studying the feasibility of growing Chinese lotus as a sustainable food and ornamental crop, possibly dual-cropping with fish, for several years. When approached with this idea he immediately thought of Bancroft, a former student, who had recently started a wholesale nursery specializing in Gulf Coast natives and dune restoration plants as well as general landscape plants. Ten Mile Creek Nursery (TMCN) had been established on land surrounded by the lakes of his grandfather’s fish farm.

 

Could greenhouse conditions be controlled to force lotus rhizomes to break dormancy early enough to be ready for retail sale by early spring? The excited consensus was yes, but it had never been done before in the United States in such large numbers. Every facet of the set-up was untested. When the decision was made to try to produce a crop of several thousand pots for the 2008 season the clock started ticking!

Moerings was able to provide the remnants of hoop-style houses that had been removed from their nursery in Virginia. Bancroft, assisted by his parents, Steve and Laura Bancroft, and his nursery crew at Ten Mile Creek Nursery, turned the remnants into four 14’ x 250’ (4.3m x 76m) houses by late December.

A heating system consisting of recirculating pumps, propane heaters, and more than a mile of plastic pipe was installed underground while the houses were covered with double-poly to ensure that the rhizomes stayed warm. Lights were added to simulate long days. With the houses completed and gas in the tanks, the arrival of the rhizomes from China was eagerly awaited. 

 


Due to a record-breaking winter storm in China, shipping became a guessing game. While everyone, including the Chinese shipper, thought the rhizomes were stuck in the warehouse of the Shanghai Airport for the duration of the storm, they had actually been shipped to Chicago via South Africa. Since the point of arrival was supposed to be Atlanta, the rhizomes had to go back to China to be repacked and/or replaced and shipped again.

After traveling around the world twice, the rhizomes arrived on February 3, 2008, six weeks later than expected. Within two days more than 3000 pots were planted and the dreaded 3-W phase had begun – wait, watch, worry. No one had much experience; every problem was new and major. Could the lotus be kept warm enough to sustain growth in the middle of winter? Better yet, would they bloom in April? 

As the tiny floating coin leaves began to unfurl, pictures and emails began to fly daily between the partners in the venture. Dr. Tilt, Orozco, and Diake Tian, an Auburn horticulture doctoral candidate from China, diagnosed problems and provided copious amounts of research information. Bernice Fischman collected and disseminated information. Warmerdam and his associate at Moerings, USA, Richard Hoek, tackled marketing and shipping. The staff at TMCN recorded data daily as all worked together to solve the problems that arose.

The first became apparent almost immediately – the propane tanks, while they did a fair job of providing warmth for the root zone, were very expensive. Eventually, keeping the lotus cool during the day became a bigger issue than warming them up! 

Even the seemingly ordinary tasks presented challenges. Lotus are usually fertilized for the first time when the first aerial leaf emerges but following this rule would put thousands of pots on different schedules. It was finally decided to fertilize all the pots with a half dose of the granular 20-10-20 fertilizer that Tian’s study had shown to be most effective in outdoor field tests. Twenty days later, when the time came for the second treatment, the daytime temperatures in the greenhouses were extremely high which caused leaf burn. The fertilizer was changed from granular to a water-soluble formula with less nitrogen. The pots were only fertilized in the late afternoon when the temperatures began to drop. One problem solved.  

The next crisis came in the form of leaf-spot. The lotus needed to be treated immediately with a fungicide. How do you spray a plant when liquids roll into a ball and run off like quicksilver? Bancroft found that spraying the undersides of the leaves allowed more of the fungicide to be absorbed.

 
Leaf burn

 
Leaf spot

 

The lotus were to be sold by color – dark pink, pink or white. TMCN received rhizomes of seven different cultivars of dwarf lotus from China. It soon became apparent that the growth patterns of these seven cultivars were vastly different.

One dark pink leafed out very quickly and began budding within four weeks while two cultivars would ultimately be left in the greenhouses at the end of the shipping season (June 5) because they never presented aerial leaves. Auburn once again rushed to the rescue, bringing extra rhizomes to replace the slow and failed plants allowing the shipping quotas to be met. 


The first shipment of 740 lotus on April 4, 2008, filled an entire semi-trailer. When the shipment left the nursery it was with a feeling of immense satisfaction and relief. What started out as an Auburn horticultural experiment of vast proportions had become a sustainable business. Four more loads would follow before the season ended.  
 

 


In May of 2008 the collection at Auburn University was split and TMCN received two rhizomes each of about 90 different cultivars of Chinese lotus. These were planted in the stock house for harvest and offered for sale in 2009 at www.TenMileCreekNursery.com
All the lessons of the first season made the second lotus season much easier. Four houses were split into eight to maximize ventilation. The vast majority of the rhizomes were produced in the stock houses at TMCN. Cultivars were eliminated based on growing habits. Pots were down-sized for easier shipping and handling. As the clock winds down on the second growing season, TMCN is confident that by continuing to refine the processes and hand-picking suitable cultivars, the lotus will bloom for many seasons to come! 

 
N. 'Aoyun Lian', Olympic Lotus


Read more about the "Lotus Team" in this issue -

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