< Steve, Bill & Laura Bancroft
Ten Mile Creek Nursery and the
Auburn Lotus Project Team Up -
Can you force lotus to bloom for a spring
The Great Lotus Experiment (Works)
by Laura Bancroft
Click images to enlarge
N. 'Jun Jie', Outstanding
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 grandfathers 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 Tians 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.
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',
Read more about the "Lotus Team" in
this issue -