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Cultivate ’14: Horticulture Conference for Industry Geeks

Pink Zazzle Gomphrena

The Cultivate Conference draws many plant breeders to show off their latest varieties: petunias, chrysanthemums, coleus, roses, heucheras, gomphrena… there were even new varieties of vegetables and herbs. Tables holding the new introductions filled corridors outside of the main show floor. If I lived farther south, my garden would include gomphrena.

Go to a garden or horticulture industry conference! You can learn all kinds of great things by talking to vendors on the show floor—and you can examine their products and marketing literature first-hand! If that’s not enough, most conferences run seminars where you can learn about things that interest you from industry experts—book authors, magazine writers, certified industry specialists, and horticulture Illuminati.

I recently attended Cultivate ’14 in Columbus, Ohio. This conference is clearly for members of the horticulture and gardening industries. Show floor vendors are manufacturers and growers of hort industry products while attendees are, generally, businesses that sell gardening stuff to you and me.

Recharge! Have Your Mind Blown!

Alum Creek State Park

To reduce my cost of attending Cultivate ’14, I stayed at a campground in Alum Creek State Park about 17 miles north of the convention center. Each morning I drove past this waterway which looked pretty surreal in the right light.

I saw things at Cultivate ’14 I’d never imagined, and learned a bit about how all those flats and pots of healthy plants find their way to your local garden centers and big-box stores. I saw hundreds of new varieties of plants being introduced by breeders: flowers and foliage that will grace gardens everywhere starting in 2015.

I also met many fascinating industry players: magazine editors and publishers, conference organizers, soil developers, planter manufacturers, plant breeders, greenhouse builders, nursery automators… the list is much longer. Find a show and attend it. If you can’t afford to travel, find a show near you. What you see might change the way you think about gardening.

Photos tell more of the story.

Columbus's North Market

On the opening day of Cultivate ’14, I hosted a round table as a representative of the Garden Writers Association. Because the show floor opens on the second day of the conference, I had plenty of time to explore Columbus. Barely a block from the convention center, I found North Market. This old building contains several restaurants and boutique stores with plenty of seating for diners. Outdoors, farmers sell homegrown vegetables and fruit. North Market is a popular hangout for Columbus residents.

The Cultivate '14 show floor

An aisle of the conference show floor could accommodate as many as 62 vendors, though many vendors occupied two or more booth spaces. There were 27 such aisles!

Nursery automation

One of the first booths I visited at Cultivate ’14 contained a whole bunch of greenhouse technology. This machine “pots up” flats. In back is a flat of young plants each in a finger-sized cell. In front are standard nursery flats like what you find in a garden store. The 12 metal objects hanging above the trays are pincers that transplant the seedlings. The pincers drop into a row of cells in the rear try, grab the seedlings, lift them clear, carry them over an unused row in the larger trays—spreading apart as they move, and then plunge the seedlings into the larger trays. In the photo, the machine has already transplanted three rows of seedlings. For the show, the engineers slowed the machine to 2% of its normal speed and it was impressive; it could transplant that entire flat of seedlings in less than a minute. I left the booth thinking, “Who knew?” I’d never even thought about how nurseries handle the seedlings we buy in garden centers.

Horticulture industry robot workforce

That’s a robot out for a walk with its handlers. The robot performs a very simple nursery task: it moves potted plants from one place to another. I didn’t know: when a nursery sets plants in individual pots, workers group the pots closely at one end of a “runway.” The close spacing helps the plants develop as they adjust to the new containers. Once the plants begin to interfere with each other, workers redistribute the pots along the runway, leaving space between the plants so they can fill out over the sides of the containers. Well… not so much workers. Robots like this one can work with minimal supervision as they pick up the crowded pots and move them along the runway, setting them down in a programmed pattern.

In the garden at Ohio State University

Cultivate ’14 included an opportunity for attendees to visit a test garden at Ohio State University. We found hors d’oeuvres, wine, and beer in an attractive and well-maintained garden. Along one of the paths, someone had completely misconstrued the purpose of a wheelbarrow… with good results.


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