Call me a simple Simon but I never really thought about where the plants that fill the garden centers of Lowes, Home Depot and IKEA come from. That is, I hadn't thought about it until the folks at Costa Farms invited me down to take a tour of their massive growing facilities in Miami, Florida. It turns out that many of the plants stocked by the big box retailers come from this family grower.Costa Farms was started by Cuban immigrant Jose Costa in 1961. In the beginning Jose grew tomatoes but he quickly noticed the volatility of food crops. By 1965 Jose had moved on from tomatoes to start the nursery that remains today. That early decision to embrace change was an indicator of how the company would continue to embrace innovation over three generations.
In 1973, Costa Farms purchased property in the Dominican Republic to grow young plant material. This gave the Farms control over more of the growing supply chain. By growing the starter plants and then shipping them north to Miami, Costa was able to retain quality control. As big box retailers started to introduce plant centers in their stores in the early 1980s, Costa was poised to start stocking them with houseplants.
Now in its third generation of family ownership, Costa Farms is continuing to innovate and look forward. They're working with other companies to offer new, greener options - like the plant wrap that replaces traditional plastic containers (images 15 & 16 above) and using coconut coir instead of peat in their plants.
• The massive 210,000 square foot orchid production facility churns out over 720,000 orchids each year. Here you see workers shifting the orchid trays on the conveyors.
• Costa's resident succulent expert, Alfredo, flanked by Kylee Baumlee of Our Little Acre and Suzi McCoy of Garden Media Group.
• To keep the gravel in place at the base of a cactus, use a mixture of 1 part Elmer's Glue with 3 parts water.
• Costa continues to find ways to introduce plants to those who wouldn't normally be interested. These mini-succulents are intended as quick impulse buys and hostess gifts.
• A sea of bamboo sits in a greenhouse, awaiting shipment out to the big box stores of the country. This bamboo really is lucky that it gets to sit in warm and sunny Miami all day.
• Orchids are big business for Costa. In 2009 the company partnered with United Orchid to open a new facility with the capacity to grow over 2.2 million plants yearly.
• Retailers like IKEA place stringent rules on the product. Here you see the example board for the perfect orchid. Before a plant is shipped out, it must meet these exacting standards.
• Workers put final touches on orchids before they are shipped out to retailers. Costa employs approximately 2,800 people.
• Blogger, landscape designer and Southern gentleman James Farmer is successfully replanting an orchid, following a tutorial from Costa's orchid expert.
• One of the highlights of Costa's facilities is the Trial Gardens. Imagine a landscapers has run amok in an expansive garden. Lovely!
• The Trial Gardens allow Costa to test seeds and new plant varieties before introducing them to their product line.
• The beds of the Test Garden are meticulously labeled for detail record keeping.
• By removing alternating pavers and replacing them with plants, this walkway has a big impact. The entire group let out a collective 'aahhh' when we walked up to it.
• One of Costa's green initiatives is replacing the plastic container normally used at nurseries with these paper wraps that, once planted, will bio-degrade right in the earth.
• The plant wrap includes a perforated strip that the customer can rip off to keep track of what they're growing.
• Coconut coir is the basis for many of Costa's houseplants, including the orchids. Coconut coir is the leftover waste product of the coconut after the all the rest of it has been used. Costa receives the coir in giant dehydrated bricks.
• After being tested, the coconut cior is placed in these large soaking baths to re-hydrate it.
• After the giant soaking tubs are drained, the coconut coir is collected into the giants piles. Up close, the mounds of coir look something like cocoa powder. I half expected it to start raining steamed milk and mini-marshmallows.
• As in the orchid house, the impact of seeing row after row of beautiful blooming hibiscuses is like a visual feast.
• As a long-term Midwesterner, I had never seen this - orchids attached to the base of a tree. The orchids thrive because their roots like to be exposed to the air and light.
To learn more, including helpful how-tos, garden tips and plant library, visit the Costa Farm website.
Images: Jason Loper