Despite his calm and confident demeanor, Don Howell tries not to be a nervous wreck before Valentine’s Day, but he admits that it’s not always easy.
That’s because he’s the operations manager at Pajaro Valley Greenhouses—one of the nation’s largest fresh-cut flower growers—in Watsonville, Calif. (pop. 44,265).
Despite his reputation as one of the leading rose-growing experts, Howell says it’s still a gamble each year deciding what type of roses to plant. Although a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, a flower of a less-trendy color or shape might not sell as well.
"I’m on pins and needles until Valentine’s Day," says Howell, 49. "A variety that was a must-have four years ago is yesterday’s bananas today. I just don’t know how much square feet to commit to a certain variety or color, so sometimes I just have to go by sheer guts."
But he doesn’t rely on intuition alone. Howell, the past president of the International Flower Growers Association, issues a biannual rose questionnaire to his staff that contains questions such as "What varieties do you get asked for that we don’t grow?" or "What varieties should we not grow at all?"
Despite the uncertainties, there are a few things that rose growers can always count on. "They always say when an economy is bad, people buy bright bold colors, and when the economy is good, people like soft pastels. I have to tell you we’re selling a lot of oranges and hot pinks," says Howell, with a rueful smile.
More than 174 million Americans are expected to buy roses for Valentine’s Day this year, according to the International Flower Growers Association. Howell says only Mother’s Day provides a larger demand for his roses. No other flower says "love" quite like a rose. In fact, the rose is so popular that President Reagan signed a proclamation in 1986 declaring it the national flower.
Until the 1990s, it took an entire year to yield any of these beloved flowers. But in the last decade, a new technique innovated by Dutch growers assured that a bloom that catches Howell’s eye can be cultivated for your sweetheart’s Valentine’s bouquet in only four-and-a-half months.
"About 10 years ago, Dutch growers created mini-plants, where they grafted the root stalk of a wild rose—something that is about as big as your pinkie—onto a cutting of a domestic rose. If I see a particular rose I like, we’ll make a cutting about 3 inches long, and match that with the root stock, and knit them together with tape or a clothes-pin looking apparatus. From the initial planting, I can have my first harvest in about 18 weeks. Wine growers do the same thing. Apple growers, too."
Preparations for Valentine’s Day typically begin in December for Howell and his staff. "Between December 1 and the 18th, we pinch the roses," he says. "It is a timing pinch. If you cut a rose, six to seven weeks later you’re going to have another rose. So we decide how many pinches we need and we’ll make those cuts in December. This is one of the reasons Valentine’s roses cost more, because we have to get more money for those roses because we sacrificed so many of the earlier blooms."
A grower’s endless worrying
Growing roses is a never-ending job, Howell says, but the beautiful results are worth all the hard work. The greenhouses that Howell manages are home to more than 450,000 rose plants, one of the largest rose collections in the nation.
The lush coastal climate of the Pajaro Valley, situated along Monterey Bay, is not the only reason for the success of the 850,000-square-foot operation; Howell’s expertise, attention to detail, deep commitment and thriving sense of humor also contribute to the flourishing flower business.
"I always joke that roses are like cows. Cows have to be milked seven days a week and roses have to be cut seven days a week. When I’m not here, I’m worrying about it," he says. "Even on Christmas Day, I will whip in here and check everything out. If there were a problem, I would rather come in and ease my mind than sit home and worry about it. Sometimes I think I might want a job that I want to walk away from at the end of the day, but most times I don’t."
He certainly can’t walk away during the two weeks preceding Valentine’s Day. "We start cutting flowers around the first of February, and our first big days to ship them are over the next few days," Howell explains. Greenhouse workers carefully cut the blooms by hand twice daily, immediately submerge them into cold water and place them in a cooler for at least 12 hours to keep the roses from opening. "We would never ship a rose right after we picked it," he says. "If we did, they’d never reach their destination in the pristine shape customers demand."
After the cooler, the flowers are placed into a machine that sorts and grades the roses according to length of their stems and size of their heads. Next they are bundled into bunches of 25, wrapped in cellophane and plunged into a water preservative bath. "Every greenhouse has its own formula, but every single one of them has sugar in them. If you want to extend the life of your flowers at home, the best thing to do is put them into warm 7-Up," Howell says. One more trip to the cooler, and the 300,000 roses earmarked for Cupid’s big day are ready for distribution across the nation.
During the two weeks preceding this romantic holiday, numerous overnight and mail delivery trucks line up by the office building that serves as headquarters for the greenhouse and the staff takes a much-needed break. But not Howell, who is happy to keep up his seven-day-a-week regime.
"The greatest sense of satisfaction I get is when I pick a rose from a breeder and it goes on to be successful in the market place," he says. "I have a friend in Ontario who grew corn. We would drive the country roads that surrounded his cornfields and he would stop the truck and say, ‘Look at that corn! Have you ever seen a nicer stand than that?’
"I feel that way too when I have a big crop of roses coming on at Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Sometimes you just look at it and say, ‘Man, that is a beautiful crop!’"