Also in this issue...
IDM: One Year Later
| Jennifer Zurko
>> Published Date: 10/29/2013
Think about your Number 1 crop. The one you grow the most of. The one that makes the most sales. The one your customers always ask for.
Now think about having to completely cut that plant out of your lineup in one season. Going from a large volume to nothing. Bupkus. Zip. Nada. How would you handle that? Would you be able to replace it?
That’s what almost all of the growers and retailers from New York to Florida had to do this year after a severe outbreak of Impatiens Downy Mildew decimated most of the Impatiens walleriana crop in 2012. For Floridians, the headache started a year earlier, in 2011.
The beginning of the end
Spring of 2012 started like any other, until the rumors and rumblings about an impatiens disease started. But at first, no one really thought much about it. Then the calls started coming in.
“We were still digesting it when it all really started to happen,” recalls Tim Babikow, whose operation, Babikow Greenhouses, is right outside of Baltimore. “And it was hard getting the information out to the landscape contractor before they called you. It just happened so quickly. Everybody knew it was out there and all of a sudden—oops, Mid-Atlantic has it.”
Bill Swanekamp, co-owner of Kube-Pak in Allentown, New Jersey, said Hurricane Irene helped the disease along in his area two years ago. “That was in September and a couple of weeks later, everything started to drop,” he said.
And many landscapers had befuddled customers calling about dead plants in their beds, forcing replants in the middle of the season. “It was bad,” said George Lucas of Lucas Greenhouses, Monroeville, New Jersey. “Several large landscape guys used a lot of impatiens and we helped supply some stuff to help fill their beds in just to keep their customers going.”
Landscape contractor Brickman services 33 states from coast to coast and Bruce Hellerick, a senior horticulture specialist, says that it’s been one of the worst diseases for ornamental annuals he’s ever seen.
“We learned about it and we talked to our customers as it was happening,” explained Bruce. “Most of our customers were okay [with it]; they understood and didn’t necessarily blame us. For some of them, we went in as a goodwill offer and did some replacements.”
After such a bad year with the disease, many operations found themselves with a major conundrum: to grow or not to grow?
Even during this time last year, some of the growers I spoke with said they were still planning on growing Impatiens walleriana, albeit a smaller amount than previous years. A couple of growers from Maryland said that attending a seminar about Impatiens Downy Mildew at the MANTS show in Baltimore in January sealed the deal for them.
“After that meeting, a bunch of local growers and garden centers were talking about the problem and said, ‘This is stupid. We shouldn’t grow any impatiens at all. What are we trying to gain?’” said Cort Smith, president of Walnut Springs Nursery. “At that point, I made a decision that we were not going to grow any impatiens in 2013.”
Cort got on the phone with his landscape customers, which is where most of Walnut Springs’ sales come from. He said many of them weren’t surprised and didn’t plan on using impatiens this year anyway.
“Landscape contractors in our region have slowly been turning away from Waves because of the phytophthera issue, so they had no desire [to plant impatiens],” said Cort. “And really this season, as landscapers came in and we told them we’re not growing impatiens, the ones who didn’t know said, ‘Oh, that’s what the problem was last year.’ So honestly, we didn’t get any flack at all for not doing them.”
Tim said he went from growing 250,000 impatiens plants in 2012 to zero in 2013. “And that’s hard to swallow when you go from 250,000 to well, what am I going to put in these greenhouses now? We really did fumble around with that,” he said.
Seventy-five percent of Tim’s customers are landscapers, so once the decision was made to not grow any impatiens after the MANTS show, he and his staff went on the offensive.
“I ran a report in my system of who bought the largest number of impatiens and took the approach to come to them before they called me and tried to place an order for impatiens,” Tim said. “We called them all in advance. Some of them were still completely clueless. Had no idea. This was even into February of 2013.”
The State of New Jersey actually put out educational materials, and information about Impatiens Downy Mildew began appearing in local newspapers and on the TV news.
“After those people who said they were going to take 50%, their customers walked in the door and said to them, ‘How come you don’t have a sign out telling us about downy mildew?’” said Bill. “And then they just stopped taking material.”
Bill said Kube-Pak went from 65,000 flats in 2012 to 12,000 in 2013. But it wasn’t that simple.
“We also left two plantings as questionable—whether we were going to plant them or not because they were late sowings,” recalled Bill. “So we sowed the impatiens and we had the plug trays. They were in 288s, so they were nice size plants. And then on April 20, we looked at the number of orders that we had for impatiens flats and made the decision then not to plant the last two plantings as well. So that brought us to an 85% reduction in our total number of flats.”
The landscape business for us constitutes about 35% of our spring business, so it’s a large portion of our spring. None of the landscapers ordered any impatiens,” he continued. “They were unwilling to take the risk because when you do a commercial installation, you have a much different level of satisfaction than when a homeowner
gets it. So it was a 100% reduction in that
Lucas Greenhouses took a slower approach to reducing their number of impatiens this year.
“In spring 2013, we cut back 40% on flats,” George explained. “What we would sell to our landscape trade in 6 in., we grew zero. In 4.5 in. or 1801s that are also landscape-oriented, we only grew what was custom ordered. We did not spec any. Out of the impatiens that we grew, we planted six plantings. The first three plantings sold like it was a regular spring. They were smaller plantings, but they went out. And sets four, five and six we dumped 100%. They did not re-order, so they sat and the retailers didn’t sell through, so they didn’t re-buy.”
In Florida, the disease was on Year Two, so growers and retailers there knew what they were up against in 2013.
“On the finished side of the business, there were major problems in parts of Florida in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012,” said Bruce Knox of Knox Nursery in Winter Garden. “Basically, no one is planting any impatiens in the state anymore. This is significant because there were many millions grown and sold every year.”
“We had them two years ago, but the disease is just too intense down here in Florida,” said Jim Dezell, Flamingo Road Nursery in Davie. “Florida is huge on golf courses and all of these residential home developments and subdivisions are a major part of the Florida housing stock and they do lots of landscaping. For as long as I can remember—and I grew up here—impatiens were just used extensively. Just color everywhere. And now you don’t see that.”
As hard as it was to completely cut out one of their Top 3 crops, they all agreed it had to be done. The risk was just not worth it. Plus, if the customers aren’t buying, the decision kind of makes itself.
Bill was emphatic when I asked him if he regretted cutting back on impatiens. “No, not at all. Because in the end we still had impatiens that we threw away. So we did not even reach the threshold that we should have.”
And just because we know more about the disease now than we did last year, growers are still scratching their heads over it.
“In 2012, when the season was over, the experts weren’t sure if IDM was going to overwinter, but they were sure there was no cure for it,” said Cort. “All you could do was possibly prevent it if you sprayed it once a week, every week, throughout the season and I looked at it from the chemical use and cost standpoint and the decision was very clear. Why am I going to waste the time, energy and expense of my grower spraying for IDM when there was no guarantee that our customers would want them? So we made the decision not to do that.”
“I know there are places that have them planted in beds that absolutely had downy in it last year and they’re still perfectly fine [this year],” said George, shrugging. “But down the road a little bit, another bed
didn’t have it [last year] and they’re dead. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the space is too valuable in the spring to be dumping the crop like that.”
Pining for impatiens
The door may have closed on Impatiens walleriana, but another one opened for other shade plants. Some growers doubled and even tripled their numbers of begonias, coleus, New Guinea impatiens and SunPatiens, which were positively received by their customers. But most of these plants have longer crop times and need more heat to flower—proving that Impatiens walleriana really are low-maintenance, no-brainer plants.
“The New Guineas did well,” Tim admitted. “People bought them. They bought them without flowers because it was hard to get them to flower the first year growing that many. You know—how do you regulate the heat, what do you do with fertilizer? The plants looked great and I had a customer who used large numbers and he said he was pleased. They bloomed all summer and he would do it again. He knows that it’s not a sea of color like the regular impatiens, but he would still accept these Divines in place of it. The landscapers that we did sell large numbers to seemed happy.”
Kube-Pak not only increased their numbers of shade alternatives, but they also increased some of their other spring plantings as well.
“We said to ourselves, ‘If they can’t order impatiens, they’re going to order something else,’” stated Bill. “So we looked at our normal percentages of growing, what percentage of our total crop are begonias, what percentage is this, what percentage is that, and we increased each thing proportionately so that we’d have more of everything.”
And although these alternatives offer different foliage colors and textures than regular impatiens do, you can’t beat the color range that more than 50 years of breeding has created. That’s why the decision to eliminate them was not only stressful, but a little sad, too.
“Our customers did not use impatiens this year and they understood the problem. But impatiens … people love them,” said Cort. “Where impatiens work, there’s no substitute. All of the plants they used instead really didn’t substitute for what an impatiens does in the landscape. There’s no better color range; it’s really unmatched.”
“They are old school, but they’re the biggest landscape plant in the Mid-Atlantic,” said Tim. “They’re Number 1. It’s just hard to replace something like that.”
“There’s a missing piece of business that has definitely not been able to be recaptured by spreading it across other products,” Jim said.
Plans for 2014
This year, growers were able to avoid dealing with the backlash from Impatiens Downy Mildew again and, thankfully, the replacements they used were able to compensate enough that the loss of a major crop didn’t affect sales. Since the decision to keep Impatiens walleriana out of their greenhouses turned out to be a good one, our panel of growers said they don’t plan on growing any or very little next year.
“For me, I’m not planning on growing any next year,” stated Cort. “I’ll let somebody else take that chance and do that.”
A couple said they would try to get back in with a very small number. The disease wasn’t as widespread as it was last year, but that’s probably due to the fact that nobody was planting any Impatiens walleriana anyway, making next year a crapshoot.
“I honestly want to do a very small fraction,” said Tim. “I would like to see us do 30,000 or 40,000 just to get our toes in again.” (Remember, Babikow Greenhouses used to grow 250,000.)
One thing many growers and retailers have noticed is that impatiens aren’t as susceptible to IDM if they’re planted in containers. So if you avoid putting them in beds, you may avoid having to replace them.
“All of us planted some type of impatiens in the ground right here in New Jersey. All of them got downy mildew,” said Bill. “We also planted impatiens in planters or boxes. None of that got downy mildew. Just in the ground. All of that comes into play. We might recommend to people for next year, if you’re going to use your regular impatiens, do it in containers.”
“As we all know, Impatiens Downy Mildew can be effectively controlled with a preventative fungicide program,” said Bruce Knox. “We have grown some in finished containers and have not had any issues.” Bruce said that Knox Nursery was actually displaying some impatiens “towers” for the FNGLA show in Orlando back in September.
Never say never, but …
Unfortunately, we don’t have a crystal ball to tell us what will happen to our beloved impatiens in the future. What is certain is that the Impatiens walleriana has suffered greatly and that it will take a major breeding breakthrough for it to bounce back to its former glory—at least as far as the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast is concerned.
George was matter-of-fact about it. “Until the genetics come around where it takes away the problem or they come up with a chemical that’s long-lasting enough that will get you through the season, I think the impatiens numbers will continue to be down,” he said. “People aren’t going to want to put up with it. They can’t. And we don’t want the liability, either.”
“I guess what we’re all hoping for is that the breeders will figure this one out and someday they’ll come back and we’ll be able to put them back in,” said Bruce Hellerick. “I think we would all love to have them back. But from a client satisfaction and a business decision, it doesn’t make sense to have a product out there that might live or might not live. It’s not worth the risk at this point.”
“I think the whitecoats [at the breeding companies] should all be working on this already,” said Tim. “They have the opportunity to rescue the impatiens market.” GT
What Went on With Impatiens Downy Mildew in 2013?
We asked our two resident experts—Ball Plant Pathologist Dr. Colleen Warfield and Margery Daughtrey, who works for the Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center for Cornell University—to give us a report on the disease’s activity from this year and their predictions for the 2014 season.
GrowerTalks: Were there reports of IDM this year? If so, how severe was the outbreak and where was it reported?
Colleen Warfield: Because this not a regulated pathogen, there is no official reporting of occurrences. That, coupled with the fact that many more consumers recognize this disease than in previous years, makes it more difficult to know exactly where this disease has been found and how severe the problem may have been in that location.
Regions where this pathogen was largely unrecognized, or not as prevalent as in previous years, were also the ones making the most noise about it—mostly because it was new to them. The Vancouver/Victoria region in B.C. and the Seattle area had many reports. The San Francisco Bay area also had a noticeable increase in reports. Southwestern Ontario was hard hit, but in New York it was mostly quiet compared to last year. Far fewer impatiens were planted in the Northeast, so finding impatiens plants in and of itself was more difficult in those regions.
What we did see this year that we haven’t in the past was landscape cases in Colorado, Utah (although it was seen in the Salt Lake City area in 2012), Kansas and Iowa. Most likely the pathogen was introduced on infected plants into these regions, rather than by natural movement of the pathogen. In the upper Midwest, we started seeing the very first signs in mid-August, but it wasn’t until early- to mid-September when the symptoms really became obvious and most consumers would notice.
GT: How was it compared to last year?
Margery Daughtrey: Last year, here on Long Island, the disease was dramatic and devastating to many impatiens plantings beginning in June and continuing all season. This year, I received my first sample of Impatiens walleriana with IDM from Long Island only in mid-September. The difference in Long Island cases in 2012 versus 2013 had to do with weather, but it also had a lot to do with changes in gardening practices. Locally, the disease was so severe in 2012 that almost no landscapers used Impatiens walleriana in 2013 and many fewer home gardeners used it. No host plant, no disease.
CW: The timing of when the disease showed up was more in line with what happened in 2011—more of a late-season event in most locations (except those noted above). This late onset of disease lessened the impact as most people obtained three months of color and were happy with that.
GT: What is the prognosis for next year?
CW: I believe we will continue to see Impatiens Downy Mildew, but the timing of when it shows up is going to vary depending on the region coupled with the climate and environmental conditions in a given year. While there was little evidence that the infection was coming from overwintering oospores in beds with a history of Impatiens Downy Mildew, we still don’t understand the role of these oospores. Locations where impatiens can overwinter in the landscape (Florida, Texas, California) are likely to be sources of inoculum in subsequent years (although, the disease was pretty much non-existent in Texas this spring—which was probably due to unfavorable environmental conditions).
MD: I’m hearing a few people say, “It was no big deal this year, the problem must be over.” I’m an optimist, but I fully expect the disease to return next year and for the foreseeable future. The pathogen will be shipped from south (where impatiens are not killed by frost) to north, even if there are only healthy cuttings distributed in the trade. Seed should provide a fresh start, but plugs brought in from elsewhere might bring downy mildew along with them.
Outdoors, wild relatives of Impatiens walleriana may play a role in holding the downy mildew in the environment, keeping alive the possibility that bedding plants could become contaminated by wind-borne inoculum after out-planting. And we still need more research to understand how important oospores might be for refueling the disease in a flower bed from year to year. It will be fine to plant impatiens next year, but they’re riskier than they were in 2010 in areas where IDM is known to develop, so they should be used differently than before—in smaller plantings, mixed with other species. GT
© Copyright 2001 - 2013 Ball Publishing —