How local are those flowers in the window? Part 2 of 4: Minnesota’s flower king

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In sleepy August, when warm breezes blow and the sun shines endlessly, small flower fields ring the Twin Cities. Their proprietors, who in many cases are vegetable growers first, saturate farmers markets with deep red, yellow, and purple flowers. It’s a time to forget that for seven months of the year, flowers are not a part of the Twin Cities’ landscape.

The rest of the year, one grower sits at the top of most Twin Cities florists’ “locally grown” lists, and it bears little resemblance to any family farm you’ve ever imagined. Len Busch Roses is the biggest grower of cut flowers in the Midwest. Its industrial practices stray from most consumers’ romantic ideas about what “local” means.

The word “product” used to describe a flower has a funny ring to it, but a visit to the Len Busch facility in Plymouth gives meaning to the term. Inside 15 acres of greenhouses the company’s roses, lilies, gerbera daisies, tulips, alstroemeria, snapdragons, and potted plants grow in highly controlled environments where the humidity, light, temperature, water, and carbon dioxide in the air are carefully monitored by growers who resemble technicians.

A Len Busch rose’s life begins far from Minnesota. Company employees visit Holland each year to buy new hybrids. The Dutch roses with the right number of thorns, the brightest colors and the most elegant stems are grafted onto rootstock, which growers nestle in nutrient-free sand from Elk River. The new plant will live three to five years and produce up to 3,000 stems.

A single stem takes six weeks to develop. In those six weeks, its parent plant consumes one to three liters of water each day, fortified with a nutrient solution carefully measured by Len Busch technicians.

If spotted spider mites chew on the growing shoot, an integrated pest management team deploys mite predators supplied by the international biological pest management company Koppert. If the predator fails, workers spray flowers with a biological insecticide.

Carbon dioxide in the air decreases when workers close outside vents in the winter. Len Busch vaporizes liquid carbon dioxide and pumps it back into the greenhouse air.

As the temperature drops, wood-burning boilers fire up. In the dark winter, bright lights switch on in the dead of night, during Xcel Energy’s “off-peak” hours when electricity is cheaper.

At the end of six weeks, a worker clips the rose and puts it directly into a solution of water and flower preservatives. The rose is whisked into one of Len Busch’s 30,000 square feet of refrigerators, where it waits until a truck picks it up and delivers it to a flower shop typically within three to four days of harvest.

Previously: The challenge of defining “local”

Next: What is local for?