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Petal Pushers : At OCC, Poinsettia Sale Pays Off in Number of Ways

December 14, 1991|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — What you see here--a nursery's worth of flame-red poinsettias--is a class act.

This greenhouse and several just like it have been homeroom for Orange Coast College ornamental horticulture instructor John Lenanton's class in nursery practices since early September. Here his students coddled 10,000-plus plants from tender seedlings to ready-for-market perfection.

"Orange Coast College's poinsettias are probably the finest you'll find anywhere in the area," says Debbie Cook of Huntington Beach, a graduate of Lenanton's nursery practices course.

Sandra Kaszynski, a student assistant with the ornamental horticulture department, explains why.

"We have the luxury of growing the best product we possibly can," she says. "We don't have to rush the poinsettias to get them on the market by a certain date. We can develop them to their full potential before releasing them."

Orange Coast College's poinsettias have been easy to sell right from the start because they are florist-quality specimens (famous Ecke cultivars, lush and full, three plants to a pot) sold at discount store prices ($7 to $8 for 10-inch pots).

Although the department, which has increased the number of plants it grows every year to meet demand, switched to a mail order sales system a few years ago when the lines of waiting customers became unmanageable, the annual poinsettia sale has a festive spirit of its own not easily contained.

"It gets pretty frantic around here," says another student aide, Jerry Wallace, referring to the day everyone comes to pick up orders. It was Thursday this year.

"It's one steady stream of plants leaving here," he adds. "And nonstop jockeying for parking places. . . . It's lots of fun, though. That's why so many alumni come back every year to help."

Maybe this is a good time to insert a caveat: Don't rush over to Orange Coast College hoping to pick up a few of these bargains. You're too late. Lenanton's greenhouses were stripped as bare as birch trees in winter by day's end Thursday. It's not too early to get your name on the mailing list for 1992, however.

Lenanton's goal when he started the poinsettia project 12 years ago was strictly educational.

"I was teaching a class in the fall in nursery practices, and I was looking for a crop we could plant, harvest and sell, all in one semester, to give students a feel for the entire process," he says. "There aren't that many. Poinsettias were the obvious choice."

Lenanton's class sold most of the first year's small crop to faculty members. Ditto the second year.

By the third year, however, the department had acquired a commercial-size greenhouse (80 by 30 feet) and was able to produce a much larger harvest. By advertising in a number of publications to attract off-campus customers, it sold out.

Profits from more plants enabled the department to double the size of its greenhouse; then to build another. Then the college began replacing stationary potting benches with rolling ones, which--by eliminating aisles--allows it to grow more plants per greenhouse.

If Lenanton could grow yet more poinsettias, they'd no doubt sell.

"We had to return $1,000 worth of checks last year because we couldn't fill the orders," he says. But the annual sale has probably reached the limits the college can manage.

"We added another 500 plants this year; that brings us to 10,500," Lenanton says. "Maybe we could still squeeze in a few more. But I think we're about at the limit of what you can do in one semester with one class of students and two assistants."

Educationally, the poinsettia project has been everything Lenanton had hoped. Poinsettias, prone to insect attack, including white fly, and subject to a number of diseases, aren't the easiest plants to grow. But these disadvantages give students the opportunity to face many growing challenges in one semester, he says.

"I tell them, 'If you can grow poinsettias, you can grow anything.' "

Wallace describes the learning process from the student perspective.

"It's given me a real appreciation for the nursery business," he says. "There's more work involved than I ever imagined. So many things can go wrong. You've got to be on top of everything all the time."

But the experience hasn't discouraged Wallace, who says, "I'd like to be a grower eventually."

The poinsettia project also has proved beneficial in other ways. Now generating sales in excess of $20,000 a year, the annual sale is "keeping the department afloat" in what are hard times economically for all educational institutions, Lenanton says.

The class also has built a strong sense of loyalty in its alumni, whether they've gone into the nursery industry or not.

Cook, a law student, didn't. "But I keeping coming back (to assist in the sale) because, after having gone through it once, it's fun to check out the new crop. But loyalty to John is a big part of it, too. He's probably the finest teacher I've ever had, in any subject."

Ian Ford of Fullerton, another Lenanton graduate and steady customer, says, "The plants are always top quality, and the price is fabulous, but I wouldn't drive all that way if that's all there was to it. Buying from students makes it special. I like the fact that there's a story behind the plants."

To get your name on the mailing list for Orange Coast College's poinsettia sale next year, write to: John Lenanton, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa, Calif. 92628-9962. A 10-pot minimum order is required.

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