WAYNESBORO, VA — While solving the problem of how to prolong the life of flowering bulb products, Joep Paternostre created a new floral category. With his wife, Lilian, he brought to the industry a method of growing live bulbs, bringing them to market in their early stages, with a system that keeps them fed and blooming longer.
His solution: growing, shipping and selling flowering bulb plants hydroponically, a method adapted from his native Holland, where it was developed and refined decades ago. The plants grow in a clear glass vase, so consumers can see them grow and change every day. Rather than guessing how much to water them, they just add water up to the base of the bulbs.
“It improves on the elegance of cut flowers with the value and long life of potted plants,” Mr. Paternostre said.
Along the way, the couple dealt with other problems that arose, like what kind of vase to use (glass is better than plastic for the environment, they decided); how to be sure the growing plants remained upright (a pin rack device in the bottom of the vase); and how to show consumers what their flowering plant would look like when mature (a video taking the plant from bulb to fully flowered was better than a photo, they determined).
The end product: Long Life Flowers — tulips, hyacinths and daffodils shipped growing in water in a glass vase — parked a Holiday Amaryllis offshoot in 2006, an extra-large amaryllis shipped in water in a glass vase and requiring only water to produce a guaranteed-to-flower plant with two or three stems per vase. The Long Life Flowers Home Décor Collection and Holiday Amaryllis all grow indoors for up to four weeks.
A decade later, Long Life Flowers are a new floral category for the firm. Sales have doubled each year for the past three years, Mr. Paternostre said. Customers have gone from one buyer willing to take a chance on a new product to the top five retail chains in the country, and 18 of the top 30.
Close to half a million of the giant XXL Holiday Amaryllis, its extra-large bulb developed to Bloomaker’s specifications, have been sold, making this small company in the rural Shenandoah Valley a leading amaryllis importer.
Bloomaker’s hallmark is careful research and meticulous follow-through. When blooms on small amaryllis bulbs were sometimes too heavy for the stems, causing them to droop, Mr. Paternostre worked with a breeder to develop an extra-large bulb with sturdy stems.
“U.S. consumers want three things,” Mr. Paternostre stated, summarizing what he learned on a yearlong, nationwide trip in 2002. “Innovation, instant gratification and convenience.” That trip led to Long Life Flowers and to Waynesboro, where the company can ship to 70 percent of the United States and Canada within 24 hours.
Bloomaker built a state-of-the-art facility here in fall 2010. Its translucent glass walls rise from the countryside like a cathedral. “If we grew our bulbs in soil we would need eight times the greenhouse space,” Mr. Paternostre pointed out. “This way, the flowers grow in the customer’s home instead of our greenhouse.” It’s environmentally friendly also, he added. “This requires less than five percent of the energy needed to grow potted tulips and cut flowers.”
The finishing touch on the high-tech production line is a personal one: A worker adjusts the bulbs in the vase so they are upright and anchored in the pin tray. Hydroponics, decades old (Remember the Walt Disney World hydroponic plants in Tomorrowland?) are new again, as a new floral category.