Art Parkerson sits astride the motorcycle pruner, one of Lancaster Farms’ classic nursery production innovations.

Innovation runs through the soil of Lancaster Farms. It’s been there since the beginning, when Charlie Parkerson founded into the Suffolk, Va. wholesale nursery in 1969. There’s even an entire section in “That Ain’t No Deal,” the book Charlie wrote with his son and current owner and CEO of Lancaster Farms, Art Parkerson, that is dedicated to innovation. It stems from a healthy disdain for the status quo.

Innovation sounds difficult. And in some cases, it is. Trying to come up with a big, innovative idea can be daunting. But the crew at Lancaster Farms look at it differently. They know the big ideas are driven by small changes. And what is innovation if not simply change for the better?

Try the ‘wrong’ tool

One of Charlie Parkerson’s most popular inventions is the motorcycle pruner. As with every innovation, it started with a problem. When plants need to be trimmed, nurseries would send a crew of workers equipped with hedge shears to prune every single plant. The job is physically demanding, time-consuming, and often resulted in a crop that lacked uniformity.

The generator that powers Lancaster Farms’ motorcycle pruner is clearly marked with 8-step instructions.

After experimenting with several types of shears on wheels, the big idea came. What if they could drive a lawnmower over the plants? Parkerson took a motorcycle, replaced the engine with a variable-speed motor powered by a generator, and built a sidecar that held two lawnmowers suspended at an adjustable height. The motorcycle pruner straddled the bed, and the spinning blades created a much more uniform crop. It was so much faster, the nursery could prune more often, producing a better plant.

Art Parkerson says the nursery still uses the same motorcycle. They’ve had to replace lawnmowers and blades from time to time, and with two farms and about 290 acres in production, the device is often in demand. But it wouldn’t work at all without a fanatical focus on the production process.

Lancaster Farms president and general manager Chris Brown says planning exactly where each plant will be placed is vital for innovations like the motorcycle pruner to work. Brown and his team plan the configuration of each growing area at the beginning of each year.

“It’s all set up so you touch a plant as few times as possible before you sell it,” he says. “All your processes build on that same premise of how many times you touch the plant. If you set your plants down in the wrong place with the wrong water environment and the wrong sun environment, you’re going to have to pick them up and move them again or you’re going to have massive losses.”

Another consequence if those plants aren’t set down in the right spot: the motorcycle pruner won’t be able to do what it was meant to do.

The spinning blades of the two lawnmowers create a more uniform crop than typical shears.

“That’s one person pruning 5,000 to 10,000 plants in 20 minutes,” Brown says. “It’s a single-man job. But it can’t happen unless the plants are spaced properly.”

Small drives the big

A much more recent innovation at Lancaster Farms is the pot washer. This innovation came from an experience Brown had when he started touring garden centers. As a production guy, he had always been much more concerned with the plant in the pot than the pot itself. On a tour, he noticed the way a dirty plastic pot stood out in a crowd of bright, shiny branded pots. Then he realized the offending pot shipped from his nursery. So they built a “car wash” station for the containers and bolted it onto a custom-made conveyor belt. Now, the pots are clean when they’re tagged and placed on racks for shipping. It’s a simple concept that has a big impact on Lancaster Farms’ retail garden center customers.

Another small change that was a big help for the nursery was replacing gravel roads throughout the farm with recycled asphalt. Old or broken asphalt is now taken to recycling plants where it is crushed down and screened. Parkerson says the product holds up a lot better than gravel at half the cost. Gravel itself isn’t expensive, but hauling it is. If a nursery owner is tired of paying the freight, Parkerson says they should look into recycled asphalt.

The machine is operated with a variable-speed motor.

Science on your side

Sometimes innovation needs to come from outside your organization. Lancaster Farms has a history of collaborating with researchers in the horticulture field. When developing their West farm, Brown and Parkerson worked extensively with Dr. Chuanxue Hong, a professor at Virginia Tech University’s Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science. Hong, who works out of the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, is a phytophthora expert who specializes in recycled water quality and treatment.

“Dr. Hong’s footprints are all over this location,” Brown says.

The danger in irrigating with recycled water is the threat of phytophthora or other pathogens. The key point was that the farther the water has to travel, the less likely those pathogens will survive the journey. And if you slow the movement of water down, the pathogen will sink to the bottom and die before it reaches the nursery’s pump station. That’s easier said than done.

“Under normal water conditions in nursery production, if you’re designing a nursery like a parking lot, there’s nothing slow about rain,” Brown says.

Because it was a brand-new facility, Lancaster Farms had the chance to set it up just right. They worked with Hong to develop a system of grass barriers and buffers, and strategically-placed canals to slow down the flow, and the nursery has been able to recapture 95 percent of its water.

For more: www.lancasterfarms.com