Focused on growth

Classic Caladiums head grower, Clay Wallace, improves efficiency and consistency in his greenhouse.

Wallace oversees production of about 90 different varieties of caladiums.
Photos courtesy of Classic Caladiums

Transitioning from a farm full of diverse crops to a greenhouse devoted primarily to a single plant has been anything but boring for Clay Wallace. As head grower at Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, Florida, since 2018, Wallace stays busy growing a specialized selection of colorful ornamentals.

“Even as a sole producer of only one crop, you learn that every variety has its nuances,” says Wallace. “I just thought caladiums were all the same, but they’re very broad.” Wallace grew up on a row crop farm in Mississippi, where he developed his passion for plants.

A subsidiary of ABBOTT-IPCO, Inc., Classic Caladiums is one of only two commercial caladium breeding facilities in the world; the University of Florida is the other. This rare focus gives the operation “a unique advantage, as we’re constantly introducing better genetics into the industry,” Wallace says.

While Wallace and his team produce approximately 90 varieties of caladiums commercially, they’re conducting research on 5,000 varieties at any given time as they trial future introductions. By applying his broad growing knowledge to this specialized crop, Wallace is working to expand and improve the operation.

Originally a caladium-only grower, the business has expanded beyond that unique approach.

Striving for reliability

Some people are shocked when Wallace says he works in a greenhouse in Florida. “They’re like, ‘Why do you need a greenhouse in Florida? You just build a shade house and everything’s perfect, right?’” he says. “As growers, we want to be as reliable as possible, and Mother Nature’s never reliable. So, we started putting in greenhouses, heaters and other processes to try to be more reliable.”

Founded in 2000, Classic Caladiums is still a relatively young operation that has more than doubled in size since Wallace joined the company. He now oversees about 24,000 square feet of controlled greenhouse space, in addition to the original shade house that covers 20,000 square feet.

The operation also spans approximately 50,000 square feet of outdoor production space. Over the last few years, Classic Caladiums has expanded into outdoor canna lily production while adding a variety of tropical foliage, including Alocasia, Colocasia and banana plants.

Besides adding more growing space and greenhouse facilities to accommodate the expanding crop mix, Classic Caladiums is also installing automated equipment to make the operation more efficient. For example, a new watering tunnel has already saved Wallace’s team a lot of time.

“We don’t have to worry about caladiums drying out during the sprouting phase,” he says. “Now, instead of a person standing there watering them, the plants pass through this watering tunnel and get loaded straight into our germination chamber.”

Similarly, new potting machines help the team be more efficient with the same crew of around a dozen employees.

“Everybody knows labor is a huge issue, so we want to mitigate that as much as possible,” Wallace says. “Every year I’m looking for anything I can do to help my crew work faster, easier, or better. Things like that make us more reliable.”

Classic Caladiums is working on automating parts of the operation.
Although Classic Caladiums is in sunny and warm Florida, Wallace grows plants in greenhouses for the reliability that being indoors offers.

Equipping growers for success

Throughout the growing season, Wallace meticulously collects detailed information about every crop he grows.

“A huge part of my job is updating data on existing and new varieties. As I’m walking through the greenhouse, I’m making notes,” says Wallace, who carries a phone, iPad and notebook with him everywhere he goes. “I’m sketching what I see or noting if something’s coming up slow.”

Wallace gathers data about crop timing, disease pressures, plant growth regulators, nutrition and other conditions that impact the plants — not only to help his internal growing team improve every year, but also to help customers grow more efficiently and consistently, too. All of this knowledge is available on the company’s wholesale website, which details “everything you’d ever want to know about growing caladiums,” he says.

As consumers seek out trendy plants, Wallace expects the popularity of caladiums to soar. By revamping the detailed growing data available on the website, he hopes to create a resource that will help other growers develop the same passion he has for these colorful plants.

That’s why Wallace is excited for Classic Caladiums to open a retail area on-site in spring of 2023 — expanding the operation’s retail sales from just a few sales events per year to normal business hours every week during the spring. The company already has a huge following, thanks to its open house days for both consumers and commercial growers, which attract people from around the globe. Classic Caladiums also participates in an annual caladium festival at nearby Lake Placid (the caladium capital of the world), which draws approximately 20,000 people every summer.

“New gardeners are looking for unique color patterns and prints that make their home look trendy and cool. Caladiums really fit the bill because they’ve got a huge color palette,” he says. “There’s a huge potential of what’s going to hit the market in the next couple of years, with a lot of colors that people aren’t used to seeing on caladiums.”

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