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Lancaster County Is back in bloom
When’s Easter and Mother’s Day this year? What date do we plant the lilies, and start filling hanging baskets? Do we grow more pansies or petunias? It’s all about timing and the numbers for the Lancaster County horticulture industry.
Growers here, and far beyond, from the mega locations to mom and pop greenhouses, are all looking at the calendar and dealing with the same questions.
And to complicate matters, in the Northeast, a mid-March snow storm changed what had been a mild winter into a late season headache for all.
“It’s what we deal with every year,” said Fred Esbenshade, of Esbenshade’s Garden Center and Greenhouse, Lititz. “It’s part of the business.”
So here’s the real story. Before we buy a lily, potted plant, vegetable, or tomato starter for backyard gardens, there is multi-week production cycle for wholesale greenhouses that is carefully adjusted to the local growing season with an eye on the dates for Easter and Mother’s Day.
Talking with professionals at mid-size to large greenhouses as well as retailers around Lancaster County is educational. There is a lot more than meets the eye in what looks to be a simple business: plant it, grow it, and sell it.
Besides the calendar, growers and retailers are concerned about the numbers. Wholesalers ask themselves, did we estimate correctly on the number of lilies to grow, potted plants to prepare or hanging baskets to fill? They also are conscious of the numbers in terms of available, covered growing space.
“We love it when Easter comes early,” Esbenshade says, “as we want the lilies out of the greenhouse so we can grow more flowers for Mother’s Day — everyone’s biggest weekend.”
From the retail side, the numbers question is supply and demand. “Do we have enough of what customers want in the right colors or varieties at the right time?” they ask themselves.
And no matter how growers and retailers plan, if the weather is good, and spring has arrived on schedule in full bloom, they say they never have enough product for Mother’s Day. If it rains, or is cold, well, that’s another story, and not a happy one.
For John Lapp at Choice Flowers in New Holland, who works with his brother, Ivan, and father, Aaron, it is a business he has been in, off and on, for a decade, but heavily committed too since 2012. The 25-acre farm has 42,000 square feet of greenhouse space and the Lapp family has been hard at work since mid-winter sowing seeds, planting bulbs, growing flowers and filling baskets for their retail season. The Lapps are a mid-size grower, typical of many others on Lancaster County farms.
Choice Flowers has two retail locations at Shady Maple in New Holland and sells more than 20,000 hanging baskets in the spring, more than 10,000 mums in the fall and countless flowers, potted plants, and vegetable starter sets during warm weather in the spring. Lapp also sells at the big plant auctions in Leola and Weavertown.
A number of small to mid-size area farms, with strong Amish and Mennonite roots, have moved in recent years from dairy or diversified crops to flowers and plants.
“With land here at a premium, moving to a profitable horticulture business allows an extended family to continue in the business together without having to purchase large tracts of new farmland or move,” Lapp explains.
For Choice Flowers, the competition is small mom and pop operations and pop-up locations.
“Overhead from someone who grows in his back yard or small greenhouse is low,” he says, “and they can sell at a lower cost than we can.”
John has eight employees during the growing season.
Stepping up the ladder in retail size would be a well-known 83-year-old family owned Lancaster County institution, Stauffers of Kissel Hill. According to Stauffers’ Jodie Morris, Stauffers is the seventh largest garden center in the United States, with eight retail locations.
It started as a produce stand,
A 20-year Stauffers’ veteran, Morris (called “the plant lady,” and a regular contributor to media coverage on gardening, and serves as company spokesperson) operates out of the Lititz store that does $1.5 million in garden sales each year. Stauffers sells thousands of potted flowers and plants and starter sets for vegetables during the prime growing season as well as colorful mums and holiday trees and decorations in the fall.
Morris emphasizes — as do all in the business — that growing and selling plants and flowers is labor-intensive. Plants need to be trimmed, watered, and fed daily so they are ready for sale at the optimum time.
Although some people talk about being all natural, everyone in the business smiles and will tell you that if you want something to grow, you have to feed it. Growers work hard to use the most organic and safe nutrients for plants and flowers but as Morris says simply, “If you don’t feed it, the plant will die.”
Stauffers puts small quantities of nutrients into its irrigation system so plants and flowers are fed when they are watered.
On the wholesale side, Esbenshades Garden Center and Greenhouse — one of the region’s largest growers of flowers and plants — has more than 600,000 square feet of covered greenhouse space in Lititz, Fleetwood, and Mohnton. Family owned and started by dad Lamar in 1960, the operation includes three of Fred’s brothers and a sister to handle the growing, wholesale and retail sales, shipping, and development of special Esbenshade proprietary offerings. Also, there are nearly 90 fulltime employees whose ranks swell to 150 during the winter-spring growing season. Esbenshade delivers – rooted cuttings to potted flowers and plants ready to sell – to garden centers, florists, like Royer’s Flowers and Gifts in Ephrata, and even to local hardware stores in 20 states.
Esbenshades fills more than 80,000 hanging baskets and grows 30,000 lilies in the spring, as well as thousands of potted plants and flowers, along with market plants (flowers and vegetables) that customers re-plant. Even big operations like Esbenshade with loyal customers face competition today from mega greenhouse operations that ship in an ever-widening radius and supply most of the big box stores.
If some of Lancaster County’s greenhouses are considered big and there are too many to mention, they just can’t compare to operations in Florida, Texas, California, and North Carolina, and a few even closer to home.
Not far from Lancaster County, Dan Schantz Farm in Allentown is an example of a mega grower. It has two million square feet of greenhouse and grows 1,000 acres of pumpkins in the fall. Quality Greenhouses in Dillsburg has nearly 900,000 square feet of indoor growing space and both sell to local retailers. But all regional greenhouses pale in comparison to an operation like Metrolina in North Carolina with more than 150 acres — 6.5 million square feet — of greenhouse with customers nationwide.
So, when you are hunting through your favorite retailer’s selection of melon and tomatoes plants, buying the right potted flower or hanging basket for your mother, or just looking for something colorful for your living room, remember this is big business. It’s a multi-step and labor intensive process that starts with a breeder who sows the seed and develops the plant. It moves to the wholesale greenhouse through a plant and flower broker who represents the breeder and sells the seeds, unrooted cuttings or small starter plants to the wholesale greenhouse to grow and mature.
Only then do flowers and plants find their way to a retailer for you to buy and take home to enjoy. The cycle is continuous from late summer and fall breeding through the following year’s growing and sales season. It’s part of a year-round business and keeps thousands of people employed and millions of customers smiling with the result.
Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.