LOOKS TO ME LIKE things are about to get real around the Mississippi gardening world. This week’s temperatures are hovering around the 70s and 80s. I’m sure it’s bound to be a teaser but I’ll take it. In another week, on the 13th, daylight saving time starts. We can set our clocks forward so we can start enjoying our new day schedule. I’m not letting my guard down. We’ve had some pretty major cold blasts come through much later than this but I do begin to feel giddy about it right about now.
I walked into the greenhouses at Garden Works the other day and was blown away by what I saw. John Grant, our grower, has some geranium baskets getting ready that are already fabulous. The giant geraniums in pots for the front door he is famous for are already just perfect. We will start bringing them up front to the retail area. This year’s crop looks to me like they are the biggest ones he’s grown in my memory. I believe it would be wise to get yours as early as possible so you don’t miss out on the particular color you love.
The four inch pot bedding crop is looking great. I love the huge variety of plants he grows back there. John relies on our input during the selling season. We take notes about plants customers are looking for that we don’t have. He does his best to keep up with the latest trends but there are always more plants we may have overlooked. We love to find out about new plants and do our best to start testing them. We keep notes on popular colors, timing that certain plants are ready, hanging baskets that flew off the racks and those that didn’t. John has to put all of this together in July. I walk into his office sometimes when he’s in the middle of planning our entire spring and summer plants schedule. His hair tends to be sticking out in all directions, glasses crooked, coffee cup full and calculated is smoking hot. I jokingly call this “Einsteining.” I also know to steer clear and not break his concentration.
We love having our own grow operation because it gives us the freedom to grow what we want when we want to. We felt like it would be better for our customers to grow our hanging baskets in 12” pots instead of the standard 10” baskets. It doesn’t sound like a big difference but it matters when it begins to heat up around here as far as watering and care for the plants. The bigger the pot, the more soil there is, the longer the water will hold. I completely understand why the big bedding plant growers have to use the smaller pots. The margins for those guys are razor thin so they have to do the best they can without over spending.
We don’t have to make our own soil to save on costs because we skip the wholesale part of the deal. The soil we use is just perfect for holding water just long enough but will dry out in the right amount of time to keep the plants healthy. We sell that soil in bags so that when a customer plants their new babies the roots are going into the exact soil they were born and raised in. Our main goal is to give the customer the best chance at being successful with the plants after they spend their hard earned cash with us. We believe that will keep people coming back to us for more. So far so good.
Another great reason we decided to grow our own is that it allows us to restock every morning. We start our work day a few hours before we open the gates at 10 so we can get this kind of stuff done without anyone there but us. There is no feeling we like less than being too busy to help customers. We’ve been trying to do both for years until we finally realized the answer is to not open until we are ready to offer our full attention to our customers. Once we tried it we realized we could get the same amount of work done in two hours that otherwise would take us all day to get done. It’s not fun for us or the customer to help someone while in the middle of unloading a truck or setting displays.
It has taken a lot of stress off of our staff which in turn has created a better experience for our customers. We’ve all been to a place where the staff is hurried and stressed out to the point that you’re pretty sure they would be just as happy if you left empty handed. That doesn’t work for anybody. Without a growing operation on sight we would have to wait for the wholesaler to show up one of the days of the week hopefully with everything we ordered and all the plants looking great. There is a lot of risk in that. We would have to tell a customer to come back later in the week and we will (hopefully) have what they are looking for. I feel that most times people go from there to find it somewhere else. I know what it feels like to have a list of things you need to get done on that day. Sometimes waiting until later in the week is not an option.
I can remember before we had our greenhouses how it was to keep plants from 10 different places watered. Every grower’s soil mix was a little different. Some would make it all the way through a day without having to water it again. Some would need watering two or three times a day depending on the amount of peat moss and bark those growers used. Breaking out a hose in the middle of a busy selling day is no fun and it takes a sales person or a loader off the floor, something we can’t afford to do since we want to be as helpful as we can to as many people as possible.
MIMI AND I BUILT 18 greenhouses back in 1991. I guess starting slow and growing into an operation that size just wasn’t in our vocabulary. After my return from a three year stint with the Peace Corps and one year as an intern at a large growing facility on the Mississippi gulf coast I started buying up greenhouses from everywhere I could find some. One of our nicest 10,000 square foot facilities came from Dallas where a guy tried growing miniature roses. I think on paper the numbers looked good but in reality he didn’t realize the amount of work that would go into that crop. He lasted one year so the greenhouses were in great shape and he was willing to take what I offered as long as we would come take them down and get them out of his life.
I had a gang of guys and a couple 18 wheelers to help unscrew everything and mark and bag the pieces and parts so we would know what went where upon our return. We loaded everything in the order it came off the truck so posts were loaded last. We bought and took apart and transported all the greenhouses in the surrounding states we could find then we gradually added a few more as our needs grew. Mimi and I started by growing annuals, perennials, herbs for the wholesale market delivering to three states and for the landscapers around town for the first 15 years. We finally realized the only way to make it in the wholesale world is to get big and automated. We didn’t like that option so we did some quick math and realized we could stop trucking plants all over the place. We decided to just grow for Garden Works since it had grown to the size it could use everything we could grow.
That was a happy day when we realized we could come up with all kinds of configurations and mix pots we couldn’t offer for the wholesale world since everything had to be standard shipping sizes and dialed in for easy ordering for our customers. It was at about this time one of our favorite customers called to say they were going to hang up the garden center they had owned for quite a while. That was our grower, John Grant, who had an opportunity at another business not related to the garden center world.
Mimi was just thinking one of us (Mimi) needed to get upfront as we were preparing to purchase the entire place from my father. John was happy to keep his fingers in the dirt and decided to come aboard with us, something like 25 years ago. John and I worked together until it was time to take ownership with Mimi. John has progressed and evolved the operation into what it is today as our quality and variety has just gotten better and better. We believe more than ever that being independent and free to do bedding plants has been very good for our business.
Another great thing about having those greenhouses on the property is that during our slower months in the winter a lot of our staff like to work back there, especially our new people, because it helps them get familiar with all the plant’s names. Later when we begin to do our daily stocking they will know where to find all the plants if they were paying attention.
Part of the job back there is to individually tag each pot as you plant it. Sometimes when we have a new person working away, sticking hundreds of tags in the plants they’ve just planted, I’ll ask them what it is that they are tagging. It always amazes me when they don’t know what the plant’s name is because they have not bothered to take a glance at the tag which has all the information on it that one would need to know. That’s usually not a good sign and it tells me they may be better suited for another department. I don’t usually start hiring seasonal help until a little closer to showtime, around mid March. Having the greenhouses allows me to hire earlier if someone comes in we have a good feeling about.
We have another professional grower on our roster. Mark Patrick was the head grower at a giant bedding plant operation in Mississippi for 15 years. Mark and John collaborate on plants and dates and problems that occur in the greenhouses. With all the growers at Garden Works I’d say we are ready for just about anything that comes our way. We hope you’ll do yourselves and us a favor and come see the wonderful collection of plants, knowledge and people that make us worth your trip.