May 27, 2012

Finding the Quality Niche

Let us begin with a statement of fact and a question.  The statement of fact is this:  the suburbs of Boston positively groan with garden centers.  Moreover, a handful of these establishments – Weston Nurseries, Briggs, and Russell’s Garden Center come immediately to mind – are one-stop sources for high-quality annuals and perennials as well as for superb trees and shrubs.  The area is also chockablock with specialty sellers of unusual plants and especially of hard-to-find perennials.  Tranquil Lake Nursery in Rehoboth, Blanchette Garden and Seawright Garden, both in Carlisle, fit this description.  Betty and I are on a first-name basis with the staff at several of those businesses because of the frequency and volume of our purchases.

So, here’s the question:  with all that quality plant material available locally, why on earth would we drive 167 miles round trip just to buy annuals?

To answer that question, you have to visit Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, Massachusetts, and see for yourself.  We usually make two trips a year; one around May 1 and another at the end of the month.  The purpose: to find a selection of ‘wow’ plants to go into container gardens and our perennial beds.

During the month of May, Betty did four container gardening demonstrations for garden clubs in eastern Massachusetts (she has one more scheduled in June).  Each program calls for Betty to put together five very different containers.  So, that’s 25 containers right there.  Beginning in early May and continuing through mid-June, she puts together the containers that grace our own property.  Last year, those numbered around 60 with at least half being made up of annuals. (The balance are shrubs, succulents or trees.)

An acre of annuals under one roof
How many plants per container?  Let’s say an average of five different cultivars (in the oversimplified world of P. Allan Smith, “a thriller, a spiller and a filler”) and, often, multiples of the same cultivar to provide instant appeal.  Call it ten plants.  (Betty was required to submit receipts for one group; the five containers required a total of 47 plants, including a window box that took 13.)

So, we’re talking about a lot of annuals.  At ten per container, Betty will purchase 250 plants, mostly annuals, for her programs.  For the roughly 30 annual/perennial pots on our property, that’s another 250 to 275 plants (many of the perennials get wintered over in our garage and go on to grace containers for multiple years).  That’s a minimum of 500 annuals each year.

Betty fills a double cart with plants
This year, Betty’s schedule was especially hectic in late April and May, and a half-day to devote to a trip to Andrew’s was not in the cards.  So, the four May garden club programs used plants sourced locally.  But on Thursday of last week, we finally had a full-day hole in our schedule and so off we went.

Rather than potting up from plugs, Andrew’s grows from seed in half a dozen hoop greenhouses.  But Amherst is solidly in Zone 5B and Andrew’s takes the idea of ‘late season frosts’ very seriously.  When plants are of saleable size – and only when they’re at that size - they’re moved to an acre-sized retail greenhouse.  Cold-tolerant perennials are housed on dozens of outdoor stands.  There are no frost-tipped plants to be wary of.

Shade-loving perennials have their
own light-filtered area
But the true appeal of Andrew’s lies in two critical areas. First, Andrew’s offers uncommon annuals.  Do you want a nemesia ‘Sunsatia Cranberry’?  It’s a new introduction and Betty found it at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland.  But how about a fragrant nemesia with a glorious scent that catches your attention long before you see the flower?  You find that at Andrew’s, where it’s available in three colors.  Or, how about calibrachoa ‘Superbells Yellow’?  Weston Nurseries had that one and it wowed the Community Garden Club of Duxbury.  Last Thursday, Betty spotted a calibrachoa – a plant with small, petunia-like flowers that just keeps flowering from May until frost – with a double ruffle.  She bought four of them.

The second distinction lies in the plant descriptions.  Andrew’s sends out a very good catalog every January and it lists what the nursery expects to be able to offer for annuals and perennials.  And those descriptions go beyond what 95% of garden centers provide.  For example, here’s their entry for Ipomoea: IPOMOEA (Sweet Potato Vine) A varied genus which includes the Morning Glory (See Annual Vines), Cypress Vine (See Annual Vines), as well as the popular “Sweet Potato Vines”, which are not known for their flowers, but loved for their foliage.

That’s a good basic description, but drill down to some of the nine varieties being offered: 'Illusion garnet lace' [NEW] If you love sweet potato vines, but find them a bit imposing in your containers, then you are in luck with the Illusion series. They are specially bred to be very compact, dense and lacy. Garnet lace has an unexpected coloration of purple red with a mixture of light green as the new growth appears. Pairs nicely with petunias or calibrachoas for a knockout combination. 6-10".

'Cardinal Climber' wasn't in the
catalog, but we found a full
description of it.  (Double-click
to see at full size)
When you get to Andrew’s, you find things that aren’t in the catalog, like the Ipomoea ‘Cardinal Climber’ described in detail at left.  You get everything you need to make a decision and, if you still have questions, the staff knows their plants very well.  We brought ‘Cardinal Climber’ home on a whim.

If you’re looking for ageratum and marigolds, go to Home Depot. If you’re looking for Thai basil or Brandy Boy tomatoes, Andrew’s has them.  In short, Andrew’s has found a niche and I hope is both a successful and a lucrative one.  We’ve been going there long enough that we’ve forgotten how we first heard of the place.  But I can recommend it without reservation.

No comments:

Post a Comment