Get Growing: ‘The best art show around’

  • Andy Cowles, above, who attended the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been in business for 35 or 40 years. “I’m not sure how long,” he said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrew Cowles fills pots with soil at Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Patrick Taylor waters plants at Andrew's Greenhouse, which sells more than 150 varieties of annuals and several hundred varieties of perennials. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sara Bressem repots Dark Star Coleus at Andrew's Greenhouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After germination, the flats are moved to the seedling area, where they are placed in neat rows on large tables that have heated tubing underneath. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Unlike many plant nurseries, Andrew’s Greenhouse grows its annuals and perennials on the premises, either from seed or cuttings. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miss Montreal Begonias at Andrew's Greenhouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Patrick Taylor waters plants at Andrew's Greenhouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Each tray is carefully labeled by date and seed variety. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrew Cowles repots Dark Star Coleus at Andrew's Greenhouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “If we don’t hear people say ‘wow,’ we haven’t done our job,” says Andy. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrew Cowles places repotted Dark Star Coleus in one of the Green Houses to get ready for the Spring and Summer season at Andrew's Greenhouse in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette 
Published: 3/14/2019 5:06:37 PM

There’s snow on the ground and perhaps even more on the way, but at Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, plants are growing by the thousands. Andrew’s won’t open its doors to the public until April 1, when its tantalizing array of pansies will go on sale. I stopped by this week to chat with Andy Cowles, who owns and runs the business with his wife, Jacqui. He gave me a soup-to-nuts tour of the operation. Dear reader: You have no idea what a complicated and painstaking process goes on behind the scenes!

Unlike many plant nurseries, Andrew’s grows its annuals and perennials on the premises, either from seed or cuttings. For those perennials that can’t be grown from seed, Andrews purchases bare root stock or small “plugs” (individual plants in plastic trays divided into small squares) from high-quality wholesalers. Andrew’s has seven greenhouses totaling one acre of space, and the business uses every square inch of it.

Our first stop was the seedling greenhouse, where the youngest plants begin their lives. The seeding process begins in the seeding room, where a Rube Goldberg-type machine places individual seeds into plastic flats divided into 400 plugs about one-inch square filled with potting medium. (When people ask Andy if each seed is sown by hand, he sometimes answers “yes” just to tease them.)

As Andy explained, there have been enormous advances in seed technology in recent decades. Andrew’s used to start seeds planted by hand in open trays. When seedlings were transplanted into larger plugs, their tender roots were exposed, causing “shock.” Growing seeds in individual plugs is far more efficient because each seed roots in its own plug and seedlings can simply be transferred into larger plugs as they grow.

Not all seeds are created equal. Andrew’s buys premium seed that has a higher germination rate than what is available in the packets available in retail stores. Some of its seed is encapsulated with a tiny amount of fungicide and fertilizer. Other seed arrives pre-germinated. These seeds are 100 percent guaranteed by the producer to germinate. Other seed Andrew’s buys is guaranteed between 85 and 90 percent. (The seed we buy at retail have substantially lower germination rates, averaging around 70 percent.)

The newly planted seed flats are placed on racks in a “sweatbox,” a large chamber where the temperature is kept at a moist 75 degrees, the optimum temperature for most seeds to germinate. (A few types of seeds including lettuces and verbena prefer cooler germination conditions; they go directly into the seedling greenhouse.) It takes the seeds five or six days to germinate. “You keep looking for these tiny shoots,” said Andy. After germination, the flats are moved to the seedling area, where they are placed in neat rows on large tables that have heated tubing underneath. Each tray is carefully labeled by date and seed variety. Once the plugs have developed sprouts and roots, the trays are placed on a “plug popper,” a machine that pushes the plugs out, so they can easily be set into trays with larger compartments and more potting medium. These plants are moved to other greenhouses where they will continue to grow. Eventually, they go into their own pots and are ready for sale.

Annuals not started from seed (“vegetative” annuals) are grown from cuttings that are placed in a potting medium in divided plug trays. These include rosemary, coleus and certain begonias. This is an exacting process that Andy said has taken him years to perfect. The cuttings, about two inches long, are taken from a prime stock plant. Some of the leaf is removed so that plants won’t lose too much moisture through their leaves. But enough leaf is left for photosynthesis. The new cuttings are kept at 75 degrees in a humidity-controlled incubator. When a humidity monitor detects that the air is too dry, a mister is automatically activated to restore the moisture content. Once their root systems are established, usually a week to ten days, they are moved out into the larger greenhouse space.

Andrew’s starts some of its perennials from seed, including delphiniums and certain poppies.The rest of the perennials grown from bare roots or plugs, such as Echinops (globe thistle) and heuchera, arrive at Andrew’s in the fall. Some of these are started and kept in the greenhouse; others spend the winter outside under a layer of straw. Some, like lavender, are started early because they need a long time to mature. All of these need to be monitored regularly to check for good, even root development and height.

Unfortunately, greenhouses are popular destinations for harmful pests, including various kinds of thrips and aphids. Andy pays a lot of attention to insect control. “People don’t want insect problems,” he said. He uses “beneficial predators” in place of most insecticides to deal with pests. One such predator is a tiny wasp that lays its eggs inside the aphid’s body. When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae eat the aphid, leaving only its shell, or “mummy.” The larvae mature into wasps and the process is repeated as they attack more aphids. Sometimes the aphid population in the greenhouse is so low that the wasps don’t have enough food. Andy has a special set-up for raising aphids to feed the wasps when the natural supply runs out. “We spend a lot of money on beneficial predators,” said Andy. “That’s been a big learning experience for me. I learned a lot from a European friend. They’re way ahead of us over there!”

Andy uses limited spray insecticides to supplement the beneficial predators. “I’m always trying to figure out how to compensate and change the system because the insects compensate and change all the time. They become resistant to insecticides,” he said. “It’s challenging.”

As the plants grow into what Andy calls “teenagers,” they are moved into one of several other heated greenhouses. The temperatures in these greenhouses vary to accommodate plants’ heat needs. Temperatures inside the greenhouse can be adjusted by fans and opening doors as needed. But conditions vary all the time, depending on the weather. Timing is important. “Sun makes a huge difference for growth time,” said Andy. “Cloudy days slow things down. We have to account for that.”

Another variable that Andy has worked for many years to perfect is optimum fertilization for each type of plant. Fertilizers combine nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in different amounts. (The three numbers on the fertilizer container indicate the relative amounts of each, the “NPK ratio.”) But it’s far more complicated than choosing the best three numbers for each plant. As Andy explained, there are several types of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium present in varying amounts in different fertilizer formulas. He showed me a printed chart that lists hundreds of numerical combinations and percentages, many of which he knows by heart. “You have to be really accurate when you fertilize,” he said. “I do it mostly myself.”

One of the biggest challenges for Andrews is predicting how much of any one plant to grow and staggering the plantings so that there is always a supply ready to sell. “You never know how much you’re going to use,” said Andy. Sometimes there is an unexpected run on a certain plant, say white alyssum, and suddenly, “at the end of a busy weekend, it’s all gone. You always need to have another batch on hand,” he said. “When you grow all your own stock, like we do, you can control the supply much better.”

Another challenge is deciding what plants to grow and how much of each. “We keep records every year of what’s selling,” said Andy. The business sells more than 150 varieties of annuals and several hundred varieties of perennials. “We keep doing a lot of the same things, but we’re always changing things too,” he said. “You have to change and adapt with the times. We’re always trying to be better every year. As we add some new things, we have to let others go. We have 27 different tomatoes. We keep it to that number. People are always asking us to grow this or that, but we can only do so many. We hear from customers if something works well or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, we don’t sell it again.”

To further complicate matters of selection, consumer patterns are somewhat random. “Like Mother Nature and the weather,” said Andy. “Every year it’s different, and we always get through it somehow. It takes many years to learn these things.”

Andy keeps a detailed diary of planting times, amounts, weather and other data. Keeping a diary over the years has made it painfully clear to Andy how the climate is changing. “It’s sad and scary to realize that we’re losing our fall foliage because we don’t have early frosts that promote color,” he said. Another example is the cut-off date for picking vegetables in the fall. “We used to pick by September 15 to avoid frost. Now frost doesn’t come until the second week of October.” Spring frost dates are also changing, he says, noting that for the past eight years, there hasn’t been a hard frost later than May 10. “The diary keeps me honest,” he said.

Andy likes the early part of the season, “when seedlings are just coming up and it’s cold outside. Later on,” he said, “you get more anxious. You think, ‘What did I forget?’ ”

The Andrew’s staff takes enormous pride in the gorgeous arrangements of plants that are laid out for customers. An art historian friend of mine who’s also a gardener exclaimed to me last summer, “this time of year, Andrew’s is the best art show around!” Sara Bressam and Sophie Wood do most of this artistic work; Andy helps occasionally. The big opening day at Andrew’s is May 1. “I want to have that wow factor on May 1,” said Andy. “If we don’t hear people say ‘wow,’ we haven’t done our job.”

Andy has been in business for 35 or 40 years. “I’m not sure how long,” he said. The 150-acre farm has been in his family since 1920. As a young man, Andy worked for Wilbur “Win” Shumway, who ran a nursery next door, for seven years before going to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1977. “I learned an incredible amount from Win,” he said.

Although Andrew’s Greenhouse closes to the public in the fall, its work never ends.

The business charts its year differently than we home gardeners do. As May turns to June and we are seriously digging in, the heavy work season in Andy’s greenhouses will come to an end. “There’s a big sense of relief in early June; it’s the end of a successful year.”

In the fall, the work season starts again. “We go through our notes to see what we want more or less of,” said Andy. “We start ordering seed and plants in September.” The garden store opens for the holiday season, offering gifts and holiday accessories. Andy starts the first batches of pansy seeds around January 1.Between March 1 and June 1, Jacqui and I are here every day,” he said. “We don’t have children.” He gestures to the tables filled with burgeoning young plants. “These are our children.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden events  Boston flower and garden show

On March, 13-17, as winter wanes, the Boston Flower and Garden Show’s designers, exhibitors and marketplace vendors will be busy inspiring, educating and motivating the region’s gardeners. Whether for curb appeal, backyard, kitchen, indoor, rooftop or community gardens, this show is packed with useful information and ideas. The theme of this year’s show is “The Beauty of Balance,” which is a key factor in design decisions, plant and material choices, and in cultivating the right-size garden for our lives and budgets. Colorful life-sized gardens and vibrant floral designs will incorporate the newest design elements and examples of the popular and healthy food gardening trend. The show will include ideas for adopting sustainable gardening practices, air-cleansing indoor plants, small-space gardens, homesteading hobbies, edibles-as-ornamentals and family and pet-friendly garden spaces. The show takes place at the Seaport World Trade Center. For information about hours and to buy tickets, go to: bostonflowershow.com

Beekeeping 101

On Mar. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge is offering a program designed to give first-year beekeepers the tools they need to start off their new hobby on the right foot. Topics will include honey bee biology, equipment, hive installation methods, basic pest management, honey and wax harvesting, and hive management through the seasons. A hands-on demonstration of installing a hive will follow this talk at a later date depending on the arrival date of the bees. Price includes lunch. Suggested supplementary texts: The Beekeepers Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile and The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. The program will be led by Chris Wellens, Director of Education at BBG and head beekeeper of the BBG apiary. Members: $65/nonmembers:$75 For more information and to register, go to berkshirebotanical.org.

Home orchard management

Successfully growing fruit for your family becomes straightforward when you get the basics right. BBG will offer a day-long workshop on home orchard management on Mar. 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., This workshop, led by expert Michael Phillips, of Lost Nation Orchard in New Hampshire, covers soil health, biodiversity, and treatment of fungal disease and pests problems. All sorts of fruits–from apples and pears to peaches and cherries and onward to berries–make for a diverse home-orchard planting. Michael Phillips is the author of several books, including The Apple Growers: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist, and The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way. Members: $110/nonmembers: $125. For more information and to register, go to berkshirebotanical.org

One-day bulb sale for Smith Botanic Garden members

Here’s one more great reason to become a member of the Friends of the Botanic Garden at Smith College. On Mar. 23 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., after the bulb show closes, members are invited to come to a bulb sale at the greenhouse. Please bring your membership card and trays or flats for your purchases. For more information, go to: garden.smith.edu




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