Sunday February 24, 2013

PITTSFIELD

Typical late-February weather in the city -- cold with a threat of snow -- but not at 736 Crane Ave. Here, the high temperature today will be 75, the low will be 65, and there will be occasional mist or showers.

The balmy, spring-like conditions are occurring inside eight climate-controlled greenhouses at Jaeschke's Fruit & Flowers Center, a 45-year-old, family-run agricultural business that spans three communities in the Berkshires.

Rhetta Jaeschke, co-owner of Jaeschke’s Fruit & Flowers Center, works in one of her Pittsfield greenhouses. The company has 40 in Berkshire County,
Rhetta Jaeschke, co-owner of Jaeschke’s Fruit & Flowers Center, works in one of her Pittsfield greenhouses. The company has 40 in Berkshire County, along with two retail stores. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Even with another gardening season still two to three months away in the Northeast, hundreds of seedlings and small plants already are growing in eight of the 30 greenhouses that Jaeschke's owns in Pittsfield.

Overall, the company -- one of the largest of its kind in the county -- has 40 greenhouses across Pittsfield, Adams and Washington, along with one retail store in Pittsfield and one in Adams.

"They will all be going by the middle of April," co-owner Chuck Wandrei said of the greenhouses.

Jaeschke's produces every annual, perennial and
vegetable sold at its retail stores, which will open by March 24 in Pittsfield and by Mother's Day (May 12) in Adams. The business is an A-to-Z operation, doing everything from alyssum to zinnias, Wandrei said.


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"We truly do everything from scratch," co-owner Rhetta Jaeschke said as she tended to some geraniums. "We've had these fuschia hanging baskets [growing] before Christmas."

While Jaeschke's is up and growing, other local nurseries are just emerging from hibernation. Owners have been repairing any winter damage to their greenhouses, preparing long rows of tables for the first batch of seedlings to germinate, and are testing the indoor irrigation systems to ensure that the new growth is properly watered.

This week and next, the indoor farmers will start potting seeds, take cuttings from existing plants to grow offspring, and hope for plenty of sunny days.

Regardless of the temperature outside, sunshine peering through is crucial to growing plants inside.

"No question, plants grow rapidly with lots of sun -- the more sun between March 1 and May 31, the better," said Greg Ward, co-owner of Ward's Nursery and Garden Center in Great Barrington.

"Definitely, we are at the whim of Mother Nature. We just hope she's kind to us each year," said Rena Sumner, executive director of the Massachusetts Nursery & Landscape Association. The Conway-based organization helps its 450 members promote their businesses, which contribute an estimated $2.

A greenhouse at Jaeschke’s Fruit & Flowers Center in Pittsfield.
A greenhouse at Jaeschke’s Fruit & Flowers Center in Pittsfield. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
6 billion to the state's economy each year, according to its website (www.mlna.com).

In addition, Massachusetts nurseries, along with florists and landscape-related businesses, employ at least 68,000 people a year, two-thirds of whom are full time.

Sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are crucial between now and mid-May, the start of the local plant-buying season.

"If we have a sunny spring, plants can be ready sooner, but we still aim for Mother's Day," Ward said.

Because the majority of nursery sales occur in May and June, growers must ensure the plants remain healthy until consumers are ready to dig into their dormant flower beds and vegetable gardens.

For Rod Clark of Clark's Nursery in Lee, once his impatiens, geraniums and other early plants mature, he has to move them outside of his greenhouses, making room for other varieties of flowers and vegetables he needs to grow there.

Clark said storing plants outdoors in May is risky but necessary because he has only five greenhouses and grows 70 percent of the plants sold at Clark's.

"There is always fear of a frost before Memorial Day," Clark said. "What I have found over the years is sometimes it's warmer in April, when you need the warmer weather in May."

Even indoors, nursery plants are at risk, especially if the heating system fails in the middle of the night amid freezing temperatures. 

An alarm system at Tim Gray's house warns him if there's trouble at the Golden Hill Nursery, which he and his wife operate two doors down from their home in Lee.

"They are kind of like babies; you can't leave them alone too long because they are living things," Gray said. "This is farming with a roof over your head."

In addition to Mother Nature, nursery owners are at the mercy of the economy and the ever-changing buying habits of consumers. The owners say business has improved since the Great Recession started about five years ago, in part because more homeowners are taking the time to landscape their properties.

"I do see a trend that business is picking up, and we're getting close to pre-recession levels," Ward said. "People are gardening and enjoying their yards."

Nursery owners also are growing more diverse plants, focusing on ones that last longer and require little care.

Wandrei noted that multicolored million bells and super petunias are popular because they "bloom all summer and are low maintenance."

In an effort to boost nursery sales statewide this spring, the Massachusetts Nursery & Landscape Association is promoting May 15 as "Don't just stand there ... plant something."

"People realize they have a lot of value in their homes, and we want them enjoying the outdoors," Sumner said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.