As you select plants this spring, consider that many of them traveled far from start to finish and were nurtured by gardeners at several greenhouses before they ended up at the point of purchase.
In the horticulture industry, some greenhouses only focus on starting plants. Others take those baby plants and grow them to a bigger size before sending them to retailers. And some garden centers focus on selling plants, not growing them.
Groff’s Plant Farm does a little bit of everything. The business near Kirkwood starts some plants from seed and grows others that were started elsewhere. And from April through October, Groff’s sells them at its on-site retail store. The greenhouse staff works nearly year-round to grow perennials and annuals, with some unusual and native varieties.
While the retail store is open to the public during growing season, owner Kris Barry showed LNP around for the final story in this series about Lancaster County’s largest greenhouses.
Fruit to plants
Barry’s great-grandparents bought this property near Octoraro Creek in 1915. Her grandfather started planting fruit trees in 1945 and ran a pick-your-own fruit business for folks to harvest apples, peaches and strawberries. More than 40 years ago, they built their first greenhouse to grow vegetable plants and, later, bedding plants.
In 1991, the family sold the orchard and decided to focus on growing and selling plants.
These days, those plants fill 27 greenhouses.
After Groff’s shuts down retail sales at the end of October, staff start the “off season” with inventory and fixing equipment.
“I really love the seasonality of the business,” Barry says. “You kind of recharge your batteries over the winter. I always joke that I’m hibernating.”
While some garden centers might unload plants with end-of-season clearance sales, Groff’s usually saves perennials, which grow year after year. These plants are cut back, overwintered in some of the greenhouses and then grown again to be returned to the sales floor the following year.
By the end of February, crews are waiting for plants to break dormancy. Once plants perk up, they’re transplanted into larger pots so they can grow bigger. On a cold February day after a snowstorm, they’re transplanting plugs of foxglove, black-eyed Susan, poppy mallow and stone crop from 4-inch pots to gallon pots. Some of these perennials came to Groff’s as seedlings in July and August. They spend months in cool greenhouses to get the vernalization period they need to trigger blooming in the spring.
“They have a nice strong root system, and they’ll fill in that gallon pot in about four weeks,” Barry says. “By mid-April, they’ll be ready to sell.”
About two-thirds of the plants will be potted into gallon containers for sale. The rest stay in 4-inch pots, which are popular for budget-savvy customers. The smaller plants also experience less transplant shock and eventually will catch up to the larger-sized plants, Barry says.
“If you planted a 4-inch pot versus a gallon, within a month they will catch up,” she says.
The production houses behind the retail area start filling up by the first week of March, when workers start planting annuals, herbs and vegetables.
“It’s kind of a balancing act between having plants ready for spring planting and trying to conserve heat,” Barry says.
Some plants take a lot longer to grow.
A shade perennial house is filled with hellebores planted a year earlier are just starting to bloom in late February.
In the shrub house, the pussy willows and witch hazel are the first to bloom. A variety new to Groff’s is a pink pussy willow, Mt. Asama, with silver-red catkins. Workers planted them last April.
“We like to have new things,” Barry says. “We pride ourselves on having hard-to-find unusual things, especially because we have so many different varieties. I like to keep things fresh.”
In another greenhouse, tree peonies hibernate. They have an herbaceous rootstock with a tree peony grafted on top. This plant blooms huge flowers in May and takes two to three years to be ready for sale.
“They’re kind of expensive and they take a long time to bloom, but they’re definitely worth it,” Barry says.
Joining the family business
Barry and her husband, Jon, have been running the family business since her parents, Carol and Carlton Groff, retired two years ago. The Barrys made the career change when the Groffs decided to retire. Jon Barry used to work as an anesthesiologist and Kris Barry was a plant breeder who developed a few patented varieties of impatiens.
Juggling the growing side of the business with sales is different, but Kris Barry says she wanted to see the family business continue.
Now she can grow the plants, even the ones she patented, to the right stage at the right time. And help gardeners figure out the best plants for their spaces, too.