Six-packs of pansies will soon be front and center at local garden stores, waiting to become the centerpiece of an early spring container or the colorful edge of a garden bed.

To get those flowers ready in time for early planting, workers at Esbenshade’s Garden Centers put the seeds in soil just before Christmas. The seeds sprouted in heated greenhouses and grew under computer-controlled water misters.

By the first of February, a robotic machine transplants the pansies into six-pack containers big enough for the plugs to grow a little more before they’re sold.

Lancaster County is known for its rich soil and agricultural industry. Even in the coldest days of winter, there are hundreds of thousands of plants growing in greenhouses all over the county. Under glass and plastic, the greenhouses grow plants from aquatic to vegetable, annuals to perennials and edible herbs to cut flowers. While some of these greenhouses sell plants at their own retail stores, many grow for other sellers and aren’t open to the public.

This winter, LNP/LancasterOnline will share more about some of the largest nurseries in the county.

Esbenshade’s, a retail business, has more than half a million square feet of space to grow plants, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

That makes the company 86th in the top 100 U.S. growers, according to Greenhouse Grower magazine.

The company started in 1960 near Brickerville. Today, a second generation of siblings owns the company and seven members of the third generation also have joined the business.

The public knows the company through its three retail greenhouses, which are near Brickerville, near Adamstown and near Fleetwood, Berks County. At any given time, 200,000 to 600,000 plants are growing in the greenhouses behind the Lititz-area store, says Jim Dostal, salesman and grower.

It takes a lot of work and time to grow these plants.

“People think they can grow them in a couple of weeks,” he says. “Sometimes it takes six months to grow a decent plant.”

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Jim Dostal is a grower and salesman at Esbenshade's Garden Centers.

The 2019 growing season started in these greenhouses last year. During our visit in early February, the operation was in full swing, with growers zipping around the greenhouses in golf carts. Trays of plants move down conveyor belts and machines transplant seedlings.

The heaviest planting period is from mid-February through the end of March, which gives the business enough time to have plants ready to ship to garden centers and chain stores in mid-April through late May.

Then come Easter plants, tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and lilies.

Next are the bedding plants, which usually go out through mid-June. Easter is late this year, which means Easter plants will crowd into the bedding plants’ time, Dostal says.

Poinsettia production starts in July and next are mums.

Creating a master schedule is all about organizing and managing space. Growing the plants combines science and art, Dostal says.

“We are scientists in terms of knowing how much strength of fertilizer and how we do different things that way,” he says. “But we’re also a bit of an artist, because we have to form those plants.”

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Janice Eberly moves trays of Dreams Burgundy petunias after a machine plants the tiny yellow seeds and then waters them.

About a third of the plants start in the seeding room.

Janice Eberly loads packets of Dreams Burgundy petunia seed into a machine that vacuums tiny yellow seeds and drops them into plug trays one at a time. The trays are misted with water and then loaded onto a rack.

“It amazes me by how quickly some stuff will come up,” Eberly says.

Onion seeds will sprout in just a few days. For other plants, it takes long enough for her to wonder if she turned on the seeding machine that day.

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The rest of the plants are grown from cuttings. In another room, workers plant stem cuttings of sweet potato vine into soil-filled plastic trays with a scannable label on the side. The trays roll down a conveyer belt and into a greenhouse set up for maximum rooting. Plants are misted from overhead.

When the plants are large enough, they go through the transplant machine. Needles inside four metal “fingers” reach into the tray, grasp the plugs and pull them into a 36-cell plastic tray.

Plant tags are pushed into the end of each six-pack.

The machine can transplant 3,600 flats in a day, one of the workers says.

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Unlike some of the larger greenhouses in the county, Esbenshade’s finishes many plants, growing them to full retail size.

Some plants are ready in weeks, like basil. Cyclamen, on the other hand, takes 10 months to be ready. The houseplant blooms in the dead of winter in shades of pink, white and red, making it worth the effort.

“They’re very small when we’re in our peak time,” Dostal says. “We like cyclamen because we can sell them in January and February, and there’s not a lot of stuff you can sell in January and February, plant-wise.”

Surrounded by tables filled with fully-grown cyclamen, Dostal looks around.

“We’re actually ready to start the next round,” he says.

And with that, the 2020 garden season begins.

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