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Local greenhouses survive winter blast, spring into new season

The first few plants can be seen in a seeding tray at Cedar River Garden Center in Palo on Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The first few plants can be seen in a seeding tray at Cedar River Garden Center in Palo on Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Winter was tough of Eastern Iowans this year.

Those working in local garden centers know this all too well. They spent the first part of 2019 working overtime to ensure their greenhouses will be filled with beautiful plants ready for spring.

“The overall feeling is that no matter what is happening with temperatures outside, we have to continue to plant to have material ready by our peak season,” said Heather Sage, manager and landscape designer at Cedar River Garden Center in Palo.

“Our plants and hanging baskets have to be at their best by peak season at the beginning of May, no matter what,” she added.

“So we were seeding and plugging away even with the chilly weather. We had our first seeding of 23,000 veggie and flower seeds finished a couple weeks ago.”

They maintained their typical staffing levels but had to work quickly and creatively to prep and maintain inventory. The especially cold temperatures challenged greenhouse crews.

“As you can imagine, we were running out of room because we were delaying heating all 11 of our greenhouses due to cost,” said Sage. “Our first round of 790 hanging baskets and combo pots, the veggie and flower plugs, and around 1,000 perennial pots are snuggling in tight until the weather warms to heat the houses.

“We went from typically having five greenhouses up and running to three for a period of time, making quarters quite tight.”

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She noted that during extremely cold temperatures, the owners would wake up multiple times a night to check to make sure all the heaters were keeping up with the below-zero temperatures.

Subzero temperatures made the start to 2019 tough on the team at Culvers Garden Center and Greenhouse in Marion as well.

“This if the first year we had to get out kerosene heaters to do supplemental heating,” recalled Joan Garner, retail greenhouse manager at Culvers Garden Center. “But you can’t just place them anywhere in the greenhouse because if the heat blows too hot in one spot it may burn the plants.

“There’s a lot that goes into managing them and being safe with them. That was different for us this year.”

Garner noted it was a challenge getting staff on-site.

“Some of us live 30 or 40 miles out from the store,” she said. “So there were numerous days where we couldn’t even get the staff here to do the planting. This was part of the delay in January and early February.”

Travel also was a concern in getting shipments to the garden center.

“We grow all our own plants here and we started January 3rd,” Garner explained. “We get plugs in and a lot of those come from the East Coast and the South, and they have to be shipped.

“But those plants can’t survive the extreme cold that we had. If FedEx couldn’t guarantee that they could get them here, then the nurseries wouldn’t release them.” One delivery was frozen on the highway in minus-30-degree weather for hours.

“There were days we were trying to track down our plants to see if we could go get them ourselves instead of waiting for them to be delivered. Even a four- to five-hour delivery time frame can make a big difference in whether the plants survive,” she said.

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“Shipping was a nightmare this year across the country,” Sage said. “Storms everywhere were backing up our gift items and plant deliveries, so we fell behind in yard art and perennials.

“Typically we have the bulk of our gift space set up by mid-March. We were missing so many vendors that we were having to drag our feet for displays. We had to play catch up once the weather mellowed out.”

But even though the weather has warmed, experts note we aren’t in the clear just yet.

“We are still catching up even though it’s the end of March,” Garner said. “We are still waiting on some nurseries to get us plants. We have to double up on our planting some days, but we are getting close to being all caught up which is good because our Spring Open House is April 26th through the 28th.”

And garden centers staff wants to make sure customers are planning ahead.

“Every year we have people who are purchasing plants in March. We just remind them to gingerly care for the plants until warmer weather comes,” Garner said, noting they encourage customers to acclimate the plants by putting them outside when temperatures allow during the day, and bringing them in for protection at night. “If we can, we convince them to wait a bit and let us baby-sit them until temperatures even out a bit more.”

But local garden center staff are just as eager to see those shoppers as the shoppers are to be out and surrounded by plants.

“The minute the sun shines we can see our parking lot fill within minutes,” Garner said. “Our greenhouses are always heated, about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than it is outside. We are blessed with lots of plants here so when you step into our greenhouse it’s just a mass of color and a beautiful respite for people who have seen nothing but brown and ice and snow.”

“We are always thankful and excited to be back,” agreed Sage of her team at Cedar River Garden Center. “Working in the soil, the fresh smell from the plants, and the warmth from the greenhouses is always exciting. Customers come in just to see life even though it’s too soon to truly start planting. We are constantly hearing, ‘We are glad you are finally open’ and ‘We just needed to come in and see something green!’”

Cedar River Garden Center, which first opened in 1985, is open for the season and will start weekend hours on April 13.

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“A warm spring allows for customers to come in as they please without pressure,” Sage said. “When it stays cold and snowy, everyone is forced to come in at the same time once it warms. This makes keeping an ample amount of our ordered plant stock a little more challenging.”

It also can mean more delivery trucks and higher labor costs in a short amount of time, she said.

Staff at both garden centers agreed there wasn’t much to be gained from a winter such as the most recent one.

“It was a headache with shipping, heating costs, making sure equipment was working properly and adjusting for space issues,” Sage said.

“Everyone is excited that winter is over,” Garner agreed, “and we hope that we never have another one like it.”

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