Weld County, Colorado greenhouses blossom for spring gardening (video) | TheFencePost.com

Weld County, Colorado greenhouses blossom for spring gardening (video)

Kayla Young | Editor

Josh Montague describes his job as station manager at Bonnie Plants of Pierce as something similar to the reality television series "Deadliest Catch."

While Montague's day-to-day may not reach the intensity of crabbing on the Bering Sea, he operates under that same seasonal rush as deep sea fishermen, pushing through exhaustion to earn a year's living in a short time window.

With spring here, so is the greenhouse season. Colorado's $108 million gardening and bedded plant industry has been toiling away since February to have flowers, vegetables, herbs and small fruits ready for home planting and patios. The 2012 Census of Agriculture estimates Colorado's entire floriculture industry to be worth $124 million.

"We work, work, work just to keep up," said Montague, who labors February to July to produce and market ready-to-plant herbs and vegetables.

On a snowy spring day, the 39 greenhouses in this north Weld County community offered a heated retreat from the cold and a reminder that warmer days, fit for gardening, await.

Workers busied themselves preparing rosemary, sweet mint, basil, strawberries and tomatoes for sale at both small mom-and-pop shops and national retailers like Walmart and Home Depot.

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"Because we're a nationwide company, a lot of people think these plants are shipped in from Alabama, when actually they are grown at stations all over the country locally," Montague said, referring to the company's headquarters in Union Springs, Ala.

The approximately 250 plant varieties grown at Bonnie Plants have already reached retailer shelves in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota.

While Montague does not have a formal horticulture background, he knows his plants well, stopping occasionally as he walked the grounds to point out tidbits.

"One thing a lot of people don't know about herbs," he started to say, as he rubbed two fingers on a chocolate mint leaf. Rather than smelling the plant directly, he explained this is the trick to extract the herb's true aroma and judge its quality.

Finding success as a gardener comes down to these little bits of knowledge, Montague explained.

"A lot of people say they don't have a green thumb," Montague said. "They really do, but they love their plants too much."

Overwatering is often the culprit behind failed gardens, he said.

In his own garden, Montague stays true to his southern roots in Alabama, growing collard greens and cabbage to serve with ham hocks.

For less confident gardeners, he showed off the company's hanging tomato baskets, ready for patios or apartment balconies. One vine already had a small, green tomato forming.

"That's what I call 'instant gratification,' " he said.

The "instant" aspect of the greenhouse industry has become increasingly important for wholesale suppliers, said Bart Olson, owner of Olson's Greenhouses in south Weld County.

The Utah-based company expanded into Colorado last year, taking on 34 acres of greenhouse production space in Fort Lupton, once operated by Color Star Growers.

When Olson took over the family business in the 1970s, he could send his flowers to retailers before the plants had formed buds. Now, his plants must have color before hitting the shelves.

"Color sells," he said.

The time needed to produce healthy, colorful plants has increased input costs, as the plants must sit in the heated greenhouses for longer periods of time.

Changes in the industry have also brought opportunity, however.

"We're not getting rich, but we provide a decent living," Olson said. "I don't regret getting up to go to work in the morning."

His five children have also found fruit in floriculture. Olson's two sons and three son-in-laws all work for the company.

The now year-round nature of his business and the high product flow at peak times means Olson needs as many helping hands as possible. From February to July, Olson's Greenhouses keeps busy with bedding plants, such as primroses. From August to October, garden mums drive sales, and in November and December, poinsettias are the name of the game.

At one time, Olson recalls working with around 30 items. He now manages around 500, pointing to industry innovation and consumer demand for variety.

Even for small-scale greenhouse operations like family-run Windsor Gardener, variety and niche products have helped drive business as well.

Much like larger wholesale operations, the Windsor retail shop specializes in hanging flower baskets.

Amanda Weakland, who co-owns the business with her husband Pat, said designing the hanging baskets is a highlight for her.

"I just love doing the mixes, coming up with different things and seeing how they'll progress throughout the year and what works," Weakland said.

Windsor Gardener is more than hanging baskets and flowers, however. As a small, purely local operation, the business has been able to tap into two of Colorado's hottest industries: craft beer and hemp.

In the back of the retail shop, around a dozen hemp plants are being grown for seed and occasionally a special batch of hemp beer, brewed for the Weaklands' other business, High Hops.

The beer business occupies one of two greenhouses, where over 50 varieties of hops are available for sale nationwide to small hop yards and home brewers.

"It's growing gangbusters," Weakland said of their hops sales.

With the right timing, customers have the opportunity to enjoy the best of both of the Weaklands' businesses.

The dealmaker for many garden shoppers is the beer, Weakland said. When the shop runs joint specials between Windsor Gardener and High Hops, it can be hard to turn down a hanging basket that comes with a free pint. ❖

Colorado greenhouses

The Colorado Department of Agriculture does not maintain complete data on all greenhouses operated in the state. It does, however, maintain data on facilities inspected for export. In Weld County, 1.2 million square feet of greenhouse production is inspected by CDA, while nearly 5 million square feet are inspected statewide.

Source: Colorado Department of Agriculture

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Homegrown with Bonnie Plants

Bonnie Plants of Pierce now offers a free gardening app, called Homegrown, compatible with iPhones. The app provides a 10-day weather forecast, variety information, growing guides, notekeeping and photo options, and watering reminders.