It’s make-or-break season for area greenhouses and nurseries

Rachel Westmoreland trims succulents at Dutch’s Greenhouse.
Rachel Westmoreland trims succulents at Dutch’s Greenhouse. The Wichita Eagle

It’s mid-March and a sea of tiny green plants with white cards blanket the tables of Dutch’s Greenhouse in south Wichita.

The vibrant green and the warm, earthy atmosphere filling the greenhouse declare that spring has arrived, even as the outside world still seems uncertain.

Workers plant seeds or repot newborn plants, tending, watering and arranging them. It’s constant, busy work, but this is the time nurseries make their money.

Greenhouses and nurseries depend heavily on the awakening of the plants and the reawakening of people’s desire for them.

“Without spring, we wouldn’t be around,” said Frank DeRee, who runs the operation at 5043 S. Seneca with his brother, Jerry, and mother, Corry.

He estimates that 80 percent of his business is done between now and mid-June.

That’s a staggering percentage. It’s more than retailers at Christmas or flower shops at Valentine’s Day.

For Dutch’s, it means adding eight to 10 seasonal part-timers until Memorial Day to the full-time, year-round staff of seven, which includes the DeRee family members.

The season starts cranking up months earlier, in the second week of January, when the trucks start arriving from wholesaler greenhouses.

At one time, Frank DeRee said, the family had contemplated starting pop-up locations around the area like some other area greenhouses do, but decided against it.

Even in far south Wichita, their customers have no trouble finding them when the mood strikes.

“In the springtime, it’s all we can do to handle what we have,” he said.

Spring optimism

The owners of greenhouses and nurseries use their years of experience – and their best guesses – to make their orders.

The difference between a good year and a bad year, they said, comes down to two big factors: weather first and the economy second.

By weather, they mean a late snow or freeze that causes people to make trips later in the season or not at all.

It’s particularly important for greenhouses because of the impulse trip, DeRee said.

“Weather really plays into it,” he said. “If the weather’s bad, they might come two times instead of three or four.”

Greg McHenry, the second of three generations to run Hillside Nursery, 2200 S. Hillside, said nurseries are a little different because they focus on trees and shrubs, although there is plenty of overlap with greenhouses in the sale of plants and landscaping materials and equipment.

The business difference, he said, is that nurseries and garden centers tend to have little longer and more varied season. He estimates that 55 to 60 percent of the company’s sales occur between March and June.

McHenry said the economy has an impact on what they do, but it’s limited.

“We’ll get an idea about the economy, the ‘Boeing is pulling out’ sort of thing, but there is always optimism in the spring,” he said. “It’s a wonderful business to be in. People are usually upbeat.”

Grow your own

They agreed that the down economy had cut into some of their business, but it has also led to an increase in people growing their own vegetables and fruits.

Dail Hong of Hong’s Nursery, 8904 E. 31st St. South, said people are looking to save money, but it’s also the local food movement, with people wanting to know exactly what they are eating.

“You’ve seen the trend of grocery stores pushing organic food,” he said. “People like the idea, but it’s expensive. They see that and think, ‘We can do that at home.’ There is something very rewarding about growing your own food.”

The good news for local plant sellers is that both the weather and the economy seem to be good this year. Last weekend was stellar, and this weekend looks to be beautiful, as well – a good omen for the coming season, say the nursery and greenhouse owners.

Cathy Brady of Brady Nursery, 11200 W. Kellogg Drive, who estimated that maybe 65 percent of her business takes place in the crucial three months of spring, said last year was the best since the local economy plunged into recession in 2008.

This year already holds plenty of promise. Last weekend’s balmy weather brought out scads of shoppers.

“So far, this season is better than last year,” she said.

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or Follow him on Twitter: @danvoorhis.

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