I must admit I was rather taken aback by it all my first day. I was just looking for a job as my last one was wearing on my nerves. I liked gardening and thought, what the heck, let’s give it a shot. A quick Google search later, I found myself driving down the gravel driveway of an industrial greenhouse. I walked into a warehouse and saw young poinsettias as far as the eye could see. (You can guess what time of the year it was.) I filled out an application with the front office, but I was a little overwhelmed at the machinery, assembly lines, and pallets to the ceiling filled with pots, baskets, and more.
I certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was expecting a little, you know, mom-and-pop greenhouse, not an industrial grow center with acres of drip lines. Was I biting off more than I could chew?
I didn’t get much time to think it over, as I got a callback a few hours later, an interview the next week—and the following week had a new, full-time job (with benefits!).
They do things quickly at a commercial greenhouse.
My first day I was thrust headfirst into its fast-paced world. I moved pots, loaded rack after rack after rack of heuchera (coral bells), planted aloe, harvested false African violets for their pups—and just tried to not get in anyone’s way. Carts, forklifts, and racks flew by me at breakneck speed.
Shell-shocked, I seriously considered quitting. I felt out of my league, too small a fish for this very big pond. Everything I thought I knew about plants proved to be absolutely useless: a strong back and the ability to stand on your feet for hours at a time were the biggest assets you need in a greenhouse like this. They’ll teach you everything else.
All romantic notions of what a greenhouse should be were absolutely shattered. There were no big straw hats and sundresses. No little pink watering cans and tea while pinching petunias. No. I got steel-toed boots, Carhartts, mile-long hoses to lug, and more petunias to pinch than I could ever, ever want.
I hung with it for two reasons. The fact I didn’t like the prospect of starving, and the people.
But mostly the people.
The plants you see in the grocery or local garden center all have real people behind them. Let me share with you some of the faces behind the flowers.
Let’s start with myself.
Hi! I’m Ally. Former park naturalist, zoo educator, and occasional cat sitter. I’m now an Assistant Grower at a greenhouse (although I still have no idea why they hired me; my degree is in Zoology, after all). I’m in charge of the hanging baskets. I water, fertilize, drench them with fungicide, and sing to them when no one is looking—which is pretty often as I work in the very, very, very back of the greenhouse. A greenhouse so large, mind you, that a bike or a motorized cart is the best way to get from one end to the other.
Basically almost no one visits me. But that’s fine, since I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. Still, the fuchsia and geraniums are looking good, and the mixed pots are coming along.
One of the only visitors I get is the grower I’m assisting. His name is Pat. I like Pat. Pat has probably forgotten more things about plants than most people will ever learn. Pat told me that he wanted to work in a greenhouse since he was a little boy, and his mom would take him to garden centers. But Pat is getting older and more bow-legged and can’t do everything like he used to, which is why I’m here. He’s been with the company for over 40 years (and loving it) and still can outwork, out-water, out-plant, and out-walk (I feel like I have to trot to keep up with him.) just about anyone here.
Except Victor. Victor is in a class all his own.
Victor may be a whopping 5 feet-5 inches, but he casts a big shadow. Victor can plant an entire bench of 6.5-inch pots of geraniums all by himself in the same time it takes two other people. Victor can hang baskets above his head all day and then go pull pansy orders all night. He closes up all 64 quonsets with his four kids after-hours—a good dad teaching his kids good, honest, hard work.
Victor is also related to about half the people here. It’s a family business, after all. His brother Rosendo is the forklift man. He drives big pallets of our “compressed soil-less grow media” (we all call it dirt) into the dirt hopper all day to feed the assembly lines filling 4-inch pots for the benches out in quonset 8, one line doing 10-inch mono hanging baskets of New Guinea Impatiens and another line doing “Designer Selection” baskets. Other people can load dirt, but no one can do it with as little mess as Rosendo. It’s a niche.
Then there’s Juan, Victor’s brother-in-law. He’s the herb guy. He grows lavender, basil, and mint. He has a fascination with bugs and uses predatory mites to fight the aphids and thrips that eat his gerbera daisies. I helped him spread the mites once. We used a grass-seed spreader.
Juan is related to Jessica, who gets the luxury of having all her plants on benches. (I get the floor.) She is in charge of making sure all the plugs and plants we get from other growers end up in the right place. Which is a tall order since we get shipments almost daily on 10-foot-tall racks loaded with plug trays, each containing anywhere from 50-100 plants per tray. I’m always impressed that she doesn’t somehow get confused with everything coming and going, helter-skelter.
Helping Jessica are Marlene and Denise. Sisters, they have been doing this for years. Marlene is the label lady, making sure each and every one of the tens of thousands of plants gets a tag. Denise is a pro-pincher and groomer who makes sure everything looks good before it heads to market. Nothing escapes the eagle eyes of Denise and Marlene.
Once Jessica has figured out where the plants go, they’re put in pots on the benches or shunted to the lines and the line workers. The line workers plant baskets and large pots. First, Rosendo loads the hoppers with the grow media. It’s then fed to the various lines where Debbie sits on her perch loading the pot/basket du jour into the machine. The machine fills the pot with soil and then shoots it out where Susan and Araceli quickly plant the plugs into the pot. The pot travels a little farther down the conveyor, where Rick or Salvador is waiting to load them onto racks. If it’s a basket, the extra step of adding a hanger is met by Soledad and Bob whose deft hands fly from basket to basket, snapping the hangers into place before Rick or Salvador load them up. Once they’re loaded, Ty or Katelin or some other strong-backed young person (including myself) drives the loaded pots to their resting place in a quonset or the greenhouse, unloads them, and drives back for the next load. Like a finely tuned Swiss watch, each part meshes seamlessly with the next and the lines quickly tick over, cranking out thousands of pots a day.
After a few weeks of tender loving care by yours truly or one of the other growers, it’s time to pinch and pack the pots up onto the trucks. The truckers are part of the process, too.
There’s Cody, who helps hang baskets (Thank you, Cody.) when there isn’t a load to run. There’s Mark, who works on Jeeps in his spare time. There’s also Tony, whom nobody is really sure if he’s a handyman or a trucker, because he does both.
Speaking of handymen, this greenhouse wouldn’t run without them. From fixing pipes to jerry-rigging heaters in the middle of January so the ranunculus don’t freeze, they do it all. They also have the fun job of going swimming in the cistern when you drop something in. (Sorry, Mike.)
That is a brief smattering of the people behind your favorite annuals. Time fails me to tell about Sharon, AKA Edward Scissorhands, the best petunia pincher out there, Tito—who knows far more than he lets on—or even about Mocha and Daisy, the resident mousers and furry moral officers who make their daily rounds at lunch.
But after the trucker unloads your plants at your local nursery, our job ends. It’s a lot of hard and fast work to get those plants to market, but somehow we do it every day. From the grower in the back of the greenhouse to the high-school kid unloading racks in a quonset, there are many, many faces behind each flower, a person filling each pot.
Please remember that the next time you buy a potted plant. I know that from now on, I always will. ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #137.