By Matt Reese
The love of growing plants is at the root of a growing business in Fairfield County.
“Whether it is corn, soybeans, or tomatoes, I love to grow things,” said Jason England, who owns and operates NightCrawler Gardens in Fairfield County with his wife, Sheri. “I just like sowing seeds and watching them come up.”
England grew up in Fairfield County growing strawberries on his family’s small farm and his love of plants led him to study plant biology at Ohio University in Athens. There he met his future wife Sheri, an artist, who found she had a knack for arranging the flowers that England loved to grow.
NightCrawler Gardens started with the young couple renting four acres for the production of field grown fresh-cut flowers near his parents’ home back in Fairfield County in the mid-1990s. They would make the trip up from Athens after classes on Friday to pick the flowers in the glow of their headlights to sell at the Worthington Farmers Market the next morning. The late-night flower picking inspired the farm name.
After college, they rented 10 acres to expand their production while each working off-farm jobs. They eventually were able to add the greenhouse and retail location at his parents’ home near Pleasantville.
They still sell cut flowers at the Worthington Farmers Market, but vegetable plants, hanging baskets and chrysanthemums have become the staples of the business since the addition of the greenhouse.
“The reason we went into flowers at first was because they offered the highest value for our resources when we started, which was mostly just sweat,” England said. “Flowers have remained pretty stable in price since then, but the vegetables have gone up quite a bit.”
Now spring sales are about half tomatoes, peppers and other vegetable plants and half flowers and hanging baskets, with some perennial sales.
“In April, the retail opens and by May 1, we have everything ready to go. May is our busiest time. Mother’s Day and Memorial Day are like our Black Friday,” he said. “The challenge is that this is also when we need to be working in the fields. And, if it is dry, we are busy with sales and I can’t always get in the fields. When it’s rainy, we aren’t as busy, but it is too wet to work.”
And this spring, with all of the rain, presented numerous challenges.
“We had the worst April ever this year, including our first year,” he said. “All of the rain really hurt us. June was pretty good, though, because so many people were so far behind.”
By July and August, the retail business really drops off. In fact, this year, the retail shop is only open by appointment through the summer.
“It is just not worth the time we spend sitting here with slow business when we need to be working on other things,” England said.
Typically in the summer months, they focus on their field production of fresh cut flowers and their own vegetable gardens. Sheri, who is a middle school art teacher, does flower arrangements for weddings and other events. This year’s soggy spring, though, left little time to get the flowers started. Instead, they are hoping to tile their home farm in Millersport for more cooperative spring conditions in the future.
Whether in the greenhouse or in the field, England makes every effort to work with nature, rather than against it.
“I am not organically certified, and I will spray if I have to, but I am a big proponent of nature taking care of things,” he said.
In the greenhouse, he uses a symbiotic fungus to combat root rots in his plants and an interesting combination of bird-cherry/oat aphids and parasitic wasps to control pests.
“The bird-cherry aphid loves wheat and other grasses, so I get a little bit of wheat or barley and bring some of the aphids in. They reproduce like crazy and a few days later, I bring in parasitic wasps that reproduce on the aphids and then they clean up all of the other pests,” he said. “When you do not have to spray, other beneficial can come in and help too.”
In the field-production of the field-cut flowers, England uses corn-based biodegradable plastic mulch for weed control.
“The plastic mulch costs quite a bit more, but it works great and you do not have to deal with pulling it up and getting rid of it,” he said.
He has fortunately not had much trouble with diseases in the field, but if he does run into fungus problems on his pumpkin crop, he has found that a solution of 10% milk and 90% water works as well as commercial fungicides. He also has found certain varieties of pumpkins attract the bulk of the pests, so he plants those varieties on the perimeter and plants extras to avoid spraying insecticides, saving quite a bit of money in the process.
With his careful Integrated Pest Management approach, he is very judicious about monitoring his crops, particularly in the greenhouse.
“That is why the hardest part for me to give up to someone else is the watering. That is my inspection time,” he said. “You’d think that would be the easiest to let someone else do, but to me watering is the most important thing. That is when you can see if there is something wrong with the plants. And, you can very easily kill a young plant with water. I really watch the growth rate, the color and the appearance of all of the plants. You can tell when there is something wrong, and then I will start testing to determine the problem.”
Fertility management is also very important in the greenhouse, particularly when there are hundreds of different species of plants being grown with different nutrient requirements. For convenience and efficiency, customized amounts of slow release fertilizer are added to the soil for plants that need more nutrients so a uniform amount of fertilizer can be applied in the water through the growing season. An acid solution is injected into the soil for the acid loving plants.
The attention to detail and a reputation for high quality, healthy plants brings customers back in the fall when the small farm will sell around 5,000 chrysanthemums.
“And while people are here for the mums, they buy pumpkins and other fall items,” England said. “I grow the mums here further apart than most larger commercial operations. Our customers love our mums because they have a more mounded look than the plants that are more crowded and forced to grow up to compete for light.”
The whole family — including both sets of parents -— pitches in to help with the growing business. NightCrawler Gardens also gets help from volunteers in the community who enjoy getting their hands dirty. The toughest part, England says, is the marketing and getting the word out about the business. Word of mouth has been great, but advertising efforts have been lackluster. They send out regular e-mail updates about the farm and have an extensive Web site (managed by England’s mother), but it is often hard to keep up to date amid all of the other demands on the farm.
For more about the farm, visit http://nightcrawlergardens.com.