The drab colors of the very long winter are finally starting to yield to the pleasing pastels of spring. Now that Mother Nature is finally providing the warmer temperatures and spring rains, the McClish family is proud to work with the good Lord to help supply the color through McClish’s Plants Plus Greenhouses.
Since Brent and Nancy started dating after he needed help typing up his American FFA Degree application, Nancy has brought color to their lives, starting with her green thumb. Both were farm kids, and Nancy had shown ample plant aptitude in her work at a greenhouse. The couple decided to test the waters of horticulture on their own in 1985 when they built a small pole structure for a sales area and a plastic covered greenhouse just outside of Washington Court House in Fayette County.
“I was raised on a farm and I just like dirt,” Nancy said. “I like to plant and grow stuff.”
Along with her work with the plants, Nancy also watches the trends and customer preference from year to year to anticipate what their growing customer base will want in terms of plant types, varieties and colors.
“We try to grow what people will want,” she said. “If you watch, you can just tell when it will be a red year or a yellow year or a pink year. You have to watch the trends to see what people will gravitate too.”
Nancy has also watched as their customers have shifted to favoring pots and pre-arranged display baskets over flats.
“People used to want plants and would plant them in the ground themselves. Now they want more containers that have already been done,” she said. “Wave petunias, geraniums and the potted material and large pre-filled containers are the big items now. We are selling fewer flats than we used to. The vegetable sales have increased too with everyone wanting to know where their food is coming from. I don’t know whether that novelty will wear off with that trend or if it will continue.”
The greenhouse retail season is from the first day of spring in late March through mid-July before the hottest days of the summer and the county fair. This allows them to work on the family grain operation as well.
“As soon as we get done with the season we are working on placing our orders for the next year. We depend on our salesmen a lot to learn about what is good and what is popular,” Nancy said.
“It is kind of like buying seed corn,” Brent said. “You try a little of something new, then we get feedback on it and by the time we are used to working with it the seed company is ready to move on to something else.”
While Nancy is focused on the plants and the trends, Brent dedicates himself to the minutia of efficiently producing hundreds of different types of plants with a focus on high quality and production efficiency. The business offers annuals, perennials, vegetables and some landscaping trees.
“We are a big, small grower. The big guys can beat us on price and we can beat them on quality,” Brent said. “We focus on doing a lot of little things to maintain the quality of our plants and we can offer a wide variety of plants.”
Many of the production details involve the mind-spinning management that starts in the winter months to get the hundreds of the right plants of the right color ready for right customers at the right time in the retail season.
The plants are started from seeds, plugs or cuttings in late January. Then the winter weather dictates how they should be managed.
“Sunlight during the winter is a big issue with preparing the plants. If there is a lot of sunlight the plants are further along, and if there is not they are behind,” Brent said. “We stagger the plantings and can manipulate the temperature, but that can be hard to control.”
Water, fertility, pest and disease control, sunlight, planting time, plant variety, and numerous other factors go into the complex management formula for high quality, properly timed plants that has taken years to perfect.
“We have hundreds of different crops we have to keep happy at the same time. Juggling all of those different needs can be tough,” Brent said. “I like the challenge of trying to grow them better this year than we ever have.”
Water is a key component of quality plants.
“We have done improvements over the years with water quality. Our water was too high in pH with too much alkalinity,” Brent said. “We have amended that. But then there are some plants that like a little more alkalinity.”
Water can also be a source of disease that reduces quality so Brent uses a system of troughs in three of the houses that use gravity fed water running under the plant pots with holes in the bottom. By watering from the bottom up with sub irrigation, the plants are much healthier because the foliage never gets wet. He also uses misters and extensive hand watering in other areas.
In terms of the diverse fertility needs of the different plants at different stages of development, Brent employs a system of two lines running through each greenhouse — one line with a general fertility mix and one line with just water that can be custom blended based on specific plant needs.
“We can feed the crop accordingly for different fertilizer mixes or give them more or less if we are trying to push the plants or not,” Brent said. “Then there are the geraniums that need different fertility than the rest of the plants.”
Biological controls are the preferred method for insect and weed control in the greenhouses.
“Spray wise, we are getting more effective control with some of these biological sprays. It is a different school of thought. With the biological products we have to do more preventative sprays and we need to spray more than we do that with the synthetics that can develop resistance. We still use the big guns when we need them but we are moving more to biological sprays and our retail customers like to hear that,” Brent said. “Pests are not a huge problem. We try to do a good job of keeping the greenhouses free of weeds and that helps reduce the pests and we don’t have many pest problems.”
The plants grow from their staggered starts through March in the seven McClish greenhouses totaling an acre in preparation for the opening day. Business starts slow as winter winds down but picks up quickly with warmer weather.
“We shoot for having most of the first plants ready by the end of April and we have been pretty fortunate in having things ready at the right time,” Nancy said.
Once they get into their busy sales season the Brent, Nancy, their children, and their seasonal staff shift into retail mode from production mode. This is where their most recent major addition shines.
In the fall of 2004, concrete was poured for a beautiful new glass greenhouse facility with vented tops and sides to facilitate customer comfort and turn the operation into a “destination greenhouse” for shoppers from all around the region.
“We don’t need that to grow the plants, but the glass and the concrete are better for sales. Customers have a comfortable place to be and they stay longer now. You can just watch people shift down a gear as they walk in and it really creates a community atmosphere. That was a big thing when we built this,” Brent said. “We wanted air flow to keep this cool and pleasant for customers. We can keep it to within a degree of the temperature outside. That glass house is like our combine in farming terms. It is our harvesting equipment. We want to be a unique destination greenhouse and that is what we have catered to.”
“We had grown every year and we flattened out there for about three years with the slower economy but those were bad years for weather too. Last year was our biggest year ever by far. Last year showed us that there is still potential for growth.”
And that potential always picks up on sunny weekends in the warming spring that inspires customers to seek out the beautiful brand of color that the McClish family so painstakingly, carefully and lovingly supplies.