Poinsettias brighten greenhouses and homes for the holidays

Jerry Dill holds one of the 500 cultivars of poinsettias available in his Franklin County greenhouse.

For those that travel U.S. Route 33 on the southeast side of Columbus, Dill’s Greenhouse has been a landmark for decades with a big sign, a full parking lot and a reputation for quality nursery, garden and landscaping plants. And, this time of year, they are known for the red glow emanating from the 15,000 poinsettias filling the greenhouse.

“The only thing prettier than a greenhouse full of poinsettias is an empty one at Christmas,” said Jerry Dill, owner of Dill’s Greenhouse in Franklin County. “Poinsettias are one last push for the year before a nice break for us from after Christmas to around Jan. 15 or so when we start to get pretty busy again.”

Dill’s poinsettias range from 4-inch to 14-inch pots and there are around 50 different cultivars for customers to choose from, ranging from a standard red to pink and other novelty colors.

“Around 60% of our poinsettias are red and 40% are the novelty plants, and that is probably high compared to what most people sell,” Dill said. “We have more customers looking for that kind of thing. If people just want a red poinsettia, they do not have to come to Dill’s. They can find a red poinsettia anywhere.”

Dill’s was established in 1983 in what was a former greenhouse facility with 13,000 square feet of space. The original four greenhouses that were built in 1923 have since been replaced with modern metal greenhouses. Dill’s has increased production and the retail areas to 10 acres that produce 500 varieties of perennials, 80 varieties of herbs, vegetables, and nursery plants. Dill’s also offers a wide selection of gardening books, fertilizers, landscaping, and delivery. The business has around 40 employees.

The poinsettia plants are all started from rooted cuttings in August.

“The first couple of days after potting, you have to keep a close eye on them. You have got to give them enough space to grow and we give them 250 parts per million of a fertilizer mix in the water right from the start,” Dill said. “We typically do a fungicide application and a granular insecticide in September to control white flies.“

The temperature is also important for production of the holiday favorite.

“The plants need a 70-degree nighttime temperature from September on and around 75-degrees during the day,” Dill said. “Right before they are sold, we drop the nighttime temperature to 58 or 60 degrees to hold up the plants and toughen them up for the consumer.”

If they have too much water, poinsettias are susceptible to root rot.

“You should soak the poinsettias every 5 to 7 days and not water them again until they are dry,” Dill said. “Many times, the poinsettias are sold in those plastic sleeves that do not let extra water get away. You should take the plant out of the sleeve to water it.”

Avoiding light at night is also important for the plants to develop their characteristic bold colors.

“The plants bloom on short days based on photoperiod,” Dill said. “Any light at night keeps them green. Even just a few minute of light interrupts them. We used to have a pop machine at the edge of the greenhouse and that year there was a semi-circle of green plants around the machine because of the light it gave off at night.”

Dill’ is always looking for new cultivars to try and has often been one of the sites in Ohio to participate in the Ohio Floriculture Association and Ohio State University poinsettia trails. Consumers evaluate the different cultivars in the trials and rate them based on what they like and what they would purchase.

The poinsettia market for Dill’s is a little different than many greenhouses because only 25% to 30% of the plants are sold retail. A big part of Dill’s poinsettia business is selling to schools and other groups for fundraisers. Dill’s also sells to florists, interior decorators and other businesses.

“Poinsettia sales have been steady for us, but there are a lot of growers in the area that have stopped selling them,” Dill said. “The fund raisers have really helped maintain sales for poinsettias.”

The poinsettia deliveries and shipments start going out in mid-November and the retail business picks up through mid December.

“Then sales slow down for a few days and pick up again right before Christmas with all of the last minute shoppers,” Dill said.

At the peak of Dill’s poinsettia business, they sold 20,000 poinsettias a year, but today’s higher costs and tougher economy has the business playing things on the conservative side.

“We just can’t afford to get stuck with plants that didn’t sell,” he said. “In the past we have been aggressive with production and marketing, but we feel like we need to be more conservative now.”

In addition, more of the larger retail stores have been using low-cost poinsettias to draw customers into stores and are offering more competition to greenhouses like Dill’s. And, the economy has added some challenges to an already challenged greenhouse and nursery industry as a whole. In recent years, sales have remained strong, but the economy is having an impact this year, Dill said.

“I think the weather always affects us more than anything, but the economy has started to affect us too,” he said. “The slowed home building industry has slowed our landscaping business and the sales of trees and shrubs. But I still think that bad weather that is not good for gardening hurts us more.”

May is a crucial month for Dill’s and the soggy weather throughout the month hurt the business this year.

“Trying to recover from a rainy May is hard for us to do,” Dill said. “We can recover from just about anything else but a rainy May is tough. If the weather is nice, people will get their mother a nice plant for Mother’s Day. If the weather is bad, they take her out to dinner and we lose those dollars.”

But, whether dealing with gardeners in May or holiday shoppers looking for the perfect poinsettia, Dill loves working with his dedicated customer base.

“We get to deal with many of the same people every year,” he said. “In this business, we live for May, but this time of year is nice because it is a little slower and we have time to enjoy it a little more.”

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