When you look at the rows of bright red geraniums, lush green herbs and colorful hanging baskets packed into the sprawling greenhouses at Landon’s Greenhouse & Nursery, it’s easy to forget that those plants didn’t just grow themselves or show up on the back of a semi-truck.
Instead, more than 75 percent of their plant inventory is grown four miles down the road in one of their seven off-site greenhouses. For the last several months, a team of workers led by Marlene Aitchison have been busy planting seeds, punching seedlings and watering each plant by hand.
This is what co-owners Keith and Jennifer Kershaw think sets Landon’s apart. They take their promise of quality seriously and won’t sell anything they wouldn’t buy themselves.
“We’re a dying breed,” Keith said, noting that most commercial greenhouses buy their plants right off a truck. And he would know. Prior to moving back to Sheridan in 2012, Keith and Jennifer had worked for a wholesale grower in McMinnville, Oregon. One of the customers they shipped to each season was Landon’s, which is how they had formed a good working relationship with them and heard about the business opportunity. The Kershaws bought shares of Landon’s in 2014, becoming partners with the current owners Phil Gilmore and Janelle Gray, ultimately bringing their family back to Keith’s hometown.
“We like growing our own plants, so we can control the quality and get the size we’re looking for,” Jennifer said. “If something is not up to our standards, it doesn’t end up on our benches.”
What the Kershaws don’t mention is the painstakingly detailed and meticulous work that growing plants and vegetables entails on a commercial level.
Enter Production Coordinator Marlene Aitchison and her binders. She keeps the operation on schedule and moving along. There are years and countless hours of experimentation and trial and error dating all the way back to founders, Jack and Kathy Landon. Details about planting dates, weather, temperatures and watering schedules are only the tip of the iceberg. And somehow, Marlene manages to coordinate all of these facets into a working operation that begins in the “Head House,” which looks a lot like a science lab comingled with heavy equipment.
Today, April 1, Alicia Bretzman is counting petunia seeds in a vacuumed seeder. Alicia shakes the screen gently as the seeds fall into their respective holes like marbles into a Mancala board.
While most novice gardeners would just plop a handful of seeds in the ground and call it good, not thinking about the price or value, at Landon’s, seeds are a valued commodity that are carefully counted, and in many cases, harvested from year’s past. On the wall beside her, rows and rows of concentrated, frozen juice cylinders are full of colorful ID tags and seeds for hundreds of plants and vegetables.
“Jack Landon must have drank a lot of orange juice,” Marlene laughed.
Once the seeds are counted, Alicia carefully flips the tray over and the seeds fall into the soil, and from there they move along to the next station. After sprouting, they are punched into tiny squares of soil that go into the plastic flats that will go into another greenhouse to grow.
At the station, Evelyn Lemley leads a crew of transplanting ladies that take the more fragile sprouts and hand plant them into larger containers to grow. It’s tedious work that requires tiny scalpel-type instruments and blue plastic gloves as they carefully handle each plant.
Marlene works from Excel schedule pages that have been put together over the years by Janelle Gray that include dates, quantities, watering practices and fertilization programs. Laminated legends with locations for each plant and flower type hang on the wall of each greenhouse as the staff works through the growing season and heads into the busy months.
Right now, they are in the beginning stages of relocating all seven greenhouses to the main site with the nursery and storefront to help improve efficiency and operations.
Recently, they offered a workshop at the growing facility – one of many free classes and workshops they offer to their customers – in which a handful of their patrons planted their own hanging flower baskets. The Landon’s staff will care for them until the third week in May, when the customers can pick up their finished products. As Jennifer points out, most folks are amazed at how much work goes on behind the scenes at their off-site greenhouses.
“We work backwards,” Marlene said. For example, for Mother’s Day they need hundreds of hanging baskets, so they started planting in February. In the baskets, flowers are grown, groomed and perfected so that they will be ready to sell by the first week of May. All of this is built into the schedule as well as directions for planting the baskets and diagrams of which plant goes where in the various arrangements.
It’s a bit mind-blowing for novice gardeners, many of whom just buy the plants off of the benches in the greenhouse not knowing the journey it took them to get there.
And again, it’s this type of quality and ownership that the Kershaws believe makes Landon’s such a unique nursery and garden center. That and the fact that this quality extends to all arms of the business, from the plants to the employees to all the merchandise they carry.
“We send our employees to trainings and our buyers go to trade shows each year,” Jennifer said, “so they can touch and see the merchandise in person to assure quality.”
“We’re very proud of it,” Keith said, of all the operations at Landon’s as well as their commitment to quality, which goes a long way with their customers.
By: Jen C. Kocher
Photos: Adam D. Ritterbush