Saturday, January 23, 2021

Recalibrating

Find out what you can learn at M R Gardens as an advanced greenhouse grower/landscape designer


Like all businesses, M R Gardens is recalibrating after all the changes of 2020, adjusting our plans accordingly. Thankfully everything still seems to be headed in a promising direction (knock on wood). That said, we’re adjusting a previously advertised opportunity to better reflect developments that happened in the last year as we take steps to turn the farm into a robust resource for the community.

 

The greenhouse operator/landscape designer training was originally created for all experience levels. That has not changed—if you’re nearly a beginner but have a green thumb and match the description, please don’t hesitate to apply. We are leaving that advertisement as-is because we might return to a beginner level training in the future.

 

That said, the applicant that is most likely appropriate at this time is someone who already has a fair amount of experience coordinating a small greenhouse operation. It helps if you also have a bit of landscape design experience. Currently we are primarily focused on 250 square foot (or less) designs for clients who need help arranging plants from our nursery. We can show you how to do so regardless of your design experience as long as you are very familiar with how all plants have unique needs—such as room to grow, soil preferences, adequate sun exposure—as well as aesthetic elements.

 

Sochan with ferns.
Photos on this page taken at M R Gardens by Vickie Burick Photography

We originally designed this training to be one to two years, but with an advanced grower we can shorten that length of time and move quickly into an income-producing position. Also, we expect more people to be a part of the farm, so you may have flexibility to switch your involvement to other parts of this diverse business as it suits you over time. The main requirement right now is the ability to coordinate lots of details and a diverse set of people.

 

The greenhouse operator/landscape design training is an excellent opportunity for an advanced grower, and we’ll attempt to explain why here. Our nursery is quite unique. (If you’re a novice grower, bear with us as we nerd-out on a bunch of propagation jargon here…)

 

First and foremost is our passive solar greenhouse. As far as we know, no other commercial plant nursery uses a passive solar design quite like ours. (Feel free to correct us if you know of others). Similar greenhouses exist, but usually they are backyard hobby greenhouses or propagation houses for small vegetable farms. That’s another model than a commercial nursery. Growing native perennials and other plants nearly year-round to sell to landscape design clients and other customers is an entirely different undertaking.

 


Why did we choose this design? The main reason why Megan (M R Gardens Owner) got into farming in 2001 was to create sustainable systems. She didn't have any interest in building a greenhouse with significant healing and cooling requirements. So she researched passive solar designs for years, and when the opportunity arose for her to build one in 2015, she went for it.

 

What she found is that the greenhouse is not only fossil fuel-free, but it also produces high quality plants. Our customers repeatedly tell us how well the plants do in their gardens. Certainly there’s been quite a bit of trial and error over the years determining which plants grow best in the unique environment of a passive solar design. But the following factors seem to contribute:

  • A ton of light streams in from south-facing windows, bouncing off the white rear and side walls and onto the plants. The greenhouse also has pockets of shade, where we can place plants that are more sensitive to light.
  • The heat radiating from the water barrels is good for root growth, especially if the trays sit on top of the barrels. Typically the overnight temps in the greenhouse do not drop below 50F—except on the rare occasion when it falls below 10F outside and the previous day was cloudy, resulting in less heat capture. Even then, the greenhouse stays above 40F, which is fine for native perennials and early spring vegetable starts. By April when we seed tomato starts, which only take five weeks to grow to planting size in this greenhouse, it rarely drops below 55F inside and easily rises to 80F on sunny days. We’ve learned to negotiate the needs of our various plants, placing our native flowers, which mostly prefer a max temp of 60-70F, in cooler microclimates within the greenhouse.
  • The plants get a break from the intense heat and light because the structure is designed so that they are not getting direct sun prior to 9 a.m. and after 4 p.m. (or a bit earlier/later depending on the month). In general, the residential-style construction promotes a less harsh environment than the typical hoophouse.

  • We hand water. At this point, the nursery has not expanded to the point where a mister is needed, and we propagate almost all plants by seed, which don’t require continual irrigation like cuttings do. (Growing from seed means increased genetic diversity in the ecosystem, and an opportunity to create unique selections). Believe it or not, hand watering usually only takes us 30 minutes each day, except in peak season (March to May) when it might take an hour a day, and only if it’s sunny. Making sure each plant is getting just the right amount of water when they are less than two months old is absolutely key for optimal root growth, and correspondingly healthy plants. Meanwhile, we can easily monitor for disease or other issues as we carefully look at the conditions of every plant as we water. That leads to a high success rate. We typically don’t have much loss as long as we’ve grown the species more than once or twice, as experimentation is always needed when trying a new variety.
  • Humidity typically remains well under 50 percent unless we’ve had an unusually rainy week. That means disease pressure is low and easy to catch. If a certain species prefers higher humidity, we can move it into another structure during the day, such as our unheated hoophouse that remains quite humid.

Beyond the greenhouse design, our entire nursery is created around a sustainable model. We use peat-fee potting soils made with renewable materials (often byproducts of other manufacturing processes). We also encourage customers to wash plastic plant containers and return them so we can sanitize and reuse them.

 

Being sustainable is not just about using as few nonrenewable resources as possible, but also about educating customers so they have high success rates. We offer garden coaching and are generous with our gardening tips on plant sale days. We encourage landscape designs so that customers plan ahead and tell us ahead of the season what they need.

 

We can serve landscape designers who have large installs because our turn-around time is fairly quick, even for natives, which are often slow-growing. It’s possible to have well-developed, strong, deep plugs or quart containers ready within three to six months. Growing a tray of 50 deep plugs of one species for a client is usually no problem, depending on the plant’s germination rate.

 

Another crucial element of our business is that we put a tremendous amount of care into our plants, customers and helpers. Throughout the last 10 years of slow growth, the enterprise has remained manageable so that it never becomes a burden—it’s never boring, and only minimally stressful. In fact, the meditative work is often rejuvenating. It is possible to run a successful business and keep the stress minimal if the grower has a high level of skill—in both propagation and management.

 


Our goal is to keep this work enjoyable—even as the nursery grows—because we believe this care transfers to the plants and to the customers. No doubt, there will be stressful days. Thankfully most of our customers are exceptionally understanding of how difficult it is to run a small farm and forgive a tad bit of crankiness on our busiest days.

 

So what do we need from a greenhouse operator/landscape designer? Please see this post to see if the description fits you.

 

Our goal is to grow the nursery to get you on-board, with no tuition, as soon as possible, but there are steps involved to get to that level. Our investment to reach this point to be able to offer this opportunity has been significant. Nurseries are different than most businesses in that it takes multiple years to become highly skilled due to the short growing season. We often only have two or three attempts each season to get right something new we're trying.

 

We appreciate your understanding and your commitment to this project, nursery and community, and we look forward to hearing about your needs as well.