seasonal stakeout

story by John Ernst; photos provided by Mark Weiss

Aerial view of Lan’s Flower Farm

Here’s a fact—one of New York’s largest flower farms started with a twelve-year-old girl from China trying to learn English.

Today, Lan’s Flower Farm spans four acres managed by five employees. That girl—the daughter of Mark Weiss and Xiao Lan— immigrated here in 2005. “She didn’t speak any English, and we brainstormed how she could learn really fast,” Weiss says. Having previously started a landscaping business that didn’t take off, “I had 2,000 empty pots around the property,” he says. He told his daughter she could start selling plants, where she could learn conversational English all day long while making money. “So we started potting bulbs, she had a little roadside stand, and she would sit out there eight hours a day studying. And people would come and buy her plants.”

And then the cards fell into place. “She was doing very well,” Weiss tells me, when one of the local perennial growers went out of business. “So it was kind of an open slot in the community that we were able to fill.” 

Clinton Farmers Market
Bee balm and peonies

A slot Weiss and Lan take very seriously. In addition to offering a variety of 700 perennials to the Syracuse region, the farm engages in a range of community service and donations. “Aside from working with various schools and churches,” Weiss says, “we also donate to terminal patients to help pay for medical expenses.” Lan’s also funds scholarships and runs tours for garden clubs. “It’s really the backbone of the whole business,” he says. 

“We try and do everything as organically as we can,” he adds. “When you’re growing in containers, it’s difficult to have 100 percent organic—it leaches out too quickly. But we don’t spray at all and our soil has no chemicals to speak of.” For fertilizer, they recycle a byproduct of the nearby Anheuser-Busch plant. “Other places have plants in bloom when they shouldn’t be in bloom,” he says, “but we winterize everything. It makes plants hardier.” 

Herb and Flower Festival 2018
Helleborus ‘Amethyst Gem’

Weiss and Lan formed an official business partnership in 2006 with a couple hundred plants. In 2014 they incorporated, and today sell upwards of 30,000 plants a year. 

With their farm organized into four categories—shade, semi-shade, sun, and grass—they do their best to predict what the market will demand each year. “But there’s really no telling. One year a guy bought over 500 containers of grass in one swoop,” Weiss laughs, “so we had none leftover for the next year.” 

To stay up-to-date on the perennial world, Weiss and Lan head to Baltimore for MANTS, the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show. “Plugs, roots, greenhouses, potting machines…anything that can make growing in our industry easier, you can buy there,” Weiss says. “If we see something interesting we’ll try to have it ready for spring, but a lot of it really is like looking into a crystal ball.” It’s hard to decipher what will be popular in the next year, he tells me, and a lot of the new plants are patented and require a license to legally propagate. 

Weiss and Lan aren’t completely in the dark, however, when it comes to next-season predictions. Catmint, hostas, and echinaceas are among consistently reliable best-sellers. “We’re actually well-known for our hostas,” Weiss says. “They’re real popular because they have leaf color, come in so many different sizes, and they grow nice flowers—some of them are fragrant. But,” he warns, “the deer love them. So if you have a deer problem, they’ll get destroyed.” Grasses are becoming more popular, too. Weiss says they’re hardy and drought-resistant, surviving through winter if they’re cut short. “But don’t cut them down too short,” he says. “[The landscapers who tend to our local Wegmans stores] cut them right to the ground, which decreases hardiness.”  

Despite its grass maintenance habits, Weiss admires the Wegmans approach to landscaping. “They’ve developed this whole buying experience—and it starts at the curb,” he says. “You drive in, and they have beautiful grounds with flowers, trees, and shrubs. Then you go into the grocery store and you’re hit with aromas of baked goods and flowers,” he says. “You go to these other stores…with bright lights and you want to get out as fast as you came in,” he laughs, “but Wegmans has really got it down.”

Then I ask a question that stumps Weiss—if he were to open another location anywhere in the world, where would he go? “Where there are a lot of rich people?” he jokes. Then he tells me that the upstate New York demographic is very interesting. “Rochester and Syracuse are completely different demographics—Rochester is not the blue collar town that Syracuse is.” Syracusians, he explains, are more concerned with practical things like plowing snow than they are with designing their yard. “So people from Rochester spend far more on landscape architecture than we do in Syracuse. Plus, you also have a better climate from being closer to the lake.” 

Xiao Lan

Ultimately, he wouldn’t want to leave Syracuse. “I’ve been here in ‘Cuse since 1978. I know more people here than anywhere else,” he explains. “And our business is a very personal business. We know almost every one of our customers. My wife was at the doctor’s this morning, and we sat next to one of our customers in the waiting room. We know every one of our customers by name or face,” he continues, “and when you get real big you don’t have that anymore.” 

And the daughter who started it all? “She’s moved out now,” Weiss says, “but she talks about taking over the business…now that all the work is done!” he laughs. 

John Ernst is a writer and graphic designer in Rochester. You can see more of his work at johnmwrites.com

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Story and photos by Michelle Sutton

Mischler’s opened in 1944, making this year the
75th anniversary of this western NY institution.

History & Horticultural Chops
When I listened back to my interview with Mischler’s VP, co-owner, and head grower Mark Yadon, I heard myself saying, “That’s cool!” an embarrassing number of times. The gushing couldn’t be helped because Yadon was showing me so many undeniably cool things at Mischler’s Florist & Greenhouses in Williamsville. 

Case in point: Mischler’s existing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, begun in 1989 by David Mischler, has benefitted from Yadon’s four decades of IPM and biocontrol experience. The growing operation now controls the majority of problem insects with beneficial ones, rather than with spraying. For instance, for five years now, Yadon has grown Mischler’s poinsettias pesticide-free—and is on track toward the goal of zero spraying for all of the greenhouse crops.   

More than 114 types of succulents are propagated for sale at Mischler’s.
Mixed potted foliage plant “bouquet.”

Yadon is a member of the Cornell Project Work Team for Horticulture, a group of experienced growers that travels around NY to advise growers newer to the industry. Dr. Betsy Lamb, who coordinates Cornell’s Ornamentals IPM program, uses Yadon as a mentor to other growers and Mischler’s as a place where folks can come learn how to do effective biocontrol. In 2008 Mischler’s was recognized with an “Excellence in IPM” award from Cornell.

Mischler’s VP, co-owner, and head grower Mark Yadon.

“It’s something I’m really proud of—developing this biocontrol program and then advising others,” he says. “In my work history of growing roses, for example, there was a lot of spraying involved. I’m really happy that I don’t have to do that anymore—now, I joke that all I have to do is sprinkle bugs around.” 

Yadon set out on his plantsman’s path with a botany degree in 1978 from Oregon State University. After college, he became an IPM consultant in Washington State, monitoring apple orchards for insects and diseases to help him make spraying recommendations. When he was ready for a new challenge, he moved to Eugene, Oregon and became involved with the greenhouse industry, growing fresh cut roses, eventually managing production at a 10-acre facility. He went on to manage large rose and cut flower operations in San Diego, South Carolina, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.  

The opportunity to become VP/co-owner with a path to sole ownership at Mischler’s came up in 2002. “I loved the smaller scale of the operation and the possibility of settling in once place. My wife, Sang Hui, and I like Buffalo very much—including the horticultural hotspot it’s become.” 

Evolution of Offerings 
Frank Mischler Sr. opened a full-service floral shop in 1944 in a suburban neighborhood on South Forest Road in Williamsville. In time, it transferred to his sons, Frank Jr. and David (Dave) Mischler. Frank Jr., 66, is still the president of the company and manages the floral shop and delivery. Dave, 82, is semi-retired but still a part of the mix. Maggie Wittmer, ageless, is the head floral designer and has worked with Mischler’s for nearly 32 years.  

In the 1940s, everything was grown in “digger flats,” open flats of annuals that you would have to dig plants from and put in a newspaper “cone” to give to the customer. Frank Mischler thought the digger method was too labor-intensive and messy; he moved to growing plants in terra cotta pots. In addition to florist services, the business specialized in growing annuals for, and planting, cemetery pots; they serviced eight cemeteries in western NY. Frank Mischler alone would spend a week of long days getting cemetery urns planted in time for Decoration Day (now Memorial Day).  

Mischler’s grows white snowball hydrangeas in time for Christmas/holiday gifts.
Floral designer Maggie Wittmer (left) has been with the company for almost 32 years and is pictured here with her coworker, floral designer Mary Fischer.

Over time, the cemetery services receded, but the floral shop continued to thrive, and new services were added. The majority of the greenhouse space was used for in-ground growing of cut flowers to support the florist business until plastic packs and pots became available around 1960. Then it became possible to produce much larger quantities of annuals. In 1985, the business acquired an automatic seeder, which is still in use for spring sowing. 

“We don’t grow annuals in flats anymore; instead, we focus mostly on 4.5-inch pots of specialty annuals,” Yadon says. Within that category, one of Mischler’s signatures is frost-tolerant annuals. “We have a stepwise process for hardening off such annuals, like snapdragons, nemesia, diascia, osteospermum daisies, annual phlox, calibrachoa and petunias, so that they can be planted in early to mid-April,” he says. “They bloom early, go all season, and then resist frost in the fall. Planting frost-tolerant annuals in April is a great value for our customers.” 

An even bigger Mischler’s signature is its 59¢ perennial sale, held every year for a week (or until plants are gone) in the third or fourth week of April. The perennials are grown from seed in the greenhouses and sold in packs of four. “It’s a huge event for us,” Yadon says. “We seed about 4000 flats, and each flat has 48 plants.” Customers can typically get the plant list just after Valentine’s Day; the list includes information about deer resistance, bloom length, sun/shade/drought tolerance, and appeal to butterflies and hummingbirds. 

This will be the 20th year of the popular sale. “It’s an inexpensive way to do mass plantings for curb appeal or to try new plants,” Yadon says. “Most of the perennials bloom the same year, so the impact is immediate. Commercial landscapers and homeowners both love it and come back year after year.” 

As with the frost-tolerant annuals, Yadon carefully hardens the baby perennials off before the sale, and then encourages customers to get them in the ground right away. “I recommend they monitor the newly planted perennials closely for moisture for the first couple of weeks, and then they are on their own,” he says. “I get feedback all the time about how fast these plants take off, and how much people appreciate being able to build a garden over time on limited incomes.”  

Each year, Yadon adds new perennials to the mix; this year, he’s going to add more native plants to the 59¢ perennial sale. “A lot of the perennials currently on the list are native, but they haven’t been grouped together or promoted as such,” he says. “Customers have been asking for more native material, and we are happy to move in that direction. For instance, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ and ‘Indian Summer’ are always on the list—and they’re very popular—but this year I’ll also add a straight-species of a black-eyed Susan native to our larger ecosystem.”

Mark Yadon shows how the cardboard that comes into the business is cut, creased, and stapled to make boxes for customer purchases. In this way, the business recycles nearly all of its cardboard.
A trolley “car” for transporting plants. Still in use, the trolley system in Mischler’s seeding greenhouse dates back to the early days of the business.
Overhead trolley tracks of the trolley system in Mischler’s seeding greenhouse dates back to the early days of the business.

Quest for Curb Appeal 
Rudbeckia ‘Indian Summer’ is a quintessential plant for curb appeal, according to Yadon. “It blooms from the first season and earlier and longer than other black-eyed Susans,” he says. “The delphiniums are also fantastic for curb appeal beginning in July. But in terms of folks who are selling their home and want to make a statement, we recommend bright showy annuals like the SunPatiens series of New Guinea impatiens. They can tolerate quite a bit of sun or even full sun, they grow a nice deep root system, and they really pop with color.”

Another way to create curb appeal is to feature mixed containers in visually key places. Yadon and the staff recommend to customers that they “stay in season” to get the best results. This means using pansies and other frost-tolerant annuals in spring; when they get leggy or beaten up, switching those out and putting in showy summer annuals; then in fall, replacing the summer annuals with mums and ornamental kale. Mischler’s applies this technique to the container planting that they do for customers and for the 55 large (35” diameter) containers they design and plant for Williamsville’s Main Street each year. “Customers will often come in and ask what the plants on Main Street are—sometimes they even bring a piece of a plant with them,” Yadon says. 

In terms of new plants, Yadon says that studying what’s trendy is just the first step. “We have the approach that we set the trends,” he says. “The staff and I discuss what we like and then put displays together to expose customers to new plants, new ways of using plants, and/or new plant combinations.” Trends ebb and flow; however, Yadon finds that miniature plants and succulents are still very popular, as are hardy perennials used in container gardens.


Get Social with Mischler’s Florist & Greenhouses
Twitter: @Mischlers
Facebook:  MischlersFlorist
Instagram: #mischlersfloristI

Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, writer, and editor living in New Paltz, NY. 


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A Tale of Two Nurseries

by cathym on November 25, 2018

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton unless noted

Rawlings Nursery: Hostas & Display Gardens in the North Country

PLANT FAMILY
Generally hardy to Zone 3a, hostas are at home in Zone 4b in Ellisburg, New York, an hour north of Syracuse and just east of Lake Ontario. There, on the former family dairy farm, Kevin Rawlings has grown over a thousand cultivars of hostas and generally offers 200-plus cultivars for sale. The farm’s soil is a desirable pocket of clay loam in a sea of sandy soils created by glacier retreat. The winds off Lake Ontario howl across the farm year round, but the hostas stand up to it well.

Many of Rawlings’ family members were school teachers, including his parents, who ran the dairy farm as a back-up source of income until they retired around 1979. At that point, the family put up a greenhouse and started growing annuals, creating sumptuous display gardens that served as outdoor event grounds for weddings and the like. “At peak we had 12,000 annual plants on display,” Rawlings says. “In one bed alone (140 x 60 feet), we planted 8,000 annuals. It took five of us the whole of Memorial Day Weekend to plant,” he says.

Hosta display garden at Rawlings Nursery.

Spring in the hosta house. Photo courtesy Rawlings Nursery

Kevin Rawlings

Eventually the family had to change gears once again, because sales of annuals by big box stores were driving prices down. Kevin Rawlings had a passion for unusual trees—and has planted quite a few that are maturing on the farm—but he found that hostas were more profitable. “I thought they were fantastic and they had the commercial advantages of transporting well and looking good in a pot,” he says. He sold hostas with his children at the Syracuse Farmers market for 25 years, and says “we meet some wonderful people and made dear friends,” but now he sells only by appointment from the farm in Ellisburg. Some longtime customers make the trek once a year from Rochester and points west to see the latest cultivars.

For many years, hosta cultivars were propagated only by division. When hostas began to be propagated by tissue culture (the accelerated growth of plant cells in an artificial medium in a sterile lab environment), there was an explosion in both quantity of plants produced and in cultivar range. Tissue culture has been a boon for hosta collectors but has been a little less kind to hosta growers, because increased supply has put downward pressure on selling price.

HOSTA FACT V. FICTION
“Do they flower?” is a question Rawlings hears surprisingly often. He responds, “The only way hostas are not going to flower is if they are growing in too dark a spot. All hosta cultivars possess floral meristems (groups of cells that give rise to flowers) inside the terminal bud, but if the plant doesn’t get enough sun, it won’t advance through its seasonal growth to the point of flowering.”

Some folks ask for the white hostas they’ve seen pictures of. “There are several cultivars that come out of the ground white, but they don’t stay white throughout the season, Rawlings says. “They turn green out of necessity so they can perform photosynthesis. Increasing temperatures cue the conversion.” A few customers have asked for a red hosta… which doesn’t exist but in pictures.

People who are newer to growing hostas may ask for “the blue one.” But the “blue” is not immutable; it’s the effect of white wax on green leaves. “I rub the underside of the leaf and show them how the wax comes right off,” Rawlings says. “It’s the base color of the green leaf and the thickness of the white wax that determines how blue or gray the leaves look,” he says.

Yellow hostas aren’t immutably yellow either, Rawlings explains. “They do one of two things, depending on cultivar,” he says. “They can come out of the ground brightly colored and then become chartreuse or dull green afterwards; they green up to protect themselves. Or, they do the opposite and come out green, then fade to chartreuse, then convert to bright yellow as the season progresses.”

Even large-leaved varieties have small leaves when they are young plants. It can take 5, 6, even 7 years for a large-leafed hosta like ‘Sum and Substance’ to come into its full leaf size. Therefore, it can be easy to see a dwarf plant and think that it’s going to mature as a medium or large hosta when in actuality, it’s going to stay small.

MORE ABOUT RAWLINGS
Kevin’s Favorite Hosta 
(Out of 5400 Registered Varieties)
According to the description in the Rawlings Nursery online catalog, ‘Sagae’ (pron. SAH-GAH-ay) grows 32 inches high and 60 inches wide. It forms a vase-shaped mound of large, thick frosty green leaves with gold margins. It’s consistently number one or two on the American Hosta Society popularity list, and it was the 2000 American Hosta Growers Hosta of the Year selection.

Kevin’s favorite hosta cultivar is ‘Sagae’. Photo Courtesy MOBOT Plant Finder

Contact Rawlings Nursery
WEBSITE: rawlingsnursery.com
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/RawlingsNursery
EMAIL: hostaguy@gmail.com
PHONE: (315) 396-9763
ADDRESS*: 12061 Monitor Mill Rd
Ellisburg, NY 13636

*Nursery open by appointment


Marcellus Nursery: 56 Years of Growing in Onondaga County

Ted and Nan Stetler

When I interviewed Ted and Nan Stetler, they were just back from an Alaskan cruise. I assumed they’d be loath to return to work, but Nan says Ted was “bored out of his gourd” on vacation. That can happen when you’ve been working as hard as he and Nan have for so many years, running Marcellus Nursery: it can be challenging to be away from your own business.

Ted, who earned an agriculture degree from SUNY Farmingdale (then known as Long Island Agriculture & Technical Institute) in 1961, started Marcellus Nursery in 1962 with the purchase of 44 acres in the Town of Marcellus, southwest of Syracuse. When the nursery’s garden center moved 12 miles to the Town of Onondaga in 1970, the Stetlers chose to retain the name Marcellus Nursery for name recognition and branding reasons.

Ted and Nan met in 1966, got married in 1967, and started their family in 1975. They have two daughters, Beth and Jill. Nan has been integral to the nursery’s success, as has Rachel Reynolds, the garden center manager of more than 20 years. Nan says, “She’s like a daughter to us.”

Green roof planted with sedums keeps the checkout building cool.

‘Lemony Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus racemosa).

Fabulous sculptures abound.

Marcellus Nursery runs on multiple tracks, with only five full-time folks, Ted included. There’s the 85,000 fieldgrown trees and shrubs, the landscaping business, the potting-up work of the largest selection of perennials in the area, and the retail garden center. There’s the plant propagation work, which Ted does as a means of unwinding at the end of a busy day during the growing season. There are beautiful display gardens for customers to explore, at the center of which is a 53-year-old weeping European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’).

Field-growing so much material means that the plants on offer at Marcellus Nursery are acclimated to the often harsh upstate NY winters. Furthermore, most of the field crops are not irrigated. “If they survive and adapt to those conditions, they are going to perform well for local customers,” Nan says. Mercifully and surprisingly, deer have not been a problem in the tree and shrub nursery fields. However, they have been an issue in the production areas of the garden center site, so the Stetlers are upgrading their 5-foot perimeter fence to 8 foot tall.

Customers are invited to wander display gardens.

In addition to growing bread-and-butter plants, Ted likes to try out some “fantasy plants,” as he calls them, each year. “I’ll buy ten of this and ten of that of unusual plants and try them out,” he says. He is trying to interest folks in weeping dwarf spruce and dwarf pines, but he gave up field-growing Japanese maples after several devastating winters wiped out whole rows of trees.

During the growing season, a typical day for Ted goes like this. Paperwork at his desk from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. Then at 8 a.m. he joins his staff and works alongside them until 4:30 p.m. when he goes home to regroup for an hour before going out on client consultations in the evening. Home by 8 or 8:30 p.m., he does plant propagation work to unwind, and he and Nan have dinner at about 10 p.m. It’s a pretty grueling schedule, so Ted is looking for efficiencies everywhere he can— for instance, by using a motorized wheelbarrow on landscaping jobs.

Good advice at the garden center checkout.

As owners of Sycamore Hill Gardens (sycamorehillgardens.com) in Marcellus, George and Karen Hanford have a long association with Ted and Nan Stetler and Marcellus Nursery. George says, “Ted is the father of our gardens. Ted and Nan took us under their wing and introduced us to the world of plant propagation and the joys of designing, maintaining, and sharing a large plant collection. Without their guidance and friendship there would be no Sycamore Hill Gardens, no annual fundraisers for local charities, no national American Conifer Society meeting or local New York State Nursery and Landscape meetings held here in our gardens. We can’t thank Ted and Nan enough for their help and kindness.”

Contact Marcellus Nursery
WEBSITE: marcellusnursery.com
EMAIL: contact@marcellusnursery.com
PHONE: (315) 488-2632

 

Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, editor, and writer.

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