Sweet Home Alabama

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Sweet Home Alabama

It’s the floriculture triple threat–growing, retailing and breeding. Lots of operations do two of the three, but not many can claim the hat trick. The Shed Nursery, Mentone, Ala., can claim all three, all while growing some crops organically and dealing with the challenges of the high altitudes and cold temperatures of the Appalachian Mountains.

Growing Profits

Shed Nursery is a specialist in coleus and perillas, but offers a wide range of products to customers. The business was founded by Robert C. Baker (Spokey) and is now run by his son and daughter-in-law, David and Cheryl Baker. Since the operation changed hands in 1996, a turning point for Shed was when the Huntsville Botanical Gardens took the operation on as a main annual and perennial grower. Baker credits the gardens for discovering Shed Nursery.

“From there, doors opened up,” she says. “I won several first-place trophies at the growers’ convention, and had a lot of people looking into my booth who were bigger growers than me, breeders from all over the world.” What they find at Shed is premium plants. A partner and breeder in the Proven Winners program, Shed Nursery recently cleared 10 acres of land for a new ball and burlap yard, which will be Proven Winners’ first B&B yard in Alabama. Shed Nursery also participates in PW’s Retail Roadshows across the country.

Other than perillas and coleuses, big crops are window boxes, deco pots, moss baskets and living wreaths and succulent trees, which have seen an increased demand over the last few years. Growing these high-end, premium products means higher prices. Baker says other growers call to compare notes on retail and input prices.

“I don’t play those games,” she says. “If you’re growing Proven Winners plants, this is what you need to be selling them for. If you’re not selling them for this price, by the time you throw in your chemicals, dirt and fertilizer, you’re gonna be losing money.” With a premium product, cutting corners on fertilizers and fungicide is not an option. With the high heating costs of the area, Shed needs to keep premium prices. Baker says she’s maintained or even raised wholesale prices.

“Look, this is what I was told to charge on these plants and this is what I’m charging,” Baker says. “If you don’t like it, you’d better find somebody else to buy your plants from. I’m in the business just like everybody else–to make money.”

The Shed Nursery

Owners: David and Cheryl Baker
Founded: 1981
Size: 20,000 square feet of greenhouse, 3.25 acres of outdoor production plus 5.5 acres of ball and burlap field stock production
Locations: Mentone, Ala.
Main Crops: Specializing in coleus, perilla, sedum and succulents, also annuals, perennials, shrubs, carniverous and native plants and vine
Market: Its own retail outlet and other growers.

Keeping It Clean 

About 40 minutes from Chattanooga, Tenn., Shed Nursery grows in 20,000 square feet of Atlas Greenhouses, as well as outdoor production. Shed Nursery is working to save the environment and money in the greenhouse by using some elbow grease. An eight year experiment has led Shed to new products and methods that are environmentally friendly and have saved the operation money in the long run. 

Crops are grown and shipped from the greenhouses every six to eight weeks, on average. Using tissue culture plants ensures a disease- and pest-free product from the start. During the growing cycle, garlic plants are stationed on each bench, a trick that has been shown to repel thrips. The Shed also uses organic substances from Dyna-Gro, including Canna Rhizotonic root stimulator, Azatrol insect growth regulators, Peace Of Mind bat guano soil amendments and Liquinox fish emulsion fertilizer. When crops are shipped, the structures go through a one-week sterilization process that includes scrubbing floors and benches. This process helps to eliminate aphids, whiteflies and mealybug problems. It is hard work, but Baker says it’s worth it.

“I promise you, it is a bunch of hard work, but if growers do what we’re doing, they can save a lot of money,” she says. “Then they can grow these rare and unusual plants or a lot of these patented plants. They can do it. They just have to want to do it. Some people say it can’t be done. That’s bull. It can be done.”

Baker says another technique is to grow plants that are drought resistant, like the operation’s succulent line. At the beginning of this season, Baker spent nine months researching plants and selecting only those that require the least amount of water. She says she waters most plants just twice a week. Drought-resistant sedum and succulents are very popular, and there are annuals that need less water, too, like dahlia, salvia, lantana, coleus and perilla. Plants that can be grown drier also avoid pest and disease problems more easily.

“And when I say drought resistant, I truly mean growers do not have to water a lot in their greenhouses,” Baker says. “If they share that information with their customers, wholesale, retail or grower to grower, they will be in the growing business later on in life.”

The high altitude and cool temperatures of the location is a challenge, and Baker says the operation is looking to switch to heat coils or heat mist, a move that would save on the operation’s heating fuel–propane.

“Our gas expense is probably more than anybody in the state of Alabama,” Baker says. With an anticipated cost per gallon of $1.89 or even $2 this year, there isn’t a better time for Shed to go green. 

Bred For Success

Just around the time David and Cheryl took over Shed Nursery, Cheryl started breeding plants, using cross pollinations of coleus and perilla at the seed level. Every year, she works on a few new varieties for Proven Winners.

Baker’s creation ‘Gage’s Shadow’ perilla was named for Baker’s son, Gage. Proceeds from the plant go to Huntsville United Cerebral Palsy, where Gage receives treatment for his cerebral palsy.

‘Gage’s Shadow’ and all the plants Baker breeds for Proven Winners are trialed for growing conditions including heat, frost, sun and pest resistance. The University of Georgia, Auburn University, University of Virginia and University of Tennessee have helped with trials on Baker’s creations.

‘Gage’s Shadow’ has won awards from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, University of Tennessee and Kansas State University trials and the Shed Nursery booth is a repeat winner at the Southeast Greenhouse Conference for best plants, taking home the title in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Retailing For The Region

Even with its sophistication, Baker still thinks of the Shed Nursery retail store as a family owned operation.

“We believe in children and dogs coming in,” she says. In 1996, Shed Nursery opened its floral department, which was a big step. A hot product at retail is combination planters in Austram baskets and containers. Shed, being a grower/retailer has an advantage here over other retailers.

“Retailers don’t have a lot of success with them because you’re supposed to use plugs and they have a harder time getting plants to grow,” Baker explains.

Being a grower/retailer also means Shed Nursery gets direct feedback from consumers. Baker says there are a few new color trends lately–anything black, lime green or bright yellow. Dark elephant ears, sweet potato vines and black echevaria and perillas are flying off the shelves, as are yellow ‘Angelina’ sedum.

“Five years ago, people were saying ‘No way,'” Baker says. “And I said, ‘One day, black is going to be the in thing.’ And sure enough, it is. Every retail magazine you pick up, something is black, lime green or bright, bright yellow.” As for future trends, Baker says drought resistant is the way to go.

“I believe strongly growers should do just a little bit more thinking instead of trying to grow a lot of color, about tropical plants, perennials and plants that don’t need a lot of water, such as sedum and succulents,” Baker concludes.

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3 comments on “Sweet Home Alabama

  1. Anonymous

    Is this going to the Bakers or to Greenhouse Growers?? I met David last weekend at a “festival” in Mentone, and bought about 7 plants. I need to get in touch because I need more of a specific plant.
    Thanks.
    Kathleen

  2. Anonymous

    Is this going to the Bakers or to Greenhouse Growers?? I met David last weekend at a “festival” in Mentone, and bought about 7 plants. I need to get in touch because I need more of a specific plant.
    Thanks.
    Kathleen

  3. carolyn larock gold

    DAVID AND CHERYL JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW MY HUSBAND BOB GOLD PASSED AWAY SEPT. 24, 2013.. I KNOW HE THOUGHT ALOT OF YOU DAVID AND HE MISSED LIVING IN MENTONE. I KNOW GAGE AND ROBERT ARE ALL GROWN UP NOW. WE MOVED TO OKLAHOMA CITY IN 2010.. BOTH OF MY CHILDREN LIVE HERE.. MISS YOU GUYS. CAROLYN. I SENT YOU A NOTE BUT IT CAME BACK TODAY. BUSY SEASON WITH THE MUMS LOL. CAROLYN GOLD