James Greenhouses: New Perspectives In A Traditional Industry

James Greenhouse’s young, passionate team helps the operation stay flexible with orders and produce consistently high-quality liners.

Looking at most of the greenhouse operations in the industry, it may seem like having a long line of growers in the family is a requirement. If so, Greenhouse Grower’s Operation of the Year winners Ken and Leah James of James Greenhouses are breaking the tradition. With hard work, an eye for opportunity and insights from industry professionals, this young couple has grown a first-generation business from two workers (themselves) in 1998 to 36 dedicated employees today. The Jameses see both the pros and cons of being newcomers.

“It’s a challenge. It really is. We just don’t have that depth of experience to draw on. Even though our customers and our suppliers are certainly the best in the world, in my opinion, we just don’t have that innate knowledge of the industry and how things work. We have made some really expensive mistakes along the way,” Ken says.

“But on the other hand, I look at it as an asset because we have always had a very open mind about production methodologies, product lines and costs,” he says. “We try not to get caught up in thinking that we know how things are supposed to be done because this is the way we have always done them.”

A Guy, A Girl And A Greenhouse

Producing approximately 14 million vegetative liners per year, James Greenhouses serves a wide range of customers from major operations to mom-and-pop growers in the U.S., Canada and as far as Bermuda, but the story of how the two came to own their own greenhouse begins at the University of Georgia where Ken and Leah met. The two were horticulture students, with Ken studying golf course management and Leah focusing on floriculture.

Ken ultimately decided his passion was ornamentals and “left the turf and grass thing behind.” Although he always had the goal of being self-employed, he gained experience working for container and perennial grower Iverson Perennials Gardens. It was there that Ken began thinking, based on the vegetative materials the operation received and produced, there was room for another supplier in the southeast.

“I decided that was what I wanted to do,” Ken says. “I had always loved propagation in school, and I focused on that specialty as being a niche opportunity in the marketplace.”

Ken left Iverson Perennials and moved closer to home to work at Saul Nurseries in Atlanta, Ga. While working there for a year, he did research and looked at property on which to begin his own greenhouse company. Leah and Ken were dating at the time, but Leah concentrated on her own career. She came into the picture as Ken was looking at property.

“One day he just asked me, ‘Will you do this with me? Will you work at the greenhouse office?,’” Leah says. “And I said, ‘Sure,’ and from the very beginning we moved out here and started building greenhouses.”

Starting From Scratch

The first summer, Ken and Leah lived in a camper on the 70 acres of red-dirt-covered grounds in the Georgia heat. Add to the small home a small business where Ken and Leah worked side-by-side, first dry walling and laying the floor of their office and then sticking cuttings all day, every day for a few years, and it was a tough start.

“Luckily, we just got bigger and bigger so we could divide the responsibilities. If we’re together, we will argue about a decision,” Leah says. “Now responsibilities are split up enough that we’re not directly working together and making the same decisions.”

Leah handles the production planning and a lot of the office functions, working closely with the customer service staff. Ken handles the operations side, working closely with the head grower, production manager and shipping manager. Despite relatively smooth sailing now, Ken and Leah agree there was a large learning curve.

“It sounds so mundane but learning how to professionally run an office is a very complicated thing. Taking a college accounting class does not prepare you for that,” Ken says. “My idea of human resources when I was in college was that some Fortune 500 company has a human resources manager. Quite frankly, you don’t have to get over 10 or 11 employees before you need someone who is dedicated to the cause of hiring and managing all those things that have to do with employing people. There were a lot of hiccups on the business management side.”

“We started from scratch and neither of us had any business training. It was all horticultural training. I feel like every step along the way has been a learning experience,” Leah says. “How do you go about borrowing money? How do you handle payroll? How do you go about hiring good people? Facility and staff was a big challenge. We’re in a good place now, but it was over 13 years of figuring out the right kind of people to hire.”

Now the Jameses look to University of Georgia graduates to fill many positions at the greenhouse, and Ken says that some of their best workers come from their alma mater. The former students bring new ideas and zeal to the company. Many of the Jameses prized employees gain experience working in one position and grow into others.

Getting Help From The Industry

Despite early challenges, the Jameses were fortunate to have entrepreneur family friends and industry professionals to guide them. Ken credits Sam Rizzi, who hired Ken as a straight-from-college graduate for his first job at Iverson Perennials, Lee Heyl, whom Ken worked with at Iverson Perennials, Skeetter McCorkle and Richard and Bobby Saul of Saul Nurseries with being encouraging confidants and friends. Allan Armitage, Ken and Leah’s professor at University of Georgia, also played a role in the start of James Greenhouses as a perennial plug producer.

“When we started the business we took our first list of plants that we were going to make into our product offering and went and sat in his office and went down the list and got his opinion on what we should grow and what we shouldn’t grow,” Leah says.

“Allan Armitage, to this day, is someone I trust completely with business and employee relations and marketing questions. He is a pretty well-rounded person to bounce ideas off of,” Ken says.

For Armitage, the feelings of respect are mutual.

“Without a doubt Ken is a terrific plantsman, but he is also very much a perfectionist. He wants to do it right. And he and Leah are an absolute team together,” he says.

Building Customer Confidence With Quality

Starting small, Ken and Leah did much of the footwork to become established within the industry. Drawing on the contacts Ken had made at other nurseries before going out on his own, he and Leah met with potential customers in person.

“We just represented ourselves. There were no brokers. We went and sat in people’s offices and talked to them about what our ideas were, what we were doing and what our philosophy was about young plants and perennials. There is no substitute for that personal visit,” Ken says. “We just had some people that really believed in us and trusted us. We got our start from there. Word of mouth, to this day, has been our biggest asset.”

The first companies to give James Greenhouses business opportunities were Saul Nurseries, Iverson Perennials Gardens (now Hines Horticultural), Classic Groundcovers, McCorkle Nurseries and Layman Wholesale (now part of the Costa Farms family).

“In this industry, you’ve got your reputation and nothing else,” Ken says. “As a young plant supplier specifically, you don’t get a lot of second chances, and there are precious few first chances. They would give us a little bit of an order, and we would deliver and exceed their expectations.”

Now James Greenhouses works with the Proven Winners brand marketing program, as well as with Blooms of Bressingham on new introductions. The operation is also a rooting station for Darwin Perennials’ premium genetics, and Ken is proud of the Heuger Helleborus breeding program. The operation also works with brokers and other customers include Conard-Pyle, Danziger, PlantHaven, Syngenta, Terra Nova Nurseries and more.

These aren’t the only companies that are fans of the way the Jameses do business.

“Both Leah and Ken understand where they are going and drive their business plan to meet those goals. They are smart, articulate, business savvy and just a pleasure to work with,” says Nexus Southeastern Sales Manager Jerry Bleckley, who recently worked with the Jameses on approximately an acre of Dual Atrium, glass-covered greenhouses. “They are well-educated growers and are not afraid to try new things.”

Cut And Grown To A Higher Standard

As James Greenhouses grew, Ken and Leah changed their tagline from “Cut and Grown to a Higher Standard” to “Perennial Plugs, Specialty Propagation.” Despite the change, the mission to grow high-quality liners — and go after opportunities for growth — continues.

“When we started, we were so small that we could be completely flexible. So if a customer had a special request or a special cell size, we could fill that,” Leah says. “I can see that becoming a challenge for us. It’s easy when you’re small, but when you get bigger and you’re not personally responsible for watching over every little plant that’s growing, that has gotten harder. We try to fill our customers’ needs and fill their special requests.”
And James Greenhouses fills each order with product every grower can be proud of.

“I have a very clear picture in my mind of what it is that I want a grower to receive when they open the box or the truck doors open,” says Ken, who had the job of growing young plants into finished product at Iverson Perennials. “There is sort of a sinking feeling when you’re looking at material that you know is going to be really hard to work with. I know that feeling today. My goal is for growers to never have that feeling when they see a product that comes from our company.”


Leave a Reply

More From Grow Initiative...

October 8, 2015

Industry Standards For Greenhouse Lighting On The Horizon

As the use of LEDs has risen among greenhouse growers, so have concerns about the best way to measure and compare the many LED light products across the market. As a result, the lighting industry is responding to a call for greater transparency and the development of standardized measuring and testing methods.

Read More
Delphinium 'Guardian Lavender' (Kieft Seed)

October 7, 2015

National Garden Bureau Names Four Crops For 2016 “Year Of The” Program

The National Garden Bureau announced four crop selections for its 2016 "Year Of The" program. New this year is the addition of a bulb crop class and a video created especially for the edibles class.

Read More

October 7, 2015

Ball FloraPlant Eliminates Neonicotinoid Use On Its Offshore Cuttings Farms

Ball FloraPlant has announced its offshore cuttings farms did not use neonicotinoid-based pest management chemicals during its spring crop production last shipping season, and will continue to be neonic free this year. Instead, the company and its greenhouse managers have relied on alternative means to supply insect-free cuttings to its global customer base.

Read More
Latest Stories
Stephanie Whitehouse-Barlow, Peace Tree Farm

October 6, 2015

Generation Y’s Reluctance To Garden Linked To Fea…

The Rookie Gardener is easily spotted at a garden center by her nervous and unsure energy that’s as glaring as a scarlet letter, or by his exuberant, self-assured confidence that is only otherwise seen at a college fraternity party. They are our industry’s enigma, our Kryptonite, the treasure chest we cannot open. The Rookie Gardener’s reluctance to garden isn’t from our industry’s lack of targeted marketing or encouragement but from Millennials’ Fear of Failure (FOF). It is obvious that failure is a part of life, but we as a generation have been programmed to not expect or accept failure. Since early childhood, we were encouraged to always win, to do our absolute best at school every day, to beat the competition. “Focused on getting the grades or winning the game, these children have internalized the pressure, (which) paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks,” writes Holly Korbey in an […]

Read More

October 6, 2015

NASA Scientists To Discuss Indoor Agriculture Innovatio…

The University of Arizona’s Controlled Environmental Agriculture Center (CEAC) will host Dr. Jacklyn Green, CEO and founder of Agate Biosciences, and Dr. Roger Kern, president and founder of Agate Biosciences: Science & Systems Engineering, on October 30, as part of its seminar series. Both Green and Kern are former NASA scientists and engineers, and they will discuss their continuing efforts to develop technology and seek innovations to address issues concerning urban indoor agriculture, with a potential for application on Mars. Through the creation of Agate Biosciences LLC, Kern and Green have turned their attention to earth-bound issues of food production, to provide advanced technologies for plant nutrition, biosecurity and the undertaking of scientifically based research in greenhouse design and controls systems, and in plant health under controlled environment agriculture. A recent NASA news release reports that the Mars Rover 2020 mission is planned to deliver an extensive array of instruments designed to explore the habitability […]

Read More
Rebecca Lusk

September 22, 2015

Trailblazer Rebecca Lusk Of Luxflora And Dümmen Orange …

Rebecca Lusk of Luxflora and Dümmen Orange is no stranger to breaking new ground, whether it's in her own company or in forming an organization that gives women in horticulture a united voice.

Read More

September 14, 2015

Smith Gardens Is Developing Growers With A New Initiati…

Finding enough qualified growers has long been a problem in the industry, but it’s one that Smith Gardens is working to solve, at least locally. The operation, which ranks No. 22 on Greenhouse Grower‘s Top 100 Growers list, is the largest in the Pacific Northwest, and spans more than 50 acres of greenhouses and 50 acres of field growing over four locations in Washington, Oregon and California. As a 112-year-old family business that recognizes the need to invest in its future, Smith Gardens has made its Cultivating The Future initiative a corporate priority to attract young people to careers in the horticulture industry. Don Spence, the production manager at Smith Gardens’ Aurora, Ore., location, started working with local schools years ago. The operation expanded its program to local community colleges, and this year Smith Gardens worked with the American Floral Endowment to set up an internship program, and hosted an […]

Read More
Smartphones may influence kids’ decisions about food

September 12, 2015

To Understand Your Next Consumers, Look Beyond Millenni…

There seems to be a constant stream of content in the media about Millennials and their habits and characteristics, particularly as consumers. But, what if they’re not the ones to be focusing on? A recent article in Food Business News is saying that they’re not. Instead, it suggests shifting the focus to the next generation. The article states that, according to bestselling author Matt Walsh, the most disruptive group of future food consumers was born in 2007. With gardening consumers becoming increasingly interested growing their own food, changes to the food industry will likely impact the horticulture industry, as well. “If you understand how an 8-year-old thinks, you’re a long way toward really understanding a transformative change in consumer behavior,” says Walsh, CEO of innovation research lab Tomorrow, during a July 13 presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago. When an 8-year-old makes […]

Read More

September 2, 2015

Delegation Is Key To A Successful Greenhouse Operation

In a packed room at Cultivate’15, speaker Bernie Erven presented key steps growers need to take to improve their delegation skills, the benefits of delegating and the dangers of not learning how to delegate. This is a skill, he says, that everyone needs to learn. “For all of you who are part of a family business, you are choosing not to do things the easy way,” Erven laughed, as he presented a list of ways to know whether or not you’re an effective delegator. The owner of Erven HR Services, LLC, Erven has been working with and observing family businesses for many years. In his presentation, he said, he didn’t share anything that he hasn’t seen first-hand. You might not be a good delegator if you: Tend to be a perfectionist Work more hours than anyone else Lack time to explain clearly and concisely Are often interrupted Enjoy what you used to […]

Read More
Marc van Iersel

September 1, 2015

GROwing Floriculture Research And Extension

Research and outreach efforts help keep floriculture production profitable. With seemingly continuous budget cuts to university and federal budgets, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to sustain their programs and to keep making a positive impact on the industry. So what can be done to ensure that the industry will keep getting the research and outreach support it has come to rely on? There already is a variety of funding programs that support research and Extension programs in our industry. This funding is critical for many floriculture research and outreach programs. What can we do to leverage that funding and make sure it has the biggest possible impact? A program that I was part of in 2010 may serve as a model. LAUNCH was co-founded by NASA, NIKE, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State as a program to help make innovative ideas become a […]

Read More
september_grow_rodale institute

August 25, 2015

Hospitals Are Getting Into The Organic Food Business

Growers investing in the organic food movement could serve a growing new area with vegetable transplants and starts, as well as produce, as hospitals begin to prescribe healthy diets and nutrition, and even go so far as to grow their own food. As part of a new phenomenon among progressive hospitals, health professionals are beginning to realize that without health and nutrition, programs and techniques may be done in vain or worse — obsolete. As more patients seeking a healthy diet turn to nutritionists, who recommend sugar-free, alkaline diets to prevent disease and aid in recovery, hospitals recognizing this trend are taking action. St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., recently contracted with the nearby Rodale Institute to manage an organic farm, established in 2014. The hospital, part of a six-campus network, aims to provide excellent healthcare, part of which includes educating patients about the benefits of a plant-based, organic diet. […]

Read More
3D Green Printer

August 11, 2015

3D Printers Sprout Living Designs

Project PrintGREEN is turning 3D printers into on-demand gardeners after designing a “green” 3D printer in 2013. The printer produces living prints, printing customized objects in a variety of sizes and forms. The project was created at the University of Maribor in Slovenia, with a goal to unite art, technology, and nature, creatively producing living designs with the help of technology.

Read More
Roots To Re-Entry’s ornamental plant nursery donates plants to local community gardens

August 4, 2015

Roots To Re-Entry Transforms Lives

An inspired employment initiative takes green-job training behind prison walls to help inmates find jobs in urban agriculture and the landscaping industry upon their release, and along the way, it is changing lives for the better. The Roots To Re-Entry (R2R) job training program, conceived by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) and its partners, does more than teach inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System the skills they need to find meaningful employment; it also teaches them invaluable life skills. The PHS staff leads participants through a 16-week course that includes hands-on projects designed to teach them horticultural skills and provide them with training in landscape maintenance and greenhouse growing. In addition to English and math, the nonprofit Federation of Neighborhood Centers (FNC) offers supplemental courses in health education and employment preparedness. Upon inmates’ release from prison, the FNC assists R2R graduates with the transition to life outside prison walls by […]

Read More

July 15, 2015

USDA’s 2014 Floriculture Crops Summary By The Numbers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its 2014 Floriculture Crops Summary in June. Here are some of the highlights: The total crop value at wholesale for the 15-state program with $10,000 or more in sales is $4.07 billion, compared with $4.25 billion in 2013 The percentage wholesale value of floriculture crops is down 4 percent from the 2013 valuation There are 4,849 producers for 2014, down 21 percent in the 15 states, compared with the 2013 count of 6,115 2,510 of producers had sales of $100,000 or more in 2014, down 5 percent from 2,632 in 2013 733 million square feet was the total covered area for floriculture crop production in 15 state area evaluated in 2014, down from 735 million square feet in 2013 $1.82 billion was the wholesale value of all bedding and garden plants, including herbaceous perennials, representing 46 percent of the value of all reported crops The wholesale value for […]

Read More
LuxFlora logo feature image

July 5, 2015

Luxflora Wants To Create A Lifestyle Movement

A new organization for women in horticulture plans to take on some of the industry’s toughest marketing challenges by promoting the use of flowers and plants in everyday living.

Read More

June 23, 2015

AmericanHort Announces 2015 HortScholars

AmericanHort has selected six students from across the country to serve as this year’s HortScholars. This rigorous, competitive application process identifies some of the industry’s brightest professionals and helps to launch their careers in horticulture by providing education and networking opportunities. The goal of the HortScholars program is to provide students with an enriching professional development experience that increases their knowledge, industry awareness and career enthusiasm. 2015 HortScholars: • Sarah Leach Smith, University of Delaware • Bobby Nance, Virginia Tech • Madeline Olberg, Purdue University • Nick Sobecki, Ohio University • Emily Teng, University of Hawaii • William Yoho Jr,, Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute HortScholars will be on-site at Cultivate’15 (July 11-14 in Columbus, Ohio) and receive complimentary Cultivate registration, lodging and meals. Additionally, they will receive a complimentary one-year AmericanHort membership. On-site at Cultivate’15, HortScholars will assist the Generation Next Community with events, conduct presentations that share […]

Read More
July 2015_GROW Perspective_Katie Ketelson

June 23, 2015

MegaMashups Take Plants To The People

It’s no secret I love plants. It’s probably not much of a secret that I love beer, too. And in my perfect world, I’d have a permanent beer garden decorated with galvanized containers stuffed full of flowers, high-rising arches of hops and endless rows of hydroponic strawberries for everbearing enjoyment. But all that costs mega money, so I’ve settled (for now) on orchestrating mega mashups focused on my loves mentioned above, striving to reach an audience that doesn’t even know our industry exists. I’ve long preached about how we need to go to the people. Meet them on their turf, so-to-speak. We can’t expect Gen X or the Millennials, or heck, even my parents, to walk into our garden centers on a whimsy. And frankly, why would you want to be so passive? Your customer spends their extra dollars at the coffee shop, at the mall and at the bar. […]

Read More
Michigan State University’s Bailey GREENhouse Sells Produce And Tea To Campus Dining Facilities

June 20, 2015

Michigan State University’s Bailey GREENhouse Sells Pro…

A greenhouse operated primarily by Michigan State University (MSU) students has begun exploring new crops, including herbs, to produce a line of tea. The Bailey GREENhouse, completed in 2012, gives students from MSU’s Residential Initiative for the Study of the Environment (RISE) the opportunity to experience hands-on learning about organic growing methods, composting and the food cycle. The greenhouse, which was built in partnership with Residential and Hospitality Services, the Department of Community Sustainability, RISE and the Student Organic Farm, is a passive solar hoop house intended for the production of certified organic culinary herbs and salad mixes. Students plant, grow and harvest herbs and microgreens using soil from university composts. All of the produce is certified organic, and is sold to MSU dining facilities, including Brody Square, The Gallery at Snyder and Phillips Halls, the McDonel test kitchen and the Kellogg Center Hotel & Conference Center. The new tea line […]

Read More
Sporticulture Offers A Way For Growers To Promote Plants And Football

June 20, 2015

Sporticulture Offers A Way For Growers To Promote Plant…

Cortland Smith, the president of Walnut Springs Nursery in Glenwood, Md., has two passions: plants and sports, specifically football. Earlier this year, he found an opportunity to blend them together in a way he hopes will benefit the entire industry. This past spring, Smith launched a company called Sporticulture, Inc., which provides access to sports licensing and marketing opportunities to growers, retailers and landscape contractors. The company’s first partnership is with the National Football League. Working through Sporticulture, growers will have the ability to produce team color plants in officially licensed NFL containers and tags. “Walnut Springs is a grower first and foremost, and Cort wants a program to benefit growers and give them the opportunity to add profit margins and sell plants at a higher price utilizing the power of the NFL brand,” says Pete Gilmore, director of business development at Sporticulture. “We are encouraging growers to utilize their […]

Read More
Urban Gardens

June 19, 2015

Urban Gardens Feed The World On A Local Level

Growing food in small spaces and urban gardening go hand in hand, no surprise there. But the fact that there are 200 million urban farmers worldwide, supplying food to 700 million people may be a startling revelation to those who equate food production with large rural farms. According to a fact sheet report from the Food of Agriculture Organization of the United Nations entitled “Feeding Cities, The Role of Urban Agriculture,” the 700 million people urban farmers supply with produce accounts for 12 percent of the world population. Aside from the obvious benefit of helping to feed a burgeoning world population, urban farms, the newest trend in a greener future, are a source of revenue for under- or unemployed residents. They also provide on-the-job youth training and community education and shorten the journey from farm to plate. And the benefits don’t end there. Urban farms may be small, but they have […]

Read More

June 18, 2015

Introducing SHIFT: An AmericanHort Initiative

AmericanHort, along with its research affiliate the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), introduces SHIFT: An AmericanHort initiative. This innovative research project takes a hard look at the future of the industry. What was once announced as the “the future of retail” research project isn’t just about retail anymore — it’s about how the collective industry can rise to the challenge of meeting modern and future consumers’ expectations. This research demands a shift in strategies, thinking and paradigms. It forces us to think and to ask ourselves, “What if we started doing things differently?” SHIFT is the largest research initiative of its kind for the industry. The resulting data, insights and recommendations paint a clear picture of opportunity for all industry businesses to capitalize on trends and even get ahead of the curve. SHIFT is the future of consumers, the future of retail, the future of the supply chain and the future […]

Read More