Growing Teams And AIB

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The village of Warwick, N.Y., has a vibrant downtown business district. That vibrancy continues to grow and has brought many unique opportunities and even some surprises to the townsfolk and four area garden centers. One of the grower-retailers spearheading this effort is Deborah Sweeton, owner of Generals Garden and TechniGrowers Greenhouses.

In 2003, a small group of interested citizens formed a committee and entered the America in Bloom (AIB) competition in 2004 and Warwick won its population category. They have continued their efforts every year since, even without the competition as an impetus to keep going.

In fact, this year they are entering the International Communities in Bloom Competition and will compete with Canadian and European towns in their population category. This summer, Warwick will compete against Aylmer, Ontario; Boissevain, Manitoba; Hampton, New Brunswick; Nieuwport, Belgium; Pembroke, Ontario; Pitlochry, United Kingdom; and Quesnel, British Columbia. Awards will be presented in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in October.

Coming Together

Participating in AIB has benefited merchants and residents. When interviewed recently after a busy warm spring day, Sweeton shared progress her group has made. She leads the 15-member core committee that keeps the AIB movement growing in Warwick every year. The municipality sees the benefit of the program and contributes man hours to hanging baskets and watering them through the growing season throughout town. The mayor even sits on the committee. The businesses contribute money and the residents volunteer to plant and maintain pots and plantings, literally keeping it growing.

Warwick’s strategic efforts have been honed over the last seven years and are making a big difference in this New York suburb. In the first year of the competition, area growers donated plants and materials at the growers’ cost. Fundraising now accounts for the $6,000 to $10,000 raised each year. Letters are sent to all downtown merchants and residents who continue to support the effort by making monetary donations. The need grows as the projects continue. Most of the money goes toward providing planting materials, which are sold to the AIB committee at wholesale prices.

Today, as you drive down the main street you will see 40 hanging baskets, 120 containers, 65 30-inch large pots and 15 bridge planters dotting the streetscape. This year the parking meters were upgraded with sleeves to add visual appeal and cohesiveness with the other lighting and refuse fixtures that dot the main thoroughfare.

The growers meet before the growing season. Their group discussion leads to the development of a list and final number of plants needed for baskets, pots and planters. Then, the growers divvy up the plant list and are assigned a certain number each to grow. A weekly conference call coordinates them to track their growing and delivery schedules. The greatest surprise and benefit for the horticultural businesses is they are now a team and have become friends. Before, they were just competitors.

As the number of planters has grown over the years, so has the gardening interest of customers shopping downtown. When a number of people started asking questions about the plants in the containers, the four retail garden centers met their growing interest. They have published a tri-fold, anecdotal brochure that includes “recipes” for do-it-yourselfers, drawings of the plants indicating both the botanical and common names and, most importantly, where they can be purchased. The brochures are distributed to the merchants throughout the village and at municipal buildings. Sweeton concluded that the greatest benefit for the village is that “100 percent of the merchants support the beautification effort.”

A Lasting Impact

AIB’s External Relations Chair and Greenhouse Grower Editor Delilah Onofrey says Warwick is just one of many examples of towns where growers and garden center retailers have been successful in closing the loop locally, driving home the benefits of a national program.

“The best way to reap the benefits in your market is to plant the program and watch it grow,” she says. “It’s contagious and residents really appreciate the visible difference and results. More baskets get planted each year. More beds get adopted. Plantings sprout up in commercial, residential and industrial districts. Just as blight and graffiti lead to bad things, plantings jumpstart good things and create vibrancy.”

For more information about America In Bloom, visit Experience AIB firsthand at the national symposium and awards program in St. Louis, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Diana K. Weiner is an America In Bloom judge. For 16 years she served as the community horticulture educator and Master Gardener coordinator for Orange County, N.Y. She recently joined the staff of the Friends of High School Park as the restoration and volunteer manager for this 11-acre native plant sanctuary in Elkins Park, Pa.

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