The Barnitz brothers are busy. On top of producing 130 million plugs and liners, while also serving independent retailers and their own garden centers in the spring, Bob’s Market & Greenhouses in Mason, W.Va., has made the commitment to nurture beautification programs. The most successful program has been in Galipolis, Ohio, which has participated in the America In Bloom (AIB) competition the last five years and won a national award for its floral displays. You can also find Bob’s beautiful baskets in Belpre, Ohio, and across the river in Mason, Hartford, New Haven and Point Pleasant, W.Va.
Galipolis already had nice, historic-looking lampposts and local merchants paid a one-time fee for the basket planters. “We said if you buy the baskets, we’ll plant them and take care of them,” Barnitz says. “We sell the plants directly to Galipolis In Bloom at a discount off retail. Lori Kelly, who manages our garden center in Galipolis, is on the local committee and has assumed a leadership role. We participate in the planting weekend mobilizing volunteers.” In the towns that don’t have the iron lampposts, Bob’s hangs 16-inch baskets on big brackets attached to telephone poles.
Leadership varies from town to town. While in Galipolis, it’s the merchants, in Belpre, it is the garden club working with the chamber of commerce. “The key is finding someone in that town to take ownership of it,” Barnitz says. “City officials can be slow. There also has to be someone in your growing or retail operation who takes ownership of the program.” In Belpre, Bob’s garden center manager Jon Neff and his staff coordinate the program and maintain the plants all summer. In the West Virginia towns, two greenhouse employees water.
Bob’s gets the color schemes from the towns in January or February. “Last year, in Galipolis, the public voted on the color scheme in the paper, which built even more community ownership of the program,” Barnitz says, adding that people really liked the 2010 colors–contrasting petunias in light pink and hot pink accented by lavender verbena. Past schemes include patriotic (red, white and blue) and deep purple with chartreuse.
The baskets get planted the second week of April, which is when greenhouse space is available. They spend four weeks in the greenhouse to become fuller and look nice when they are hung. The goal is to get all the baskets hung by Memorial Day. With the four-week turnaround, larger pots (4 ½-inch) are the way to go as inputs for combination plantings.
The lamppost baskets are two half donuts. Each half is planted with three 4 ½-inch pots. Plants are pinched one time toward the end of the four weeks they are in the greenhouse. Basket suppliers Bob’s has used include Kinsman and Austram. Bob’s incorporates Water Works in the soil to help retain moisture. Coco moss baskets are lined with plastic to prevent drying out between waterings. “We poke holes in the bottom for drainage,” Barnitz says. “This also helps the life of the coco moss because it’s not in contact with soil. We can get three years out of the moss liners.”
Bob’s devotes about 3,000 plants to the beautification programs in the six towns, with Galipolis being the most dominant. About two thirds of the plants are donated outright. The varieties are selected from plants Bob’s is already growing. These lines include genetics from Ball FloraPlant, Dömmen and Proven Winners. “All those breeders have good performers,” he says, adding that the best-performing varieties by far are petunias. “For floriferousness, petunias are hard to beat in late July and August. There’s so much heat and sun and they keep blooming their heads off.”
Sustaining Through Summer
Bob’s maintains the plants for about 100 days, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Crews water at least four times a week, even every day, depending on the weather. As plants get bigger, they demand more water and fertilizer. “We fertilize quite heavily. You’re not going to get beautiful color without it,” Barnitz says. “We use 400 ppm nitrogen. Jack’s classic petunia feed is phenomenal. We love it.”
When the program becomes really big, the city needs to commit resources, too. For instance, last summer, Galipolis had more than 80 baskets and 40 large containers on the sidewalk. “In Galipolis, as the program grew, it became taxing on us expense wise, so we got the city to commit to expenses and labor,” Barnitz says. “Plants and soil are the smallest costs to us. The biggest cost is labor.” Bob’s has two employees driving around in a pickup truck with the water tank and pump. They are gone four to five hours a day, five days a week for 15 weeks. It adds up.
The good news is Galipolis has budgeted $10,000 for the program next year. “We’ve got it to the point that we don’t think the city wants to do without flowers,” he says.
Investing in the maintenance is essential to a successful program. There was one instance in which Bob’s sent 100 coco baskets to a city and they were only watered once a week. “It was a huge failure. The city didn’t know what it was doing,” Barnitz says. “Instead, we decided to take care of 40 lamppost baskets in a park by the river. Now there are more people in the park. City officials need to understand there’s got to be someone on payroll who is not 100 percent busy. If they can carve out a couple of hours each morning in the summer, they can have tremendous beauty in their city.”
Return On Investment
Although it may be many years before Bob’s recoups its investment, Barnitz believes the plantings have stimulated sales. “We’re starting to get momentum, seeing more community involvement and more people buying flowers,” he says. Bob’s satisfies demand by setting up big displays at retail, encouraging homeowners to buy baskets, plants and combination planters that match the town’s local colors. This way, they can decorate their porch the same as downtown.
“We’re not getting rich on it but hope we get the business,” Barnitz says. “We feel we’re making a difference in Galipolis. The momentum from the last five years has resulted in sales coming back to us. Ultimately, what you want is more exposure, more people buying. It’s just having our product out there where everyone can see it on a daily basis.”
Representatives from Huntington, W.Va., visited Galipolis and are interested in starting a program. Bob’s goal is for these programs to be paid for directly with city funds. In the meantime, Bob’s is helping each town succeed and see the value plantings bring.
Assuming a leadership role in OFA, the Barnitzes are strong believers and supporters of America In Bloom (AIB) and its potential to grow our industry. “So many people and towns are used to not doing it (planting),” Barnitz says. “It’s a learning curve. We have to be patient. We’d love for AIB to have 550 cities participating instead of 50. If we can accomplish that in 10 years, it would be phenomenal for our industry. It would springboard our market in an upward direction.”