The four-acre wholesale operation that is currently Pike Farms produces only about 5 percent at the most of Pike Nurseries’ retail garden center needs; however, that’s going to change in the next couple of years. James Russell, vice president and general manager of Armstrong Growers in California and Pike Farms in Georgia, is shopping for a 15- to 20-acre facility in the Atlanta area to retrofit and produce plants for Pike Nurseries’ 15 retail stores in Atlanta, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C.
“The preference is to find a facility that is vacant, or wants to sell, and go in and retrofit that,” Russell says. “It’s generally cheaper. For us, I’ve learned that going in, doing that is a lot less expensive than permits and new construction can be. Sometimes building greenhouses is frowned upon in communities. But if we can’t find a facility, we’ll have to find some land and put some new structures up around the outskirts of Atlanta.”
It’s a model that Armstrong Growers has used along the California coast, to build its wholesale facilities for Armstrong Garden Centers. When Armstrong purchased Pike Nurseries in 2008, the operation had this model in mind to create the same vertical integration on the East Coast. Armstrong Growers currently supplies around 80 percent of its garden centers’ plant material.
To build the current two-acre greenhouse facility, Russell purchased several former Home Depot garden centers in Atlanta, took them down and reconstructed and retrofitted them, adding to the structure that was already onsite and retrofitted. With some investment, he added walkways, concrete and loading docks to turn it into a nice running farm.
In California, big changes are underway. With the recent sale of Armstrong Growers’ San Juan Capistrano location, the operation is expanding its Fallbrook location, and built 10 acres of greenhouses there, plus a new vegetative propagation range and another loading dock.
This summer, greenhouses will be taken down and moved from San Juan Capistrano, and reconstructed and retrofitted in Fallbrook, as well as at another yet unnamed location, which will be disclosed in the coming months. The new land will provide a net gain of 15 acres of land overall, Russell says.
As someone who used to buy a lot of new greenhouses, Russell says he has found satisfaction in buying and rebuilding older greenhouses to expand Armstrong growers. It’s a cost-effective and sustainable way to breathe new life into the landscape, he says.
“It’s quite expensive to go over there and unbolt everything and then have to put all new posts in. A lot of new stuff goes back into a retrofit, but it’s sad to see a greenhouse just sit there,” he says. “It’s like an old barn — the poor thing is sitting there, it needs to be put back into use.”
In Fallbrook, the new vegetative propagation range was retrofitted last summer from an existing greenhouse, with a Delta T Solutions heating system, all new rolling benches, a Netafim fog mist system and a new environmental controls system. Last summer also saw 60,000 square feet of new production space for New Guinea impatiens and poinsettias.
New this spring, Armstrong Growers added a new greenhouse completely dedicated to year-round production of Rigor begonias. The 35,000-square-foot greenhouse includes new benches, bottom heat, thrip screens and extra air flow to prevent mildew.
The begonia house also features a double door entry port, similar to what you would see in an offshore greenhouse, as part of the pest control protocol to protect young plants. The bright white thrips screening is something new Armstrong Growers is trialing, to find out if insect exclusion could replace some of the chemicals it uses. Another environmentally controlled greenhouse is completely screened, and two greenhouses in the field will test crops that Armstrong always has trouble with. No chemicals will be sprayed in the test greenhouses, to see how well the exclusion works. If the crops do well, Russell says Armstrong will look at screening on a broader scale.
“Where we’re at, chemicals are getting tough to use,” Russell says. “People don’t want us to use chemicals, and effectiveness of some of the chemicals is just not working.”
For example, the Bagrada bug is one pest that is insatiable, reproduces quickly and ferociously mows down vegetable crops and sweet alyssum, and few chemicals can effectively conrol it. It comes around in late September, so Russell says he’s hoping the screens will keep them out during the short time that they’re around.
“We aren’t going chemical-free, but we certainly want to reduce them,” he says. “If we could even just break cycles, exclusion has got to be the way to go.”