December 7, 2019

Tips to Find the Best Plants at Any Greenhouse

Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

Janine Pineo Photo | Ellis' Greenhouse in late April 2011

• By Janine Pineo •

By winter’s end, most gardeners are chomping at the bit for a taste of spring.

I was munching on a nasturtium leaf.

It’s not common practice for Kirby Ellis of Ellis Greenhouse and Nursery in Hudson to feed part of his plant stock to visitors, but he was quizzing me on the identity of the tiny, new plants. After my triumphant identification and his aside on the edibility of nasturtiums — which I knew — he pinched off a leaf and handed it over.

I popped the small piece into my mouth with a lot of bravado. After a couple of chews, I found that the “slight” pepper flavor was a bit stronger than expected and wholly delightful.

Martha Washington geraniums at Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

Janine Pineo Photo | Martha Washington geraniums at Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

A greenhouse visit can be an eye-opening experience, especially when you have a knowledgeable guide. Ellis is just that, dispensing advice, pointing out new plants and describing the ins and outs of the business.

Started in 1981, Ellis Greenhouse and Nursery has expanded to five greenhouses. The newest building was added this past year to house perennials, a growing part of his sales.

His best sellers are the annuals, which include many of the odd new flowers being marketed as “Proven Winners.”

It’s not so much that the plants are odd (how odd is a petunia?), but the special varieties are patented. Ellis said only a handful of growers are licensed to sell plugs — or baby plants — to greenhouses across the country. “Proven Winners” are vegetatively produced (taken from cuttings), he said, because the plants don’t grow true to seed.

All of that means the average greenhouse owner can’t take cuttings, root them, and sell the final product because it’s against the law.

It takes, Ellis said, about a dozen years for a “Proven Winner” to be tested and then marketed, with more varieties becoming available every year.

Ellis is growing several of those new ones this season, adding to his past successes with “Proven Winners” Supertunias, bacopa, rosebud impatiens, scaevola, marguerite daisy and strawflower.

This year, there are nine different colored Supertunias, from white to red to varying shades of pink and purple. These petunia plants are one of the hardiest varieties I’ve ever grown; if you forget to water it, the plant will bounce right back when given a thorough soaking. To keep the foliage a healthy green, plenty of fertilizer is needed.

Supertunias are also a great vine plant, growing rapidly to trail from hanging baskets or as a ground cover.

Other newcomers include “Mauve Mist,” a mauve-flowering bacopa (the first one had white blooms), and a marguerite daisy with white flowers and yellow centers (the earlier “Butterfly” was lemon yellow with a darker yellow center).

Ellis also is experimenting with one true unknown, asparagus sprengeri. This “Proven Winner” has feathery foliage that sprouts from a rhizome-type base. When I asked what it did, Ellis couldn’t say — he hasn’t tried it before. It will be interesting to see what it looks like come May.

“Proven Winner” varieties get a one-year tryout at the greenhouse, giving Ellis a chance to see how the different selections perform and how they sell.

Marigolds line a greenhouse table at Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

Janine Pineo Photo | Marigolds line a table at Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

As we walked through different greenhouses, Ellis, who has a master’s degree in horticulture and is working on his master’s in forestry, had some advice for gardeners on what to look for when buying plants this spring.

First, if possible, visit several greenhouses to compare facilities, plants and prices.

Don’t buy plant packs already in full bloom. “It’s the hardest way to transplant,” Ellis said. Instead, look for plants with buds. If you’re in doubt about the size of the flower or its color, ask the person at the greenhouse.

Wilted plants are always a good warning sign.

Check out the floor. “It should be clean,” Ellis said. There shouldn’t be any garbage or weeds, which can be good spots for bugs to breed.

Be on the lookout for aphids. Ellis said to check the underside of the leaves and the new growth for a light green bug about the size of a pinhead. “Once they’re established, they’re hard to control,” he said.

Look for deformed leaves. It could be a sign of a bug infestation.

Check for yellow or blue sticky cards — similar to flypaper — hanging around the greenhouse. Ellis took down a couple of the monitoring cards in his greenhouses to show me the attached bugs (of which there were very few). One had a spider (not a problem) and a fungus gnat. One gnat alone isn’t a problem, but a lot of them, especially in the larva stage, is. The larvae eat the root hairs of the plants.

Fuchsia at Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

Janine Pineo Photo | Fuchsia at Ellis' Greenhouse in April 2011

In another greenhouse, Ellis identified a thrip. This insect carries tobacco-spotted wilt fever, which is essentially uncurable.

To control these insects, Ellis uses diatomaceous earth, an organic insecticide that is actually the fossilized remains of diatoms, prehistoric single-celled aquatic plants. Twice a week diatomaceous earth is dusted on the plants. Susceptible bugs either ingest it (which inhibits breathing and digestion) or it covers their bodies (which causes loss of fluids and then death).

“Environmental controls are real important,” Ellis said. Air movement within the greenhouse is something to look for (generally fans), and you should check to see if plant packs are wet late in the afternoon. Ellis said April is often a wet month, which means the plants may not dry out before night falls. “I’d rather have it wilt than water it,” he said. If the weather won’t cooperate, Ellis turns the furnace on to dry out the greenhouse.

Of course, sometimes you may spot what you think is a problem that really isn’t. One plant, the ivy geranium, tends to like dry conditions. Ellis said that if this particular flower gets too much water, it starts to form light brown bumps on the underside of the leaves. Those bumps are water calluses. And while they are a bit unsightly, they don’t harm the plant, he said.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in April 1996.

2012 update: Ellis’ Greenhouse and Nursery is still operating on the Old Town Road in Hudson. Ellis supplies a number of stores around the state with plant stock in the spring as well. It’s not a bad idea to ask your local store where it gets its plants from; the answer may surprise you.

And those “odd” Proven Winners plants? They’ve become a mainstay of the industry and can be found at many nurseries around the state.