|By Patty Glenn Leander
Have you ever found yourself in a garden center, marveling at the variety and vigor of those baby vegetable plants in 4-inch plastic pots? And have you ever wondered about the people behind the pots – the ones who work hard to give those little seedlings their strong, healthy start in life? If you’ve ever grown your own transplants from seed, you know it takes time, patience and constant attention, along with an ideal environment, to grow a plant from seed. Fatal mistakes come easy – too much water, not enough water, too much heat, too much cold, not enough light – if left unattended for even a day the lives of these plants are in jeopardy. Lucky for us, if our seed starts should meet an early and, of course, always unintentional demise, we can easily go out and purchase replacements. But what about those folks whose job it is to provide a steady supply of transplants to our local nurseries, the folks who spend their days tending to greenhouses full of little plants, all screaming for attention?
This curiosity about the “behind-the-scenes” aspect of producing vegetable transplants by the thousands led me recently to Sam and Cathy Slaughter, owners of Gabriel Valley Farms, a commercial nursery located on 2 acres of land nestled between the San Gabriel River and Milam Branch, in the unincorporated township of Jonah. With the help of only six employees, they run an efficient and orderly wholesale nursery serving garden centers in Central Texas and beyond.
Before they met, Sam and Cathy had separate careers in the nursery and landscape trade. Their paths crossed one day at a Farmer’s Market and they became good friends. It didn’t take long to realize that they had many of the same customers and were working toward similar goals, and eventually, Cathy said, “we married each other and married our businesses.” Soon after, in the shadow of an old cotton gin that sits on the property just east of Georgetown, Gabriel Valley Farms was born. That was more than 20 years ago, and they have been producing lovely, robust transplants ever since.
The business started with herbs, perennials, a small selection of bedding plants, one greenhouse and two dedicated, organic-minded, hard-working employees – Sam and Cathy. They worked 24/7 in the beginning, handling propagation, potting up, ordering, delivery and customer service. As Sam recounts, there was not much reference material available at the time about growing organically, and much of their day-to-day operations developed from trial and error. They would make deliveries to nurseries from the back of their car. On the weekend they would come in to water the plants and take inventory, and when the temperatures dipped below freezing, Sam would come over twice a night, at 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., to stoke the wood stoves they used to heat the greenhouses. As their customer base grew, so did the demand for plants. They built additional greenhouses and cold frames, added heaters, and hired full-time help. As orders increased, they saw that backyard gardeners were clamoring for tomato transplants and so they were added to the wholesale list. And Sam, being a pepper lover, began to dabble with new and unusual varieties, which eventually became part of their inventory. The business grew steadily, and about eight years ago, it received an enormous boost when a customer asked a simple question: “Do you sell cucumber and squash plants?” Cathy and Sam had never considered such a concept as they were well aware that these vegetables were easy to seed directly in the garden. But the requests persisted and they realized that many folks, with their time and space at a premium, were looking for quick results in the vegetable garden. Small-space gardeners didn’t want to buy a whole packet of seeds when all they needed was 2 or 3 plants. So Gabriel Valley Farms satisfied the demand and in no time were selling, and selling out of, transplants of squash and cucumbers. They soon added cole crops, lettuces and Asian greens. As soon as they opened the door to vegetables, said Cathy, “the stampede began.”
The demand for vegetables has been constant, not just every year, but every season. Cathy lives her life planning 4 to 6 months ahead. In the middle of fall she starts thinking about spring production – placing orders for supplies and looking at new varieties to try. She orders seeds by the thousands, and keeps them organized alphabetically in a file cabinet. Tomatoes are by far the most popular vegetable they sell. Favorite varieties include ‘Better Boy,’ ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Carnival,’ ‘Roma,’ ‘Sweet 100,’ ‘Super Fantastic’ and ‘Juliet’ as well as the heirlooms ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Homestead,’ ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ ‘German Johnson’ and ‘Black Krim.’ Rosemary, basil and lavender are their most popular herbs, though they sell a large variety of other herbs, depending on the season. They keep their eyes and ears open for vegetable recommendations and try to sell proven performers as well as varieties that are new to the gardening scene. This year they are offering something rather unconventional for the area – rhubarb transplants. Rhubarb may not like Texas summers, but our milder winters are a breeze. By thinking outside the box and growing rhubarb as a fall-to-summer annual, gardeners in Central, East and South Texas are discovering that rhubarb can be grown successfully in a backyard garden.
Sam and Cathy complement each other perfectly. Cathy doesn’t care for the heat; so she runs the business from the inside, coordinating inventory, orders and delivery. She is the ultimate multi-tasker. The phone rings, an employee asks a question, a client walks in the door, Oreo the cat needs some love, and she doesn’t miss a beat. Sam loves being outdoors, loves plants and loves to grow things. Many nurseries use an automated watering system, but Sam prefers a custom approach to watering because of the variety of plants with different irrigation needs. He spends much of his day passing through each of the 19 greenhouses, hose in hand, visually inspecting the plants, making mental notes about inventory and tending to maintenance issues. He also maintains a test plot right on site where he tries many of the newer vegetable varieties. At the end of every work week, Cathy takes an inventory and prepares a plant availability list that she sends out to her customers. Nurseries must place their orders by Monday afternoon and deliveries (they have a truck and driver now) begin on Tuesday and run through Friday. And the cycle begins again.
With the exception of lavender, which they start from plugs, all of the vegetable and herb transplants from Gabriel Valley Farms are seeded or propagated from cuttings on site. They have one propagation house and one propagator, Reggi Hoelscher, and she is a master at it. She begins every morning with a quick check of the seedlings as she enters the propagation house. During peak season there can be more than 60,000 seedlings filling the tables of the propagation house, but that does not intimidate Reggi. She spends eight hours a day, five days a week, seeding, thinning and pinching . . . and she loves every minute of it. Cathy carefully determines the varieties that need to be planted and supplies Reggi with the seeds and the tags. Most vegetables have a short shelf life and a quick turn-around. Lettuce, for example, takes only three weeks to go from a tiny seed in the propagation house, to a 4-inch pot on a nursery shelf. Tending the plantlets in her little seedling nursery gives Reggi deep satisfaction and she tries not to get too attached to her “babies” as they grow. In most cases they are ready to make the jump to 4-inch pots in just a few short weeks, and she cheerfully bids them farewell, knowing that she has done her part to get them off to a good start. Some are destined to end up in the hands of inexperienced or inattentive gardeners, abandoned and ignored. But the majority, she hopes, will end up in the hands of capable Texas gardeners, thriving in a well-tended garden, where they will be allowed to grow and flourish and ultimately reach their botanical potential.
During the warm weather months, Reggi’s robust plugs take a short cart ride from the propagation house to the cotton gin, where they are skillfully transplanted into 4-inch pots by planting technicians. Working in the shade of the cotton gin gives the employees a respite from heat and sun. According to Sam, the tall ceiling and constant breezes flowing through the open structure make it the coolest part of the property. During the colder months, the potting-up takes place in a heated cold frame adjacent to the propagation house.
Because they live between a river and a creek, and because they grow so many edibles, Sam and Cathy have always taken a more natural approach to raising their plants. Because the native plants surrounding the property are full of beneficial insects, they have always tried to avoid the use of synthetic pesticides. They inspect their plants regularly for insects and find that a Neem oil spray is helpful for outbreaks of aphids. Sam fertilizes the transplants weekly with an organic mixture of fish emulsion, liquid seaweed and molasses. Since concentrating their focus on vegetables and herbs a few years ago, Sam and Cathy made the decision to apply for organic certification of their edible plants. It took some time and effort to get through the process; the biggest hurdle was finding an organic supplier of soil mix, which Cathy orders by the truckload. Once they found a supplier willing to blend a soil mix to their specifications using organic ingredients (which include peat moss, vermiculite, composted pine bark and fertilizer flakes), they were able to submit the paperwork to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Interest in growing organically runs high these days, and the process for certification can take up to a year. Gabriel Valley Farms received official organic certification of their vegetable and culinary herb transplants in October, 2008.
Gardening in much of Texas is a year-round activity, and the demand for transplants is constant. Vacations away from the nursery are rare for Cathy and Sam, but they try to take advantage of the slight lull that usually comes in late July, just before the storm of activity for the fall season begins. But they never take a vacation from the idea that working with plants is therapeutic, and growing your own food is a wholesome prescription for our overweight and out-of-shape society. As I wrapped up my interview with Sam and Cathy and headed for the door, tiny raindrops began to fall. Heavy, dark clouds surrounded the nursery. We all smiled at the thought of rain, especially, Sam. “That means less work for me tomorrow,” he said with a grin. Less work watering, for sure, and more time to tackle the endless chores from his mental checklist.