Photos courtesy of Michael's Greenhouses

Mary Beth Martin realized early on that nature makes her happy. Growing up in Connecticut, she spent most of her time “wandering around the woods, climbing trees and finding wildflowers.” Today, Martin gets to share the happiness that plants provide with others, as head grower at Michael’s Greenhouses in Cheshire.

“I’ve always loved flowers and the joy they bring people, and now I get to create that,” says Martin, who has been at Michael’s since 2012. “If I do my job well, we have beautiful product leaving the greenhouse that’s going to give people a big smile and brighten up their whole day.”

Martin didn’t plan on a horticulture career, though. While earning her biology degree at Fairfield University, she took an assortment of courses to explore different areas of the field. Initially, she wanted to study birds, but her advisors steered her toward opportunities in horticulture, and she went on to earn a master’s degree in plant pathology from the University of Massachusetts.

Falling back on her lifelong love of flowers, Martin applied for a growing job at White Flower Farm, and she worked there for a while before having a child. She stayed home with her daughter for 10 years before returning to horticulture, growing for a small begonia greenhouse near her home. She worked there for 10 years, until a growing position opened at Michael’s Greenhouses in 2012.

Since joining Michael’s Greenhouses, her role has grown right along with the operation as the family-owned wholesale grower continues to expand and innovate. Today, she oversees all 10 acres of greenhouse production, while looking for ways to more efficiently produce the high-quality plants her customers expect.

Responding to growth

Initially, Martin managed a rental property spanning about an acre’s worth of greenhouses. After a year, she was promoted to head grower, and her responsibilities quickly expanded as the operation added more space.

“When they offered me the head grower job, there were 3 acres of greenhouses at that point,” she says. “Then they added another 3 acres in 2013, and then another acre and a half a couple years later. Just last year, we added another 2 acres of greenhouse, so it’s been expanding ever since I started.”

As Michael’s enlarges, Martin constantly moves plants around to match crops to the right conditions. “We always put crops in different greenhouses as we add space, and try to pair the environment to what the plant [needs],” she says. “Every greenhouse is different, every crop is different, and every season is different, so everything is a constant variable. You can’t just follow the same instructions every year.”

For example, when Martin started her greenhouse growing career, growers typically sprayed chemicals weekly, “whether plants needed it or not,” she recalls, “because that’s just what you did.” Now, Martin pays close attention to plants and her scouts for potential pest problems, instead of just following a set spray rotation. (Hanging baskets are an exception — since they’re too high to scout for pests, they still get a preventative drench of insecticide.)

Growing more efficiently

As Michael’s Greenhouses grows, the company continually invests in technologies that make operations more efficient.

“We’re always looking for ways to be more sustainable and save labor,” Martin says. New greenhouse structures include energy-saving features like LED lights and heated floors. Automated booms improve watering efficiency and consistency, and Argus environmental controls let Martin and her growers “manipulate the greenhouse environment to reduce problem conditions.”

One of Martin’s responsibilities is tracking the operation’s chemical use for Michael’s MPS (More Profitable Sustainability) certification, which measures environmentally responsible practices in the greenhouse. “Part of my job is making sure that we use the safest chemicals we can,” she says. “I spend a lot of time researching new products that are good for the environment and good for my workers.”

Martin often applies RootShield, an organic biological fungicide, as a “root protection system” during production, which has “reduced our chemical needs for root diseases to almost nothing,” she says. Likewise, she uses DiPel, a biological insecticide, to control caterpillars without adding hazardous re-entry interval windows for her workers. She also uses beneficial bugs to manage pests, including:

  • Nematodes to control fungus gnats and thrips
  • Predatory mites to fight thrips on Gerber daisies
  • Predatory wasps for whitefly control on poinsettias

    To evaluate new chemistries and controls, Martin must balance crop results with cost margins to keep Michael’s Greenhouses growing efficiently. “We’re trying to be as innovative as we can, but we also have to watch our margins,” she says. “If I can look back and say, ‘We produced this beautiful plant, and we did it in a cost-effective manner,’ that’s when I know that we’ve done our job right.”