As manager of trials and finished plant production at Lucas Greenhouses in Monroeville, N.J., Jason Szymanski makes sure that that the wholesale nursery sends the best, highest-quality plants out the door. But when he first started working at Lucas Greenhouses part-time during high school, he never thought he’d spend the next two decades there.
“I just enjoyed working outside. I couldn’t imagine being stuck in an office behind a desk all day,” says Szymanski, who grew up in rural South Jersey, about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia.
Szymanski followed his passion to pursue an associate’s degree in ornamental horticulture at the local community college, while working part-time at Lucas. His goal, after graduating, was to land a gardening job at Walt Disney World in Orlando — which he did, in 1998.
“My responsibilities as a gardener at Disney included the area around the Magic Kingdom castle,” Szymanski says. “That area was maintained by five or six guys every day, keeping everything manicured to perfection. It had high traffic and a lot of damage from guests, but everything had to look perfect, so they spared no expense. If people walked over $10,000 worth of plants, well, you replanted $10,000 worth of plants. There aren’t many places in the world that put that much money and attention into their landscape, so that offered a great experience.”
When Szymanski came home for Christmas, he learned that Lucas Greenhouses was expanding. He missed the changing seasons of the Northeast, and family and friends who lived there, so he moved back home to take advantage of the growth opportunity.
Since then, Szymanski has only spent a couple other years away from Lucas Greenhouses; he worked briefly in the landscape business. Overall, he has worked at Lucas more than 20 years, growing right along with the company.
“When I was in high school, it was just a small three-and-a-half-acre facility, and now at peak season, our growing space is over 40 acres of production,” Szymanski says. “It’s been a tremendous joy to be part of the growth of the business.”
People and plants
Lucas Greenhouses grows rooted cuttings, young plants and finished plants. Szymanski oversees the latter, as manager of finished plant production. “My responsibilities here at Lucas are to make sure all finished plants go out the door at spec, ready for sale,” he says. “I also oversee trialing to pick the best of the best.”
Flowering annuals make up a large percentage of finished plant production at Lucas Greenhouses. Szymanski says the most popular plant trend recently has been combination containers that offer a variety of colors and textures in one pot. That’s why he focuses on an extensive variety of plants, in a wide range of sizes.
Szymanski manages a team of 10 growers (with additional help during peak season), who “all work intense hours to ensure only quality product is leaving the Lucas facility,” he says. In that sense, his job is as much about managing people as it is about managing plants.
“It’s not just maintaining or watering or fertilizing the plants; it’s dealing with everyone’s individual personalities,” he says. “Especially when you’re working long hours in March, April and May, and it’s hot, people can get stressed out. Most growers get burned out and move to another position in the industry because they want their weekends back.”
I just enjoyed working outside. I couldn't imagine being stuck in an office behind a desk all day. —Jason Szymanski
But plants don’t take days off, so neither does Szymanski. In the last 10 years, only one or two guys have left his staff. He says having a reliable team, backed by supportive ownership, is key to overcoming the busy times and their challenges.
“A lot of it has to do with the people you work with and the people you work for — and I work for really good people,” he says, crediting owners George and Louise Lucas for building a strong team of loyal associates. “We have all the tools we need, and we have a lot of flexibility [to do] what we need to do to keep plants perfect, so that helps take the stress off when crunch time comes.”
Though an affinity for plants led him into the industry, Szymanski says the best part about his job is the people he works with; they make the long hours more enjoyable.
“Anyone who has been a grower as long as I have knows that dealing with the long hours is one of the toughest things,” he says. After 20 years in the industry, the seasonal ebbs and flows have become routine to Szymanski, who offers this advice to other growers struggling with their schedule: “Use those few slow off-season weeks wisely, and spend them with your family,” he says.