From coffee and soybeans to herbs and spices, from ornamentals to veggies and back to ornamentals again, Regina Coronado has pretty much grown it all. And she’s done it across the country and back, as she’s relocated from her home in Guatemala to Florida, Texas, Georgia, Washington and now North Carolina, where she’s been head grower at Bell Nursery since 2015.
As Coronado rose through the ranks in the U.S. greenhouse industry, she had to hurdle many challenges and find opportunities where others only saw obstacles.
“First of all, I am an immigrant, and if you come from another country, you have to prove you’re adept,” says Coronado, who arrived under a visa, then got her green card, and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. “The second thing is that this is a male-dominated industry, so you have to be a little bit tough to survive.”
Through her persistence, dedication and unwavering drive to improve, Coronado overcame these odds to carve out a successful career in the greenhouse industry.
Combining her love of the outdoors with her love of science, Coronado earned an agronomy degree in Guatemala. She was working as a soil lab technician for a coffee grower when she realized she was in the minority — even in her home country.
“When my boss left, I applied for his position, and when I went to the HR department, they told me that I filled all the requirements, but [they] would not allow me to be the head of the soil lab [because] I was too young, and I was a woman,” Coronado says.
She found her opportunity a few months later in America. A man in Guatemala had purchased a small nursery in Florida, and he hired agronomists to spend three months there learning the greenhouse business, to help him establish one back in Guatemala. Once Coronado got to the U.S., three months turned into 26 years — and counting.
While working for that nursery, she frequently picked up plugs from Speedling. “The first time I saw that greenhouse, I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I could work here!’” says Coronado, who ended up working at Speedling for seven years, serving as head grower of vegetables in Texas, then annuals in Georgia.
That’s where she met Louis Stacy, the founder of Stacy’s Greenhouses. When he visited Speedling one day, he left his business card with Coronado and told her to call if she ever needed a job. She started working for him in 2002 in South Carolina, where she learned all about perennials.
“He was an outstanding mentor to me,” Coronado says of Stacy, who died at age 81 in January, days before this interview. “I was just thinking about everything he taught me over the years, like his commitment to excellence. He really put the word ‘quality’ in my mind, because in his mind, the only way we would compete was with high-quality plants.”
When Stacy retired, Coronado sought an opportunity out west in Washington state, working for Northwest Horticulture, before she came back east to join Bell Nursery.
Growing a team
As head grower at Bell Nursery, Coronado oversees perennials production, spanning about 100 acres over two facilities: one dedicated to colorful flowers like lilies, iris, dianthus and phlox, and another dedicated to groundcovers and hostas.
“Everything I grow, I enjoy,” she says. “For me, growing is a passion, and I’m very fortunate to get paid for my passion.”
Coronado oversees a team of irrigators, chemical applicators and plant maintenance crews at each location, roughly 40 miles apart. She alternates days at each facility, focusing on scouting and quality control.
“I do a lot of scouting myself, and a lot of quality control on potting, pruning, weeding and spacing, because Bell’s goal is to send high-quality plants to the stores,” Coronado says. “I spend a lot of time testing water and soil and doing trials with new varieties and new chemistries. In other words, I never have time to get bored.”
Because she can’t be both places at once, Coronado also spends time training her team.
“It’s never-ending training — for the people and for myself,” Coronado says. “I try to stay updated all the time, because to me, growing is like being a doctor. If you fall behind, it’s not good for me or the company because we want to be efficient.”
Coronado is committed to improving herself and the people around her. It’s her way of giving back to an industry that has been warmly welcoming and helpful to her as she’s grown her career.
“I’m glad I had the opportunity to come to the U.S.,” says Coronado, who returns to Guatemala every year. “My life in the beginning when I came to the U.S. was hard, but being here has been a blessing. I believe that if you’re given an opportunity, you need to try it out. Sometimes opportunity only comes one time and if you don’t take it, you lose it.”