In Tennessee, you can find fresh flowers and vegetables in the spring, hardy mums in the fall, and Christmas poinsettias bursting with bright red and white petals in the winter. All of these plants – and many more – are readily available for whatever living display consumers might have in mind, thanks to the state’s nursery industry.
With nearly 1,700 growers in the state, Tennessee’s nursery industry provides approximately $285 million in cash receipts each year. The state ranks 14th in the country for horticulture production, and the industry encompasses everything from perennials and annuals to shrubs, vegetables and Christmas trees.
South Central Growers
In Springfield, family-owned South Central Growers has been operating since the late 1970s, producing annuals, bedding plants, mixed containers, mums, pansies, poinsettias and more.
“Going back a couple of generations, our owners’ grandparents actually immigrated from Holland, and they had 16 children. Most of them are in some way, shape or form involved in the horticulture industry,” Derek Clark of South Central Growers says.
The nursery began with just 1 acre of indoor controlled-climate space. Today, they have 24 acres indoors as well as 16 acres of outdoor growing space on their 150-acre property.
“We mainly grow for big-box retailers, including Walmart, Lowe’s and Sam’s Club, and we grow all of the poinsettias for the Opryland Hotel, as well as the City of Clarksville,” Clark says.
As the business has grown, so too has the demand for better products. In response, South Central Growers added a trial garden to their nursery, and Clark says they participate in the annual council for Lowe’s and Walmart to make sure the newest, best genetics in plants make it onto shelves.
“We work with breeders to set the consumer up for success,” he says. “We’re constantly trialing, and have about 100 new varieties in the greenhouse at one time. Then, they go into the garden and we monitor their performance without using any fancy feed or pesticide treatment. We try to mimic the homeowner’s environment.”
Clark also notes that generational shift has played a role in how South Central Growers has evolved.
“We’re analyzing data and fine- tuning things,” he says. “Millennials have bigger buying power, but we need to make sure we take care of the baby boomers – our longtime customers – as well.”
Wolf River Valley Growers
In Pall Mall, Wolf River Valley Growers has been in operation since 1981. The family-owned greenhouse was formed as a later-in-life career for most of the family, after they decided they wanted to raise their children in Pall Mall.
“Most greenhouse products weren’t grown in Tennessee or Kentucky at that time,” co-owner Bob Pile says. “Most of it came from Michigan and Ohio and was all shipped in. The nursery industry seemed like the best idea to make a living.”
Wolf River Valley originally partnered with big-box chain stores, but switched to independent garden centers about 10 years ago. They also opened retail garden centers in Lenoir City, Murfreesboro and Lebanon, providing customers with vegetable transplants, annual flowers, mixed planters, mums, poinsettias and, most recently, industrial hemp clones.
Another unique aspect of Wolf River’s business is its fundraiser programs. The company partners with different types of groups and organizations, from FFA chapters to sports teams, to sell mums in the fall or poinsettias in the winter as for their group.
“We’ve found them to be a really good thing,” Pile says. “We grow about 70,000 mums and most of them go to fundraisers. The same goes for poinsettias. Essentially all of our poinsettias go to fundraisers.”
Inspections Help Keep Consumers Safe
To make sure that the plants coming from South Central Growers, Wolf River Valley Growers, and the state’s other nurseries are free of disease or invasive pests, Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s (TDA) Plant Certification program inspects nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers. They’re also responsible for certifying lumber and wood products that are moved out of the state.
“Our inspectors not only look for pest issues, but also at production systems, or the big picture,” says Anni Self, plant certification administrator for TDA. “Where do the plants go when they arrive? Is there standing water where pathogens can lurk? Are hoses lying on the ground? The inspectors have a checklist of items to look for.”
Self adds that the relationship between TDA and the growers is excellent, as both parties are working toward the same goal.
“They realize we are working with them to make sure they are able to move their product,” she says.
And it’s a win for everyone, consumer included.
“The consumer receives a healthy product that is grown locally and better acclimated to our climate than one grown across the country and trucked into the state,” Self says.