Booming Blooms in Illinois
The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped: “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’”
And every spring, opportunities abound to do just that, from weddings and graduations to Easter and prom. Whatever – or whomever – you celebrate, flowers may be second only to food in making a party complete.
“Spring is our busiest season,” says Andy McNitt, second-generation owner of McNitt Growers in Carbondale. “A lot of people come to get flowers for office workers for Administrative Professionals Day in April, but Mother’s Day is by far the biggest. Everybody likes to take care of mom, grandma and the aunts.”
Along with Mother’s Day, every May the college town of Carbondale turns to McNitt Growers to create a festive feel for graduation.
“We decorate big planters to deck out the whole town for graduation weekend,” McNitt says. “We mix and match new colors and varieties to create something that’s eye-catching and durable enough to sit out all summer long.”
Fortunately, they have plenty to choose from.
With greenhouses covering 1.5 acres, McNitt grows as many as 100 varieties, including favorites like geraniums, impatiens, marigolds, petunias and pansies. The grower also cultivates a variety of strawberry plugs, or small seedlings, for distribution to farms across the United States.
The operation includes a retail garden center open to the public every April and May. Primarily a wholesale supplier, McNitt Growers provides flowers to independent, family-owned garden centers throughout southern Illinois as well as parts of Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky.
“Our end users are mom-and-pop stores – not the chains,” says McNitt, who makes it a point to fill his greenhouses with a kaleidoscope of color.
“We specialize in color variety. Where you might see two or three colors of petunias at the big-box stores, we will grow 10 or 12 different colors,” McNitt says. “We want to broaden peoples’ horizons in terms of color.”
That variety also extends to combination planters of different sizes and colors as well as ever-popular hanging baskets.
“We want to make sure people have a choice,” McNitt says. “We try to be unique.”
And today’s flower breeders are happy to oblige.
“Every year, plant breeders introduce something new because gardeners’ tastes are constantly evolving and getting more sophisticated,” says Martha Smith, horticulture educator for University of Illinois Extension. Like the McNitt family, “Most growers go to trade shows to discover new, up-and-coming flowers. Retail outlets watch trends and look at demographics to stay one step ahead.”
In terms of color trends, today’s gardener has thrown any unwritten rules about color out the window, embracing the bold, the beautiful and the unexpected.
“Twenty-five years ago, softer, more traditional colors – cooler pinks, blues and purples – were popular in gardens,” Smith says. “Today, you’ll see unusual hues like deep blackish-purple and unlikely combinations, such as lime green and hot orange.”
Whatever color strikes your fancy, be sure not to forget the flowers once the party’s over. Basic plant care will help your plants last through the summer.
“Follow the general instructions that come with the plant, and ask questions,” Smith says, noting that young plants purchased in spring won’t dry out as quickly, thanks to cooler temperatures and smaller size. “Plants are generally fertilized when you first get them in the spring, but consider starting a fertilizer program four to six weeks later. You also might need to get into deadheading or pinching off dead flowers, depending on the type of plant.”
Timing is a factor, too.
“In spring, people often get antsy and put flowers out too soon, but Mother Nature is in charge,” Smith says. “Be in tune with frost dates for your area. Typically, in northern Illinois it’s safe to put out bedding plants at the end of May, while in southern Illinois you can plant in late April.”
Many of us give little thought as we snap up flowers to feed our spring fever. But growers like McNitt plan up to nine months in advance to make sure we have a stunning selection for spring celebrations and a summer of beauty.
“It takes a long time to prepare, but I enjoy watching things grow and change throughout the year,” says McNitt, who savors the smiles flowers bring after a long winter.
“When people come out in early April, nothing is growing outside and they have the winter blues. When they step inside the greenhouse – everything is green and colorful and looks so good,” he says. “People get caught up in the excitement of spring and all the things spring brings to the body, mind and soul. It’s nice to see people happy.”