by Sally Colby
There’s no question that winters in Wyoming are tough. But Holly and Jimmie Cassity, owners of Sweetwater Garden, view the winter months as their opportunity to prepare for customers who are eager to get back to anything green and earthy.
Holly’s uncle opened the Riverton greenhouse operation in 1989, and Holly started working for him when she was a student. A five-year plan for Holly and Jimmie to take over the operation began with transitioning the landscaping side of the business to Jimmie in 2009. Five years later, the couple completed the transition.
Right now, Holly and Jimmie are preparing for the upcoming season. Sweetwater Garden will open on March 1, but there’s a lot of work to do prior to that date.
“We get plugs for annual flowers and baskets,” said Holly. “The first shipment comes in the last week of February. That’s also when we start seeding vegetables. We seed some of the flowers ourselves, and seed all of the vegetables.”
Sweetwater Garden offers an early-order tree and shrub program that begins on March 1. Holly explains the program as a means by which customers can see what’s available online, choose what they want and place an order. Customers get a discount for ordering early, and Holly has better control of inventory. “Someone might want a row of Colorado Spruce and order all we have,” said Holly. “This way we know we have to add more to the order.”
As Wyoming natives, Holly and Jimmie know the importance of offering ‘Wyoming Ready’ nursery stock that is suited for the climate. Holly explains that the term means that the trees and shrubs are ‘waking up’ with plants grown there. “We overwinter a lot of our own trees and shrubs,” she said. “We get shipments in the fall and put them to bed so they’re dormant when everything in our landscape is dormant. They start to ‘wake up’ with the other plants. If I have to bring in spring shipments, I try to get them in before they break bud.”
Holly says that suppliers in Canada and Idaho can ship dormant plants, but she arranges for Oregon nurseries to ship later because she knows those plants will be ahead. “Their stock comes to us already growing while we’re still experiencing cold and freezing weather,” said Holly, adding that Riverton temperatures dip to -30 at night during winter. “That creates a huge problem because there are only so many ways to protect the plants and keep them healthy and nice looking for customers.”
Considering the climate, maintaining a supply of what customers want can be somewhat challenging. Holly tries to keep a good supply of what people are asking for, and guides customers’ decisions so they have a good experience. “The challenge is finding the next popular plant that will actually live here,” said Holly, noting the harsh climate. “We do a lot of research on that because we want all of our customers to be successful. We don’t want them to buy something and have it fail.”
For people who have just moved to the area and are looking for trees and shrubs, Holly suggests that they walk around their neighborhood to see what they like, take photos, and return to Sweetwater Garden with ideas. Holly says fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs, but finds it hard to convince people. For spring planting, she recommends planting at the end of April or early May, depending on the year.
Sweetwater Garden offers a large selection of B&Bs including shade trees, evergreens, fruit trees and ornamentals that do well in the Wyoming climate. Maintaining healthy, viable B&Bs through harsh winter weather can be challenging, but Holly and Jimmie have found that they do fine with a protective compost mixture. Holly says she has visited other nurseries where B&Bs are kept above ground with topsoil heaped around them. “That isn’t healthy for the tree,” she said. “We’ve done enough trial and error over the years that we’ve learned from our errors. The compost and bark mulch mixture helps the trees be healthy. It isn’t as ideal as being in the ground, but it’s the next best thing. We don’t lose many of our B&B trees to desiccation from being above ground.”
Quite a few customers are interested in purchasing fruit trees, so Sweetwater Garden maintains a selection of apple, pear, apricot, cherry and plum trees. Most customers have questions about growing fruit trees, and the Sweetwater staff is prepared to answer. “We do well communicating with our customers and finding out what will make them happy,” said Holly. “We also have a bareroot offering available the last two weeks of April so they can start out with the best possible scenario – taking a dormant tree that doesn’t have any expectations of nice rich dirt, then they can plant it right into the dirt that it will live in.”
Holly says some customers want a specific fruit tree, or sometimes just one apple tree, so she explains cross-pollination and the need for varieties that bloom at roughly the same time. She also asks what the apples will be used for — cooking, fresh eating or storage. “Macintosh apples definitely won’t do well here, but Honeycrisp do great,” she said. “Customers also have to understand that one of the main risks with growing fruit is late freezes. With apricots, if you get one good harvest every four years, that’s great.”
One of the most popular features at Sweetwater Garden is weekend make-and-take workshops, including a popular fairy garden workshop. “We offer that once a month,” said Holly. “In March, we offer a workshop on how to start vegetable seeds. People love that. They often come in and buy plants that are ready to put out in the garden, but they miss that whole beginning stage of growing.” Holly says part of the appeal is the earthy aroma of potting soil when the weather is still dreary, but the appearance of sprouting seedlings is even more rewarding.
Another popular draw in late March is basket days. “For that weekend, we bring the plugs from the growing facility to the greenhouse and let people build their own hanging basket,” Holly explained. “They leave the basket with us, we take care of them, and around May 15, they come pick up their baskets. People are so surprised to see the difference between what they planted and what they pick up.” Holly added that many people come with the intention of planting one basket and end up doing several.
“We have such a need to cure spring fever here,” said Holly. “When we open our doors on March 1, everyone is ready. We’ve held our open house when the temperature was -15, snowing and windy, and people still came. Smelling the greenhouse and the hope that spring is coming is a key benefit for us.”
Visit Sweetwater Garden online at .