A 530-acre gem of a farm, hidden away but not far from densely populated areas of Howard County, MD, is drawing customers for more than one reason. In addition to growing a variety of greenhouse crops, Sharp’s Farm at Waterford is dedicated to education.

Alexander Harrell, who’s currently in his seventh year as the greenhouse manager for Sharp’s, said he learned how to grow on the job after working on other farms. Harrell and his crew start more than 300 different plants in greenhouses for sale directly from the farm, at farmers markets and for wholesale.

Sharp’s is represented at a farmers markets in Baltimore, the Mount Vernon Conservancy Flower Mart and an herb festival. The majority of the farm’s wholesale business is selling started plants to cut flower growers, most of which are sold through preorders prior to planting.

When Harrell first started at Sharp’s, the greenhouses were used to grow about one-third the selection of flowers and sold to just a few cut flower growers. Over time, with more interest in cut flowers, that aspect has expanded. Harrell said that by offering young, started plants to those flower growers, they have more time to concentrate on marketing.

It’s difficult to predict what cut flower growers will want each season, and while Harrell has noticed that colors and styles change from year to year, he usually doesn’t know what was popular for that season until the end of the season.

“It’s almost never the same the next year,” he said. “There’s no way to predict. I ask what the popular wedding colors are so I can double down on those, but it isn’t as simple as that.”

The recent interest in growing cut flowers provides an opportunity for Harrell to help those who are new to the industry, and he fields quite a few questions from those who are interested in this growing segment. While some cut flower growers work alone, Harrell said the field is changing.

“I’m seeing a lot more collectives of cut flower growers,” he said. “If someone has limited space, there’s only so much they can grow, but by partnering with another farm, they can complement each other.”

To ensure new cut flower growers have a successful start, Harrell suggested seeking an apprenticeship prior to launching their own business. “Farming allows people to be idiosyncratic,” said Harrell. “Everyone is going to do things differently, but as long as they have good, general agricultural practices, it doesn’t matter if you remove a weed with a hoe or your hands.”

In spring, Sharp’s offerings include a selection of herbs, which customers enjoy selecting for their home gardens. Rather than planting several different herbs together in a pot, Harrell has found customers prefer purchasing individual herbs and creating their own mixes. “People enjoy the experience of coming here and picking their own plants,” he said.

Zack Wilkes and Maeve Goldstein work on transplanting at Sharp’s. One of the farm’s seasonal tours allows young students to pot and take home their own plants. Photo courtesy of Sharp’s at Waterford

Although Harrell plants quite a few flower and vegetable varieties, he keeps his planting list as slim as possible due to the time it takes to manage many different young plants with different requirements. “I’ve found that taking away some of the decisions for people keeps it from being overwhelming and helps customers make a faster decision,” he said.

Like other growers, Harrell saw a surge in sales during COVID. “People stuck to the same selections,” he said. “Green basil is the most popular, and it’s easy to grow. People also like French lavender and hardy rosemary. When they can successfully grow the staples, it’s easier to get them to come back.”

Harrell said growing a selection of unique varieties is what sets Sharp’s apart from other options. “People can go to any other retail nursery for a selection of Vinca, daisies, geraniums,” he said. “I like to grow plants that set us apart. People know they’ll get something different when they come here.”

After the greenhouses are empty in mid-spring, Harrell follows strict cleaning and sanitizing protocols. It’s also the ideal time to make repairs on greenhouse structures and interiors such as benches and remove weeds from the floors.

“I think of greenhouse cleaning and sanitation as making the workspace more efficient as well as keeping up with weeds, disease and pest management,” he said.

Having the right plants ready in time for various venues comes with time. Harrell might not select the right plants to offer the first time he attends an event, but he quickly learns what appeals to customers.

“People who come to us see veggie plants while others have flowers and baskets,” he said. “I try to focus on what we do really well so our stand can complement the one next to us.”

The greenhouse at Sharp’s at Waterford is just one aspect of the business. A variety of on-farm programs are aimed at presenting accurate agricultural information to the public. Harrell said many consumers are out of touch with what happens on a working farm, but are willing to learn.

Tours throughout the growing season include plant-centered events in April and May during which students learn the parts of a seed, the process of germination, how roots and leaves grow and the role of chlorophyll. A greenhouse tour shows plants at different growth stages, and students pot a plant to take home.

From May through August, the “Ponds, Puddles and Creeks” tour provides a firsthand look at water inhabitants. Students learn about the lifecycle and habitat of amphibians and stream insects.

“We try to make sure people have a great experience and memories,” said Harrell. “We talk about waterways, erosion and nutrient management. We take them to the creek to catch bugs and talk about indicator species. That part really sinks in because it’s hands-on.”

The farm is currently working on a wetland reestablishment project along a creek on the farm, and replanting trees on cropland as part of a reforestation project.

The “Nature Knowledge” tour offers a look at forest life, how forests protect streams and provide wildlife habitat and how forest resources are used on the farm. Autumn brings numerous visitors who come for U-pick pumpkins and fall activities.

“The farm doesn’t offer a lot of entertainment,” said Harrell. “We focus on the educational aspect and connect people outside the classroom.”

Visit Sharp’s at Waterford Farm online at sharpfarm.com.

by Sally Colby