Many New England farms have seen major changes from one generation to the next, including Peckham’s Greenhouse in Little Compton, RI. Although the Peckham family began farming in 1866 with fruits, vegetables, flowers and dairy, over the years the family transitioned to growing plants.

Fifth generation owners Rick and Laura Peckham expanded the greenhouse and garden center business, and today, their daughter Carley is the sixth generation working the family business.

“I’ve always loved plants and have been working here since I was a little girl,” said Carley. “When I moved out west and worked at a greenhouse there, I realized that’s where I wanted to be, but with my family.”

As manager of the indoor section at Peckham’s Greenhouse, Carley oversees tropicals and other houseplants along with a wide variety of garden supplies.

“There are a lot of colleges in the area, and many college students are interested in houseplants,” said Carley. “It’s fueling the whole indoor gardening movement. Not everyone has an outdoor space to garden, so it’s a fun experience for people to have a green thumb.”

Peckham’s maintains a selection of houseplants with plenty of variety to suit every customer. Not long ago, hoya was everybody’s favorite houseplant, and now, indoor plants such as rare philodendrons and anthurium are popular. “We have a hard time keeping up with stocking the more rare plants,” Carley said. “They can be hard to grow, but we try to keep them in stock.”

Peckham’s maintains 17 greenhouses, about half of which are used for growing; the rest are dedicated to retail. “We also have a large tree and shrub area,” said Carley.

The season begins with a variety of flower and vegetable starts. “People love vegetable gardening right now,” said Carley. “A large section of a greenhouse has herbs and vegetables. We seed and grow almost all of those ourselves, and seed most of our annuals. We grow 4.5-inch pots of annuals and grow perennials from plugs.”

Herbs and vegetables are sold in four-packs, 3.5-inch square pots and sometimes large pots. Peckham’s also maintains a selection of herbs for cooks, collectors and homeowners who want to get started with them.

Social media has helped people become aware of what’s available for gardening. “Maybe people knew of a garden center and went there or saw something in a magazine or a book,” said Carley. “Now we can look at whatever we want on the internet – it’s hard not to get excited about that.”

Carley has found that customers appreciate purchasing plants from a greenhouse where the owners are overseeing plants from start to finish. “We spend a lot of time making sure plants are healthy,” she said. “Our retail workers spend most of their day cleaning plants and separating them if something looks unwell. We play close attention to all of our plants.”

Rick and his son Max in the stock house. Photo courtesy of Peckham’s Greenhouse

The garden center includes a selection of outdoor planted pots that provide ideas. “Our crew is very creative,” said Carley. “We always have containers of annual mixes for sale, but people can look at them and think about how to use different plants.”

Peckham’s also offers custom potting for customers who prefer to pick up pots that are already planted. Selections include everything from plants that prefer full sun to shade mixes, as well as mixed houseplant containers. One of the greenhouses is dedicated to maintaining mother plants for cuttings.

The majority of Peckham’s customers are from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and many are discovering a large uptick in deer that eat plants they haven’t bothered in the past. The garden center stocks a variety of all-natural animal repellants in both spray and granular form to keep wildlife from ruining gardens. Staff can also recommend plants that don’t attract wildlife.

Carley said for those who grow plants Indoors, the main issues are with spider mites and mealybugs. In summer, when people are growing outside, aphids and powdery mildew are the challenges. Carley and her staff advise early treatment to stop problems before they grow out of control.

To keep plant health at its best, greenhouses are equipped with automated windows that operate with temperature sensors. The business has also transitioned to a POS system. “We can track all of our inventory with it,” said Carley. “It’s so important for us to know what did well and what to grow next year. Keeping track of current inventory has been a game-changer for us, and it’s a great tool that helps us be better growers.”

Over the years, Carley’s family continues to see more young people who are interested in gardening. “A lot of young families with young kids are coming in,” she said. “It’s great to see multigenerational interest in gardening.”

While customer tastes change from year to year, Carley strives to keep items that are timeless and will always look good. “From fall through winter, we go through all the catalogs,” she said. “Rick handles ordering for plant material and I go through the seeding list. I collect notes to find out what did well and what sat on the bench for too long. We try to add a few new fun things each year.”

Autumn vegetable crops are a big sellers, so Peckham’s keeps a supply of lettuce, kale, chard, cauliflower and broccoli to finish the growing season. They grow mums in a variety of colors and start poinsettias in July so they’re ready for Christmas.

Both Carley and her father handle hiring for the business. “We hire in spring, and usually put it out on our website and social media, along with a little bit about the positions available,” she said. “Then we chat with people. I like to think we’re hiring personalities and people who have passions and hobbies. We try to get to know people, and because we’re a family business, our crew is an extension of our family.”

With the goal of maintaining a family-oriented business, Carley seeks friendly people who are willing to work hard. “I tell people that having knowledge of plants is a plus, but it’s a seasonal job and a lot of our crew come back year after year,” she said. “Sometimes we have high school or college students who only work in spring and summer. It’s more important to me they’re willing to learn and are excited about plants. Friendliness and a passion for plants is the most important thing – there’s nothing they can’t learn.”

Customer service is important to everyone at Peckham’s, and their goal of providing one-on-one service ensures a good experience for all customers. “We try to help them find the plants that are right for them.” said Carley. “Which way do windows face? Is there a wood stove in the house that might dry out plants? Or is the yard soggy? We want people to have the best garden or houseplant they can have.”

Visit Peckham’s Greenhouse online at peckhamsgreenhouse.com.

by Sally Colby