by Laura Rodley
John LaSalle is in charge of making spring occur all year long inside 14,000 square feet of greenhouses at his 12-acre farm, LaSalle Florists and Greenhouses in Whately, MA, where he lives with his wife Debi LaSalle.
In late March, one of the greenhouses was full of fragrant calla lilies, the result of his planting 1,000 calla lily rhizomes, and Easter lilies grown for the Easter holiday, freesia and stock that supplies their LaSalle Florist Shop, which features home delivery. He supplies Easter and holiday plants for 35 churches as well as for some weekly gatherings and wholesale sales.
Supplying Easter plants for churches this year was one sign that they’ve overcome one of their toughest challenges: the loss of business due to COVID. “There were no funerals, no weddings, no church services, no holiday church services. And no graduations – we worked closely with the colleges,” he said, as their farm is nestled in the Five Colleges area.
Holidays have always defined his growing deadlines. They have five acres allocated for their outdoor growing season. He shoots for July 4 to have his signature dahlias ready. They are grown in three of the five acres of fertile river valley fields for delivery to the New York and Boston wholesale markets. “I leave the shop at 2 a.m. to get to Manhattan at 5 a.m. I leave the shop at 3 a.m. to get to Boston by 5 a.m.,” John said. Their black dahlia is the most popular. For the last decade, he has grown an unusual black pussy willow for adorning floral arrangements.
He has seven employees. Connie Lunlam has worked there 43 years. With an eye toward retirement, she is in the process of training Hannah Reiff, who just joined the team this year.
John’s grandfather, James LaSalle, built the first greenhouse in Whately in 1934. He originally started gardening at a location in Northampton in 1929 that soon outgrew his needs, and so he moved to its present spot in Whately. When his grandfather bought the property, there was a hay barn and a tobacco barn. The famous 1938 New England hurricane blew the hay barn over, but his grandfather put it back up again. It’s still standing. A neighboring farmer currently dries tobacco in the tobacco barn.
Today, there are three glass greenhouses with 10,000 square feet of growing room and two hoop houses encompassing another 4,000 square feet.
John’s father, James LaSalle Jr., began working full-time with his father at the age of 21 in 1949. As he grew up, John worked alongside his own father. “I worked alongside him since I was a kid. We got along well,” he said. Later, “we each had a different part of the business that we were in charge of.” His father managed retail sales and John took charge of the growing end. His father is now 94.
“I’m the end of the third generation,” said John. “It’s a lot of work but it is very satisfying, working with a lot of the people in the community, which is great. We never made a fortune at it. We work 80 hours a week, supplying flowers for wholesale businesses,” as well as delivering flowers to brighten people’s days.
What he likes best about having his business is the community. He is a native son of Whately. Not only have people seen him when he delivers their flowers, they have also seen him at their door serving as a volunteer for the fire department for 52 years.
He was planning to retire from his business, as on June 23, he turns 70. After waiting a year and half for a purchase and sale agreement to finalize, it just fell through. The buyers were aiming to grow recreational marijuana, but finally decided the property was the wrong configuration for their needs. He’d already let his customers know that there would be a change.
After the sale fell through, “all the people came in, saying I’m sorry you’re not going to retire but I’m glad you haven’t sold the business. My retirement is on hold,” he said with a smile.