Employee Olivia Houston and Andrew Cowles of Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, MA, with some of the new season’s begonias.
Photo by Laura Rodley

by Laura Rodley

The greenhouses of Andrew’s Greenhouse are full of the smell of spring: moist soil, violas, pansies, begonias, geraniums yet to blossom and herbs.

“First, people want violas and pansies, then hardy annuals, then perennials and hardy herbs,” said owner Andrew Cowles, running for 45 years the green thumb end on their “acre of greenhouses.” His wife, co-owner Jacqui Cowles, manages the business end, all the paperwork and taxes, which Andrew considers to be much more difficult.

“We started back in January. We’ve been going great guns for the last month. Every month we do more and more,” said Cowles at the 200-acre South Amherst, MA, farm, planting 35,000 five-inch potted plants and too many annual packs to count in their 10 greenhouses. Three interconnected 30-by-100-foot greenhouses extend to a 90-by-100-foot greenhouse. The rest are of a French design from Quebec.

His grandfather Winfred Cowles started the farm in 1926. Next in line was his father Homer, and now Andrew. “Our family came up from Farmington, Connecticut, and settled in Hadley,” he explained. “I started working with a guy next store when I was nine-years-old, and I started learning to grow plants. It takes a lot of knowledge to grow plants,” having gained an encyclopedic wealth of accumulated knowledge.

He grows different types of lavender and thyme, hardy herbs, summer herbs, marjoram, savory basil and ornamental grasses. Everything is sold on the farm. “There’s no wholesale; it’s all retail,” he said. “People come here from a 50-mile radius. It’s because we grow all quality plants. Where else can you find all these plants? We have a huge assortment of different plants. We do a lot of packs.” Customer feedback is that their quality is so much better. People come from the Berkshires, Boston and Connecticut.

“During the week, there are license plates from all over.” he said. “It used to be harder for people to find us. Now with the internet, people can find us.”

If he mentions possibly retiring, customers protest, “You can’t quit – you’re an institution in South Amherst.”

He may not enjoy the business end, but he enjoys interacting with his customers. Golf carts are on hand for people to ride to choose their plants. “When I take them on the golf cart looking for a certain plant, I never take them to the greenhouse that they’re in. I take them to different greenhouses where they can see all the other plants.” Before the official spring reopening of the farm store, customers were already visiting to buy potting soil, garden ornaments and plants.

Some things haven’t changed over the years. Cowles remains impressed with the damage one pest can incur. “One mouse can do so much damage for a grower. You have to do make sure in the fall to dispose of all the mice problems. Mice are the worst problem in the greenhouses for vegetables. They get into perennials,” he said, holding up a pot to show where a mouse entered it through the holes in the bottom and chewed the roots. They prefer tender new shoots and leaves.

To control other damaging pests, he uses beneficial insects, such as mites and tiny parasitic wasps that feast on the larvae and pupae of thrips and aphids. Nematodes control thrips and larvae.

In one greenhouse, he had just released three bottles of wasps, one type being the Aphidius ervi. “There’s a war going on in here,” he said.

Planters set on different tables in another greenhouse were filled with bright green barley. He grows a barley aphid in them which is attracted solely to the monocot grass varieties.

“These aphids will not go to a dicot, which is a broadleaf annual. On the outside rim of the barley I planted oats. When I have tiny wasps and there is no food or other aphids coming out, the wasps we have here are going into the barley and injecting the aphids (in the barley) with the young of the wasp. Then they reproduce more little wasps. That’s how to keep stock of the wasp up in the greenhouse. I keep a stock of predators going,” he said.

“What people need to understand is that growers are not using the sprays we used to use. Growers are using environmentally good, sound, growing choices, good for our environment because they don’t want to use them themselves,” he continued. “We don’t want to use sprays. We want to do the right thing.” Plus, he noted, chemical pest solutions are costly. “People need to understand that insects evolve,” which keeps growers on their toes, seeking and finding alternative solutions.

“For spider mites, all you have to do is grow some green beans in planters and hang them in the greenhouse,” he said. “Any spider mites are drawn to the green beans. We never have spider mites in the greenhouse.”

For more information, access www.andrewsgreenhouse.com.