“It’s taken me a while, but this is a destination now. I’ve been growing for 45 years, and I know what a good product is. I intend on having a good product and people know that. I keep my prices very reasonable, and the people are coming,” said Sonia Cianchette.
Cianchette, 80, is the owner of Through the Garden Gate, a garden center offering a diverse variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, vegetables and herbs. They also provide landscaping services. Cianchette is a Maine Certified Nurseryman and Maine Certified Landscape Professional.
Through the Garden Gate is located in the rural town of Corinna. Despite its out of the way location, Cianchette’s uncompromising commitment to delivering a quality product is keeping customers new and old coming.
Cianchette grew up on the Corinna property and raised her family there, but eventually moved to coastal Maine where she ran a successful greenhouse business. When her mother was ill, she moved back home. The business property is currently owned by Cianchette’s son Roger, who raises forage crops. He eventually plans to take over the business.
There are four greenhouses on the property, all manufactured by Industries Harnois. “In my opinion, these greenhouses are perfect. They stand everything. I don’t have to worry about them falling down under a snow load. They are just strong, strong houses,” Cianchette said.
Each greenhouse is heated from mid-February until mid-May. They all have automatic roll-up sides.
Greenhouse #1 is what Cianchette calls her propagation house. At 75 feet long, this is where she and her crew of four full-time employees direct seed annual vegetables, herbs and annuals like cosmos, zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, morning glories and sunflowers. For the propagation of perennial flowers, Cianchette prefers to buy plugs and bare root plants and then pot them in the propagation house.
Once the annual vegetable and flower seedlings are established, they are moved outside or into a different greenhouse, and #1 is transformed into the “shade house” by draping a shade cloth over it. Here they raise begonias and impatiens as well as hanging baskets.
House #2 is 160 feet long and has a ridge vent for ventilation. Cianchette prefers passive cooling via ridge vent rather than running expensive and noisy fans. By mid-May, there are about 600 hanging baskets in House #2.
The third greenhouse is a 100-foot house where Cianchette raises annual vegetables and herbs. The fourth house, at 175 feet, is the perennial house in early spring. Popular perennials include bleeding hearts, cone flowers, Rudbeckia, lupine, Hosta and delphinium. Cianchette orders bare root plants or plugs and then pots them. When the temperatures begin to climb, all of the perennials are transferred outside onto benches and stands. Annual vegetables and flowers are shifted into part of this greenhouse, and Cianchette keeps a large section empty to store orders for customers.
For the most part, all of the greenhouses are watered by hand. “I am very fussy,” Cianchette said. “The most important work in a greenhouse is the watering.”
Once plants are established, fertilizer is added to the hoses using a fertilizer injector. A few years ago, Cianchette’s son installed a drip irrigation system to water some of the hanging baskets, an improvement that Cianchette resisted. While she has grown to appreciate the system, automated by a timer, she is reluctant to embrace more watering efficiencies.
There’s a reason Cianchette prefers the water wand over automation. Forty-five years in the greenhouse business has taught her that it’s critically important to be constantly visually inspecting the plants for signs of disease and pests, and the time to do that is during watering. Her main pest pressure is aphids, but she knows which plants are “aphid magnets.” At the first sign of aphid pressure, she and her crew bring the impacted plants outside and wash them off.
Another of Cianchette’s philosophies is to empty out the greenhouses as soon as possible. By the heat of summer, almost all of the plants are creatively displayed in front of the greenhouse. Through careful scouting and emptying the greenhouses, Cianchette has managed to prevent more pernicious insects like spider mites and white flies, which plague many greenhouse growers.
When Cianchette moves plants outside for summer sales, they join a hearty display of nursery stock. She prides herself in having everything in stock that she would use in a landscaping job.
“I have 20 varieties of hydrangeas, 15 varieties of lilacs, 10 varieties of spireas,” she said. They also carry apples, plums, pears, cherries, blueberries, brambles and more.
To keep costs down, Cianchette purchases bare root trees and shrubs and pots them. She said she can offer her customers a six-foot flowering crabapple, for example, for a third of the price of buying pre-potted ones.
Cianchette does not anticipate selling all of her perennials and nursery stock in a given year. Over-ordering allows her to grow bigger and stronger nursery stock to offer customers in the following year. In early December, when temperatures have dropped, she lays down the trees, shrubs and perennials outside in their pots and covers them with a frost blanket.
“I cover them up and say ‘Night, night — see you next year,’” she laughed. With this method, her biggest challenge is rodents burrowing under the snow and chewing the plants. To mitigate this, she places rodent bait around the plants before tucking them in.
In addition to offering a diversity of robust plants and nursery stock, Cianchette and the crew pride themselves in their customer service. “My customers love me because I will not lie to them. If they’re going to take a tree and go to northern Maine, I will say ‘You can’t. It won’t live.’”
With her 45 years of experience, Cianchette can offer the customer an alternative tree suitable to their zone.
Roger, Cianchette’s son, recently added a demonstration landscape garden adjacent to the greenhouses. Here, customers can gain gardening inspiration as they meander along graveled pathways, looking at an explosion of colors, smells and textures. Cianchette wishes that more customers would take advantage of this opportunity when they come plant shopping.
One idea she’s had is to have some party days, where she could, for example, show customers best pruning practices because she said people are “scared to death to prune anything.”
The end result of Cianchette’s experience and commitment to quality is clearly visible to customers (new and established) who visit Through the Garden Gate. When they arrive, they find a tidy, easy to navigate and customer-centric experience.
With nearly half a century of experience, Cianchette makes running the business look easy. “These are millions of babies that all need their diapers changed – that all need their food at the right time. Everybody thinks the greenhouse business is just magical, but you gotta really know what you’re doing,” Cianchette said.
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin