by Rebecca Jackson

Site-grown produce, superior stock, diversity, wholesale commercial accounts and online marketing keep a small Virginia plant nursery competitive and profitable in a world of big box retailers, according to a producer whose nursery and greenhouse are located on her family’s former dairy farm.

While not milking cows, Sheryl Murphy’s father, Garland Craun, and grandfather tended their own garden plants in a small greenhouse on the property five miles north of Bedford, VA, home of the National D-Day Memorial. Today, the national memorial is one of several commercial accounts served by Murphy’s Wipledale Farm Nursery and Greenhouse. Their hanging baskets and flowering plants beautify the hallways, patient rooms and offices in hospitals and other medical facilities as well as the streets of nearby downtown Roanoke and Grandin Village, a trendy and historic commercial and residential district in that city.

“We grow all the annuals at the D-Day Memorial,” said Murphy, the only one of four children who never left the area and resides just two miles from the greenhouses. “I studied administrative services, nothing plant-related,” she recalled. “I just got sucked right in.”

Founded in 1994, Wipledale now has five greenhouses and surrounding fields devoted to the nurture and sale of thousands of annuals, perennials, organic and non-organic herbs, hanging floral baskets and garden vegetables tended by a six- to eight-member all female crew. Most of the stock is grown at Wipledale and at regional wholesale suppliers in the mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina.

Murphy divides her busy life between running Wipledale and a full-time position as a senior account executive in Forest, VA. Murphy begins and ends each day at the nursery.

“We also do custom planting on the spot, with a customer’s choice of plants or by appointment at their homes and offices, plus supply live plants for weddings and other social occasions,” she said, offering a special touch when guests can take plants home with them.

Wipledale offers discounts to churches and donates plants to schools and Virginia Extension Master Gardeners, who hold labs at the nursery in spring.

Quality is foremost.

“We constantly maintain quality,” said Murphy. “If plants don’t look good, they go in the trash. There are no clearance shelves. We constantly monitor for quality, with minimal use of chemicals.”

Murphy stays abreast of new plant varieties and trends in the industry by attending professional conferences. “We’re always learning about new plants, new releases and varieties,” she said, noting the nursery stocks a full supply of garden seeds for ambitious gardeners who have the time and patience to grow their own.

They make sure to stock plenty of seasonal favorites. Their generous hanging floral baskets, for example, “sell like wildfire for Mother’s Day.”

Mid-June marks an annual plant sale as a thank you to customers, as well as an opportunity to market late season crops such as tomatoes for autumn canning.

September begins planning for the next season, and the greenhouses are far from dormant in winter. Planting starts in late January and continues every week until May for a fresh, healthy supply of plants.

Weather is an issue in this business, according to Grace Johnston, who has worked for Wipledale for four years. Because autumn weather has been unseasonably warm this year, staff has had to be mindful of frequent watering, she noted. Nursery work is very labor intensive, she added.

Popular this time of year are brilliantly colored, potted chrysanthemums and pansies for decorating and planting and a vast variety of pumpkins and gourds as well as vegetables like cole crops and salad greens.

Open from March through June and then from August through October, the business relies heavily on social media to get the word out to consumers, including an active Facebook page and presence on Twitter. Repeat customers from surrounding regions make semi-annual pilgrimages to Wipledale to stock up on plants for their gardens, yards, homes and businesses, as well as indulge in the gorgeous scenery afforded by the Blue Ridge.

“We’re not about frou-frou,” noted Murphy of employees she says are well trained and customer service-oriented. “Our plants are the best we can provide, and there’s something for everyone. We treat every customer as the best.”

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