Floral Fixation

Floral Fixation

One of my favorite harbingers of spring is the annual opening of Cheshire’s Tower Farms. From April through December, the garden center offers a parade of botanical delights from daffodils and pansies to ornamental grasses and fall mums, ending the year with an array of Christmas trees (mostly Frasier firs and some balsams). Overall, customers can take their pick of roughly 400 varieties of perennials and more than 100 annuals nurtured on Tower’s four-acre site.

My last visit took place on a dreary, rainy Thursday when pops of color were especially welcome. I was captivated by flats of perky little viola pansies in white, pink, purple, yellow and crimson ($23.99)—often two or three colors in combination—and primrose plants in every hue, some in single pots ($4.99), some combined in barrels perfect for a porch or outdoor stoop ($34.99). I also loved the strikingly bright bowls of ranunculus ($31.99) and pots of hyacinth ($4.99), some not quite changed from their premature color of yellow green to the classically royal blue and purple. Similarly regal are the Martha Washington geraniums ($16.99 a pot), a cultivar that has existed since the early 1800s.

For novice gardeners, a good place to start is the daffodil; you can plant the spring perennial almost anywhere, allow them to wither naturally, and next year they’ll be back as reliably as (but much more welcome than) Tax Day. Right now, they abound at Tower, in both 8-inch ($18.99 a pot) and 4-inch “Téte-à-Téte” ($4.99) varietals. You’ll also see pots of Easter lilies in bloom ($13.99), though they’re not grown here. “It’s too difficult to time them to coincide with a holiday that has dramatic shifts in date every year,” Tower owner John Manke explains.

His personal favorite flowering plants include a new variety of impatiens called SunPatiens that, unlike the well-known New Guinea impatiens, thrives in sun as well as shade, and tuberous begonias. “When that flower opens, it’s exquisite,” he says, referring to the begonias. “Some of the red ones almost look fake, like they’re made of velvet.” Every plant at Tower is favored with care and attention, including disease and insect control. “If there’s a problem, we find it right away… People will pay a decent amount for a nice plant, so we at least want to ensure that they are acquiring one that starts out clean.”

It’s a responsibility that requires 60 hours a week from the get-go and ramps up to as much as 100 during the spring peak, which Manke identifies as the month of May, specifically the period between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, when echinacea, peonies, dahlias and roses (among others) join the mix. This is when the outer Tower grounds become a full explosion of color, covered inch-to-inch with plants, flowering shrubs and 30 different varieties of hanging baskets. “It’s wonderful to see the plants grow, and to make people happy with what they buy,” Manke says. “There are so many new varieties of plants now, and they’re all pretty hardy. We only have so much space to grow in, so it’s a challenge to choose the ones that will sell and perform the best.”

Tower’s history reaches back to 1918, when the grounds were used for growing and selling vegetables. After a decade or so, the owners turned to growing products in greenhouses, building their first in 1929. When Manke first came to work here in 1978 as a 14-year-old summer employee, there were four greenhouses on site; now there are 14 (the largest being 32-by-200 feet). “We had to kind of ‘jigsaw’ them in, as this isn’t a perfectly square piece of property,” he notes. And there’s a pressure valve: Most of the perennials’ early growth now takes place at a separate Cheshire location in two greenhouses sized 9,000 and 4,000 square feet.

In Manke’s early days, the business was largely focused on producing wholesale cut flowers: mums, snapdragons and anemones. “We did one spring crop of geranium plants and hanging baskets,” he says. As the floral business evolved and began shipping flowers worldwide, Tower shifted fully to potted plants. Manke, meanwhile, realized that he loved the work—and the family he was working for, who ultimately became his in-laws. After earning a degree in horticulture from UConn, he returned to the business full-time, and eventually bought it in 1998. “By that time, my in-laws were older and wanted to work a lot less. But that’s hard to do in this business. Once you’re here, it gets in your blood.”

The staff is still a family, with Manke’s brother Steve and nephew Dave Slocum a part of the team. His son Dan and Dan’s girlfriend Natalie run a second retail location in Canton, which boasts three greenhouses encompassing 3,000 square feet. Of course, some employees are not blood kin. I talked to a staffer named Lisa who worked in the Nashville music industry for 20 years, rubbing shoulders with Reba McEntire, Naomi and Wynonna Judd and the Chicks (née Dixie) before rejoining her family in Connecticut. After working at Tower for three spring/summer seasons, she’s fallen in love with it. So has Sprout, her cuddly, heather gray, 7-year-old Mini Rex rabbit who has his own comfy pen in the main greenhouse, and Willow, Manke’s gentle Rhodesian Ridgeback/Boxer rescue. At summer’s peak, the staff grows from a core of eight full-timers to 14, including college students who work mid-May to August.

A challenge that never goes away is pest control, which they’re trying to manage biologically rather than with chemicals. A more novel challenge is the cost of materials, which Manke says “has gone way up in the last five years.” But the fundamental business dynamic sounds like it hasn’t changed much. “You make a living at this; you don’t get rich,” Manke says. “But I love what I do, so in that sense I am rich. I’m very fortunate.”

As are the rest of us, each time we get to marvel at Tower’s lush begonias and gorgeous peonies.

Tower Farms
1338 Highland Ave, Cheshire (map)
Daily 9am-4pm (April hours)
(203) 272-5952

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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