Business grew from a little patch of sun

Flowers: Susan Iglehart keeps a step ahead of garden centers, growing hard-to-find varieties on her 40-acre estate.

February 03, 2002|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Soon after Susan Iglehart discovered sunshine, she discovered flowers.

In a rush to fill up the sun-drenched garden in her new Connecticut home, she chose annuals over perennials.

Frustrated by the search for the colors she saw in her imagination, she decided to grow her own.

Infused with a mother's abhorrence of waste, she planted every seed that came in every pack.

And blessed with a generosity of spirit, she shared the extra plants with friends.

A little more than a decade later, Susan Iglehart's flowers have grown into Susan Iglehart's Flowers, a kitchen-counter business thriving on word-of-mouth.

Every winter about this time, Iglehart begins cultivating more than 80 hard-to-find varieties of annuals in the made-from-a-kit greenhouses tucked behind her house in Glyndon's steeplechase country.

And for a week in May, the long driveway to her sprawling, apricot stucco home is busy with faithful customers arriving and departing with orders they placed in February.

"It started because I had extras," she said. "And I can't stand leftovers."

That's probably the best explanation.

When Philip Iglehart moved wife and three children from a heavily wooded Lutherville home to Connecticut years ago, his wife discovered the wonders of sunshine.

"It was like a whole new world," she said. "I had never been interested in growing anything before. My eyes glazed over when the conversation turned to gardening.

"But I started wanting to grow things, and then I had this vision of a garden with certain colors -- white cosmos and pink cleome. And you couldn't find those colors in garden centers."

When the Igleharts returned to the Baltimore area in 1988, Barbara Trimble, a friend of more than three decades, introduced Iglehart to the wonders of mass-producing seedlings indoors.

"I don't know if I taught her, or I was a liberating influence," said Trimble of Owings Mills.

"She has always been amazing about projects. She suddenly knew how to do it and began to do it on a grand scale."

She saw what developed

Iglehart, a photographer, said the experience was the same as when she first saw a picture come out of the developer.

"Once I saw what happened when I put the seeds in the soil, I was hooked. I just kept growing things, whether I wanted them or not."

That's when her instinct for sharing leftovers took over. She didn't need all 250 plants that might come from a single packet of seeds, but she couldn't bring herself to toss them out.

So she made a list of the extras and handed copies to friends, who arrived in May to collect a free sample of Iglehart's new favorite annuals.

When things started to get out of hand ("I had plants under and on top of everything"), she put a modest price tag on her plants -- one that was just increased for the first time this year to $5.99 for a six-

pack -- and began building greenhouses, and news of Susan Iglehart's Flowers traveled from her neighborhood to as far away as Annapolis and the Eastern Shore.

"I can't honestly say whether this hobby pays for itself," she said. "I've never really put those two pieces of paper side by side, if you know what I mean."

There wouldn't be room for them, anyway.

A long country table in Iglehart's sun-drenched family room is studded with hundreds of Post-It notes that help her time the germination of more than 12,000 seedlings.

She uses the system that Trimble taught her: A layer of Pro-

Mix BX and a layer of vermiculite, with seeds layered thickly in between.

"Sort of like an Oreo," says Trimble. "I've always found that seeds grown in isolation don't do very well. They need each other's energy to grow."

'Like a 100-course dinner'

Iglehart has a stack of lime-colored order sheets and a computer-

generated grid the size of a tablecloth that tells her, for example, that she is going to need to plant almost 900 ageratum ''Blue Horizon," to fill the orders this year.

A computer program helps her tally the list of annuals, herbs and heirloom tomatoes. From this grid, she orders her seeds from among the dozens of catalogs stacked nearby.

""It is like cooking a 100-course dinner and trying to make sure everything is hot when it gets to the table," Iglehart said.

She makes light of the work involved. She has help from a friend during the most labor-intensive times - filling hundreds of trays with more than 18 bales of the potting mixture and putting together the orders before the May pick-up dates. She transfers the thousands of seedlings to pots by herself.

"She is one of the hardest working people I know," said Trimble of her friend, whose trim energy belies her 62 years and four grandchildren.

"Everything she does, she does with amazing inspiration. I would be terrified to have everyone's gardens depending on my work."

Iglehart says she grows things that can go in the ground and take off without a lot of fussing. "I look for things that can take care of themselves."

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