Bulb shippers bring spring to gardeners all year long

Family-run business expands operation to include shop, themed gardens

In The Garden

November 24, 2002|By Kathy Van Mullekom | By Kathy Van Mullekom,Special to the Sun

GLOUCESTER, Va. -- Lisa Hollis lines up two rows of plastic crates on the concrete floor, and starts filling each with a special assortment of 100 daffodil bulbs.

Down another warehouse row, Susan Appel pulls 50 each of Scilla siberica and Chionodoxa forbesii to fill a bulb order from Cochransville, Pa.

Bette Gilberti rummages through 'Pink Festival' hyacinth, picking out the prettiest and best of the purple-colored bulbs that produce soft-pink flowers.

The bulbs are destined for home gardens, where they will be planted between now and the holidays for springtime blooms.

"We put smiles on people's faces," says Hollis.

She's smiling, too. So are her co-workers, and not just because they are sending out promises of another colorful spring.

Finally, the people who pack up and annually ship out millions of spring- and summer-flowering bulbs ordered through Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va., can work together in spacious quarters. They used to split themselves into day and night shifts at the crowded family farm barn that served as the business headquarters for decades.

This past summer, the Heaths moved their bulb-shipping operation into a new 12,000-square-foot warehouse built on 18 acres at the corner of Daffodil Lane, which leads to their 10-acre farm on Heath Trail.

"Those doors mean we can unload a tractor trailer with a forklift instead of doing it by hand like we were doing at the barn," says Becky Heath. She points toward two warehouse-sized doors that raise and lower like house garage doors on rollers.

In addition to shelving that stacks bags of bulbs to the two-story ceiling, the warehouse coddles bulbs with special needs. The "warm room" keeps amaryllis and paperwhites cozy in a 70-degree environment, while an adjacent room keeps tulips at the cooler temps they prefer. A third room is where bulbs are gradually chilled, or pre-cooled, to simulate their dormancy period before they are shipped December and January to gardeners in warmer southern states.

"A lot of snowbirds go south, and they will do anything to get their daffodils and tulips," says Becky Heath. "They have to treat them as annuals."

The new warehouse also provides the Heaths with office space to hire desperately needed help for bookkeeping, catalog and online work. Becky works 16-hour days doing those jobs, but she will gladly give them up so she can plan more gardening programs, teach more classes and write more bulb-related articles.

The shipping part of the complex is up and running, but the upstairs offices still need work before staff can move in.

The garden shop that will be open to the public -- maybe next spring -- also is getting finishing touches. The shop will sell the 1,000 varieties of bulbs you can now order through the company's print catalog or online site, along with other gardening products. Its walls will trace the history of Brent Heath's family, which started the business by growing daffodils on the Gloucester farm in 1946. A large room behind the shop will provide space for workshops for home gardeners. The couple's daughter-in-law, Denise, will run the retail garden shop; son Jay is developing the company's wholesale division.

The completed complex will feature a full kitchen, washer and dryer space, dumbwaiter and a trough-type sink. Large windows allow lots of light to filter in for the pots of plants that will eventually sit on wide windowsills.

Land surrounding the warehouse will be used for bulb propagation and themed gardens that visitors can enjoy. The gardens will feature not just bulbs, but also trees, shrubs, water elements and many benches where people can sit and relax. Gardens for children will somehow be worked into the overall plan, says Becky. She even envisions weddings being held in the gardens, which is why she thought a kitchen would be useful for catering needs.

The employees who work with Brent and Becky also do more than just ship bulbs. They'll help plan, design and probably plant the public gardens. Many of them are gardeners themselves.

Appel says she gardens "24-7." She raises 146 cultivars of daffodils, each one labeled and cataloged so she can enter them in local shows.

"But Bette over there is the one you should talk to about daffodils," says Appel, pointing to her coworker.

Gilberti smiles shyly. Instead of talking about her daffodils, she prefers to show a visitor the beauty of an Allium rosenbachianum, which in late spring produces a baseball-sized flower with rose-purple florets and white stamens.

"It bruises easily, so it's packed in sawdust to protect it," says Gilberti, gingerly holding one of the bulbs to show how beautiful it looks in its dormant state.

"You can come in here without any intentions of being a gardener, and by the end of the season, you have no choice.

"The bulbs and the flowers they make are just too irresistible."

Kathy Van Mullekom is a reporter for the Daily Press, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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