Taking time, making effort count at Frank's Produce

Howard Neighbors

May 19, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

You never get too far from where you came from," said Frank Rhodes Sr., surveying his nursery on Old Waterloo Road in Elkridge.

It seems the maxim applies to the Rhodes family. Rhodes grew up in a family of sharecropping farmers in South Carolina. His wife, Arlene, was raised on a dairy farm in Virginia.

Today, Frank's Produce is managed by his son, Frank Rhodes Jr., 49, who gets to work between 7 and 8 in the morning and calls it a day about the same time in the evening. Most days, his sister, Tina, is around, too. Tina's son, Jacob, 21, is studying horticulture at the Catonsville Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, and he works at Frank's part-time.

Frank Sr. and Arlene moved to Howard County in the early 1960s and bought the 4 acres on which Frank's sits. Both worked as Howard County physical education teachers. Frank Sr. coached his son to the state basketball finals at Wilde Lake High in the early 1970s.

Frank Sr. started growing vegetable plants in one greenhouse on the property.

"I'd have 200 flats of kale," he said. "Today, I'd pot 10, dump seven."

Rhodes talks about how tastes, and times, have changed. He used to lease the approximately 122 acres surrounding his nursery for years and farm it, growing tomatoes and peppers, seedless watermelon and acres of cantaloupe.

"Now they're planting town homes," he said, referring to the rapid development of the property.

The nursery grows and markets all its plants on the family's 4 acres, with a ratio of flowers to vegetable plants of about 10 to 1. The plants are healthy and lush - with marigold blooms the size of carnations and hanging baskets with cascading flowers in many hues.

Years ago, Rhodes put up a "Plants for sale" sign on Route 108. People stopped, looking for flowers - and all he had was vegetables.

"It was her idea," Rhodes said, nodding at his wife. "She said, `Why don't we plant cut flowers?'"

For years, Frank's had 2 acres of flowers for cutting. More greenhouses were added, and Rhodes' stand grew from what Tina called the original "drive-through."

Tina said, "I called it the `drive-through' because one time this woman drove up [too close] and I had to jump the counter."

Tina returns from helping a customer, noting that she was another first-timer at the nursery, amazed at the variety and quality. "I told her she should have come before Mother's Day!" Tina said.

Rhodes said that what makes Frank's flowers so different is that a lot of spring flowers found in discount stores or home improvement warehouses are "forced" to bloom early, and a lot of those places don't want to take the time or expense to fertilize.

Then, there is something that cannot be quantified but causes plants to thrive. "We might not be as technical around here as we should be, " Frank Jr. said. "But one of the best things I learned years ago ... is that when it comes to being a good grower of plants, you have to stay around them. If you notice something, be proactive before it's too late."

Spending time around his plants has given Frank Jr. a storehouse of experience and information. He starts placing orders in November, then begins potting seedlings and cuttings in February in the greenhouses.

"I didn't like greenhouse work when I was young," Frank Jr. said. "I thought it was tedious. Now, when it's 28 degrees outside, and I'm working in a greenhouse that's between 68 and 72 degrees with a T-shirt on, that's not too bad."

Frank Jr. works seven days a week during the season. "When you're in retail, you're married to the business," he said. Cleanliness is important, he said, especially in a nursery the size of Frank's Produce, where the plants grow in the same place in which they are sold.

Larger growers have different spaces for growing and selling, so it doesn't matter if customers pick up a plant and put it down in favor of a different one as they continue to shop. To keep plants healthy and diseases at bay, Frank Jr. and his employees are always straightening up.

The result is luxuriant plants, even in this, the waning days of the spring planting season. "It's nice to drive by, and see your baskets hanging in front of someone's house," Frank Jr. said.

The plants - along with a strong sense of pride - have weathered the changes in the past 40 or so seasons. Frank Sr. recalls when his grandson, Jacob, was on a school field trip to a farm when he was about 6. As the class walked by a display of vegetables, Jacob correctly identified each one: "That's zucchini, that's cantaloupe, that's sweet peppers, that's hot peppers." The teachers were amazed, urging him to continue.

"And over there, that's pumpkins," he said. "But my granddad would dump those before he'd try to sell them."

Some things in Howard County haven't changed a bit.


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of?

If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it. Janet brings a wealth of writing experience and knowledge of Howard County to her position.

E-mail Janet at janetgilbertsun@verizon.net, or call 410-313-8276.

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