Valley Bounty: Andrew’s Greenhouse

By JACOB NELSON, For the Recorder, April 7, 2021

Andy Cowles started growing plants in a greenhouse when he was 9 years old, back when potting mix and plastic pots were new on the scene.

“I was lucky enough to learn from a guy named Win Shumway,” Cowles says. “He really knew how to grow plants.”

“I lived next door to his place in Amherst,” he recalls. “There were eight kids in my family, and we all had farm chores we had to do. But if you went over and worked for Shumway, he’d actually pay you, and you didn’t have to do your chores at home. I started working for him as a young kid and I never left the greenhouse industry since.”

Cowles is now the owner and driving force behind Andrew’s Greenhouse in Amherst, which his partner, Jacqui, also helps manage. “We’re a grower-greenhouse,” he says, “and basically everything we sell here, maybe 98%, we grow here.”

After 45 years, the business itself has grown to include an acre of greenhouses, nine employees, and a large following of customers who are mostly, as Cowles describes them, “home gardeners looking for something different.”

Annuals, perennials, vegetable starts, herbs, flowering landscape plants — they have it. Cowles has been around long enough to see trends in popular plants come and go and come again.

“Of course, this time of year it’s the pansies that are selling,” he says. They’re a cold-hardy, staple flower for spring gardens. Impatiens used to be popular, but now it’s petunias, and annuals are becoming more popular than perennials.

Sales of culinary herbs and veggie starts have climbed rapidly, particularly last year during COVID.

“In past years we seeded veggie starts every other week. Last year we were seeding as much as we could each week, and we still c o u l d n’t keep up with demand,” Cowles says. “And we can never have enough herbs.”

Andrew’s Greenhouse is known for a vast inventory of plant species — several hundred at any time — and for carrying varieties that customers enjoy and can’t find elsewhere.

“When supply companies decide not to sell a plant anymore, but it does well for people, we keep on propagating it by taking cuttings,” Cowles says. “If customers really love something, we want to make sure we have it.”

What does it mean to propagate a plant by taking a cutting? “You trim the terminal (or leading) growth off a mother plant — 1½ inches or so,” he explains. “Then you take off most of the leaves towards the bottom, and root that in a pot.”

Though it works better with some species than others, this practice helps local lineages of plants such as beautiful red and fuchsia geraniums live on.

Cowles has learned a lot in his half-century of greenhouse growing, and his grasp of the nuances of this type of farming is extensive.

“I grow in a bigger pot than other places — 5 or 6 inches instead of 4½ — because the plant grows better and I can water less often,” he explains. “I save time, and the customer gets a healthier plant. We also trim many of our plants, so they branch out and have a better shape.”

“What we’re sowing each week and day is planned in advance,” he explains, “and we plant in batches, so we have fresh stock ready throughout the season.”

“Fresh stock” means plants whose roots haven’t overgrown their pots, which can stunt development.

When the operation is running smoothly, the result is joyous. “My favorite time of year is late Februar y,” Cowles says. “There’s starting to be more sun, I walk into the warm nursery greenhouse, and look at all the little plants coming up. They’re my babies, and when you see they’re doing well, you think ‘OK, I’m doing the right thing.’” This heightened attention to detail and care is what Cowles believes customers have come to expect. “Gardeners that really know their stuff, they come here because they recognize the quality in what we’re growing.”

Some customers are drawn from quite far afield.

Cowles says, “We have people come from Boston to the Berkshires, even from Connecticut and New York. People who’ve come here for years bring their friends and show them around ‘their place.’ It’s really fun for them, and for me. I’m proud of it.

“The reason I do it is to see the customers that come back every year and do something fun for them. It’s more than a business — it’s a tradition.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn about more local businesses offering what you need to start a garden this year, check out CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalf o o d . o r g /find-it-locally.