Saturday, March 09, 2013

TOP STORY >> Gardens start in Lonoke County

Leader staff writer

As spring arrives many green thumbs begin thinking about growing vegetables, herbs and flowers.

The potted starter plants sold at many retail garden centers are grown locally in greenhouses at the Bonnie Plants farm in Lonoke County.

Cathy and Tom Ellis oversee the Bonnie Plants growing station a few miles south of Furlow off Gentry Road. The couple have managed the plant farm for the past 15 years during the growing season. Off-season they return to their home near Union Springs, Ala., the headquarters of Bonnie Plants.

The company was started 95 years ago. It has more than 70 growing stations in the U.S., but only one in Arkansas.

The Lonoke County plant farm has 122,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Cathy Ellis compared it to the size of a Walmart.

Bonnie Plants supplies potted vegetable and herb plants to Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s and to many smaller garden centers and farm stores.

Ellis said many people take up gardening “as a way to be self-sufficient and to combat prices at the grocery store.”

Bonnie Plants transferred the Ellises to Arkansas 15 years ago.

“Lonoke was known to have cheap gas,” Ellis said.

The plant farm was once the location of Vastel greenhouses many years ago, according to Cathy Ellis.

The plant farm has eight full-time salesmen and 30 guest workers from Mexico. They live in homes on the plant farm when the work in the greenhouses begins in January through the end of the growing season in July and then return home. It’s a seven day a week operation.

Hundreds of vegetables and herb varieties are grown. From cold weather crops like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and cauliflower to summer crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers. The varieties of specific vegetables are numerous. For example, the farm has 89 different kinds of peppers.

The plants grown in Lonoke are shipped to stores in central Arkansas, north to Springfield, Mo., and south to El Dorado. A third of the plants grown are shipped out of state.

“The (tomato) greenhouse will be filled six times before the growing season is finished up,” Ellis said.

Workers plant an average of 160,000 tomato seedlings in pots every day.

Bonnie Plants also has a free cabbage growing program for third graders. Bonnie Plants awards a $1,000 scholarship to one student in each state, chosen by the state’s agriculture director. The program’s goal is to cultivate student interest in gardening, healthy eating and the environment.

“Bonnie Plants provided 22,000 cabbage plants to third graders in Central Arkansas from this location,” Ellis said.

The plant farm also grows 30 different kinds of flowers for planting including pansies, marigolds and petunias. The flowers are sold to independent dealers and farm stores.