Connecticut gardeners strike back

Hope springs eternal in a gardener's soul. There may be no more optimistic (and busy) people this time of year in Connecticut than the ones who try to make a living growing plants.

At least 300 greenhouses, some hoop and plastic, others glass structures, were lost to Blizzard Nemo, according to Bob Heffernan, executive director at the Connecticut Green Industries Council, who took U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney on a tour of damage. The storm hit just as growers were propagating plants in covered spaces to grow them out for spring.

"The damage was all over the state; 55 farms at last count," he said. "It's a huge impact; the cost to replace just the structures is estimated at $12 million to $20 million, not including the plant stock inside."

The vast majority of these houses were not insured, Heffernan said. Horticultural crops aren't supported by government commodity price payments like grain crops are, so the growers have to shoulder the expense of rebuilding and restocking.

"There's a fast and furious rebuilding going on so they can be ready for the spring," he said. "This industry is so used to risk-they don't like it, but they are used to it. We've see time and again, whether it's a blizzard, pathogen or bug, that they are a resilient bunch of people who take their licks but pick up and move on and grow great plants."

Most people don't realize that the $1 billion in annual horticultural sales accounts for half of Connecticut's agricultural production, or as Heffernan puts it, half of what's grown in the state is to be looked at, not eaten. There are 3,300 companies in the industry, employing 48,000 people.The state's original "green" industry got that name because historically most of what was grown was green, he said, but there's a lot more color now, with variegated leaves, more blooming colors, an emphasis on the "pop" in the yard.

There's also a new twist to the annual Connecticut Garden Trail, a promotional campaign that encourages visitors and residents to shop at the state's independent garden centers, greenhouses and nurseries and landscaping businesses. The program, launched with a United States Department of Agriculture grant five years ago, has been self-sustaining since then. Colorful brochures and a website outline participating businesses, plus promote public gardens.

This year's brochure features a passport contest and drawing to win a $10,000 landscape design job, including plants, design and labor. People have until Dec. 31, 2013, to go to at least 10 garden centers, greenhouses or nurseries, get a stamp to prove that they were there and send the stamped passport to the CT Nursery and Landscape Association. One passport will be drawn on the last day of the 2014 Connecticut Flower and Garden Show. The landscaping will be done by October 2014.

Locals can pick up four passport stamps here in New London County with stops at Holdridge Home and Garden in Ledyard, open year-round; Smith's Acres in Niantic, opening March 15; and Burnett's Landscaping and Burnett's Country Gardens, repurchased by the Burnett family last year and preparing to reopen on March 23, in Salem.

Meanwhile, New England's florists are gathering this week at the Mystic Marriott for the Northeast Floral Expo. This is the first time for the nation's fourth largest floral industry trade show to be held in the region. While most of it is not open to the public, we do get a rare treat on Friday night with Flora Couture, a contest to create wearable floral designs.

"This is really wild, something we've never done before," Heffernan said. "Most people think of corsages, maybe a wristlet, or Hawaiian leis. We're going to stretch the limits of body flowers-fashion and floral are going to collide."

Imagine Project Runway with competing teams adorning 12 live models in fresh flowers. TV personality Sonia Baghdadywill emcee and celebrity judges will pick the winning outfits. Tickets for the cocktail party are $100, with proceeds going to the pediatrics oncology program at Yale New Haven Hospital.

For more information, go to www.CTGardenTrail.com, ConnecticutFlorists.com or call 800-352-6946.

Want to hear more? Bob Heffernan is Suzanne's guest today on her weekly radio show, "CT Outdoors," on WLIS 1420 AM and WMRD 1150 AM from 12:30 to 1 p.m.; listen to archived shows in the On Demand section of www.wliswmrd.net. Reach her at suzanne.s.thompson@sbcglobal.net.

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