Doing Buisness Here: Where Pretty Plants Get Their Start

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Dixie Green grows a plethora of decorative plants that adorn homes, businesses and some of the most popular places in the Southeast.

by OLIVIA GRIDER/photos by Debra Davis/Alabama Farmers Federation and Olivia Grider

This is a critical time for poinsettias, Hank Richardson explains as he picks up a small plastic pot – one of thousands in neat rows inside a massive greenhouse – and plucks a tiny plant from the soil, revealing its lack of roots.

The slightly wilted, green cutting is a day-one plant, he says, which means this is its first day after planting. Those a little distance away are day-two plants and are less droopy because they’ve begun to form roots. A giant metal bar with misting nozzles makes regular passes over the poinsettias. They have to be misted almost constantly during the first week, Richardson says, and the mist can be turned off after three weeks.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The fledgling plants bear little resemblance to the iconic holiday accents
they will become, and yet these aren’t just any poinsettias. They’re destined for greatness – by plant-world standards, at least.

If you’ve ever gazed across a sea of red poinsettias at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., or seen the plants arranged into the shape of a giant Christmas tree at the Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn., and wondered where those plants came from – well, now you know.

Dixie Green, a family-owned plant nursery in rural Cherokee County, Alabama, supplies most of the central Florida theme park’s poinsettias and counts the Opryland Resort & Convention Center among its clients as well. The poinsettias spend their first months in an environment far different from the glitzy, colorfully lit and lavishly decorated backdrops for which they’re bound.

It’s a late morning in July, and the sun is beating down on Dixie Green’s 16 acres of growing space (10 acres indoors and 6 acres outdoors) surrounded by fields and forests near Weiss Lake in Centre, Ala. The greenhouses are doing an excellent job of holding in the heat as Richardson, Dixie Green’s president and owner-operator along with brother Jerry Richardson, shows
me around.

The facilities are clean and well maintained, but not fancy. In one space, a group of seven employees surrounds a small conveyor belt. As containers filled with potting soil emerge from machinery on one end, they plant a mum in each one and set it aside. While poinsettias and mums are some of Dixie Green’s staples (it’s growing 170,000 and 140,000 of each type of plant, respectively, this year), the company also cultivatesa range of other ornamental plants, producing a total of well over 2 million plants annually.

We pass purple fountain grass and colorful croton as we tour the greenhouses. In his laid-back, humble manner, Richardson points out the ventilation system in one of the structures. Open space along the top center of the greenhouse allows hot air to rise and move out, while cool air comes in from the sides. It’s called natural-flow ventilation and saves energy because exhaust fans aren’t required. In a typical greenhouse, exhaust fans pull hot air out one end of the building, and fresh air comes in the other. Seventy-five percent of Dixie Green’s greenhouses use natural-flow ventilation.

The company also reuses and recycles as much as possible, Richardson says. Employees reuse plant tags and steam clean and reuse plastic plant trays. Outside, a couple of employees water mums on a growing pad – an expanse of flat ground covered with black plastic. This area’s climate is good for a wide variety of plants, Richardson says. Winters are mild, water quality is good and pansies and other fall plants do better in north Alabama than farther south.

Back in his office, Richardson tells us about Dixie Green’s founding and evolution.

LA: Tell us about your company’s history.
Richardson: We started our first greenhouse in 1974 as Richardson Greenhouse. There were three of us brothers – Jerry, Harlan and myself. We had a 28-by-96 greenhouse. We put a camper shell on a pickup truck and started going around to garden centers selling flowers. And it just sort of grew from there.

We had a location on Highway 9 between Centre and Piedmont. Tommy Graves owned Foliage Farms at this location. We got together and formed Dixie Green in 1979. Tommy passed away in a wreck while on a business trip in October of ’94. My oldest brother, Harlan, passed away about three years ago. His wife is still a stockholder, but Jerry and myself run the business.

LA: How did you get interested in this kind of business?
Richardson: Harlan and Jerry and myself grew up on a farm in the Centre area here in Cherokee County. We liked the area and wanted to be able to live here and work here. Harlan had a friend that had greenhouses, and they talked us into putting up a greenhouse. On the farm, we raised corn and beans and soybeans and hogs, so we basically went from raising hogs to raising flowers.

LA: What types of plants does Dixie Green grow?
Richardson: In springtime, it’s a wide variety of decorative plants. It’s bedding plants and potted plants like begonias, impatiens, petunias, geraniums, caladiums, ferns and a whole lot more stuff.

For the fall season, we do the fall mums, pansies, flowering cabbage and [ornamental] kale. Then we do poinsettias for Christmas.

As soon as spring is over, we start with the mums for the fall. Then a couple months before we get done with the mums, we start with the poinsettias. Poinsettias are a 5-month plant. Mums are about 4 months.

LA: Where are your plants distributed?
Richardson: In most of the Southeastern states

LA: Who are your primary customers?
Richardson: Our major customer is another greenhouse. We contract grow for a greenhouse that supplies a lot of the chain stores.

For poinsettias, another big customer we have is Disney World. We’ve been selling to them almost since they started – 25-plus years. We supply a major portion of their poinsettias. We’ve got about 130,000 plants going down this fall. We also have some poinsettias going to the Opryland Hotel. Then, of course, we sell to a lot of independent retail garden centers
throughout the Southeast.

We also sell to schools and clubs and service leagues for their fundraisers. It’s mainly poinsettias, but we do some spring promotions.

LA: How did the relationship with Disney World begin?
Richardson: Way back when they first started Disney World, we made a contact.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy?
Richardson: We try to treat people the way we want to be treated and supply a good, quality product.

LA: How has your company, its facilities and operations evolved?
Richardson: In the beginning, we were working other jobs and just trying to get where we could make our living here at home.

The first year, we had one greenhouse. The next year, we added about half an acre. The next year, we added about three-quarters of an acre. Each year, we just kept adding. The customer base was growing. We were finding more and more people to sell to, and we were able to grow some really nice plants.

People liked our plants, our quality and service.

Probably about ’77, we were able to quit other jobs and focus on this. Tommy Graves built some greenhouses in 1976. We were all selling in the same places, following each other around, basically. He wanted us to just sell as one, and so we wound up forming Dixie Green.

We had two locations at that point. In the blizzard of ’93, we lost about a third of our greenhouses. We lost 2 acres here and 2 at the other location.

Instead of rebuilding over there, we rebuilt here, so we have one location now. We added employees as we grew. To begin with, it was just us – for the first two years. After we got up to about an acre, we started hiring. We have 25 to 50 employees now, depending on the season.

LA: What are the advantages of operating in this area from a business standpoint?
Richardson: The location was a real big advantage for us when we got started because we’re within 100 miles of four major cities – Atlanta, Birmingham, Huntsville and Chattanooga. And we’re almost right in the middle distance wise from all of those cities. So we had four major markets within 100 miles.

LA: How do the area’s people contribute to the company’s success?
Richardson: There’s good people in this area. It’s a rural community. People have a good work ethic. I think we’re real fortunate to be in this area, looking at the employee standpoint.

LA: What does this area offer employees in terms of work/life balance?
Richardson: You’ve got Weiss Lake, you’ve got Terrapin Creek, which is turning into a real big canoeing and kayaking excursion area. You’ve got Little River Canyon, you’ve got Cherokee Rock Village and you’ve got the mountains and valleys and the river. There are a lot of outdoor things for people to do. We have national parks nearby. There are caves. We don’t have theme parks, but they’re within 100 miles.

LA: What role does Dixie Green play in the local community? Manufacturing-focused technical assistance and training
Richardson: We’re a sponsor for [the American Cancer Society’s] Relay for Life, and we support fundraisers to help people with other medical conditions.

We do volunteer work in the community. I’m a volunteer fireman and treasurer of the Cherokee County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments. I’m secretary/treasurer of the Cherokee County Farmers Federation, and I’m on the Water Resource Planning Committee and the Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Committee with the Alabama Farmers Federation.

LA: What are the company’s plans for the future? Begin partnering with us today.
Richardson: Hopefully, some of our children will want to take over the business, keep it going. We have some of our kids working here already. Amanda Walker, Harlan’s daughter, is the bookkeeper. Clay Richardson, Jerry’s son, is helping with managing and growing. And my boys, John and Daniel Richardson, work here part time. They’re paramedics, but they still like to come work here some. John helps with office management and sales, and Daniel works mostly in maintenance of the greenhouses and equipment. [/s2If]