A catalog in bloom

spring bulb display south of store, tulipa okura, tulipa sweet impression, tulipa neon lights

I’m instantly hopeful for planting season in the Northeast once I’ve taken my first step into the warm and humid clime of one of nearly 30 greenhouses at White Flower Farm.

On tour of the 200-plus acre property of the Wadsworth family with Eliot, head of marketing, the familiar catalog of this renowned plant and shrubbery farm unfolds before me in real time and sharp focus. If you are a home gardener or plant enthusiast, you know this brand for its hallmark quality and perfect petals. 

This “White Welcome mix” of daffodils adorn White Flower Farm’s retail operation in Morris Connecticut. Photograph courtesy White Flower Farm.

But did you know that you can visit its retail operation in Morris, Connecticut, some 100 miles from New York City, nestled in the rolling hills of Litchfield County? Following a scenic drive around Black Rock Lake, you will find the modestly sized but well-stocked shop and a knowledgeable, welcoming staff ready to answer your questions and guide you through the plant selection process. Or, if you have perused the ambitious schedule, you will have reserved a coveted spot at one of the many educational greenhouse events. Whichever you choose, you are sure to glean tips and tricks from the master gardeners on site. 

The last decade has seen the spawning of many creative events that drive existing and new customers to the farm. On the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend, May 12, three separate “Make and Take” container events are offered for gift givers and receivers. Widely known for its hardy tomato plants — White Flower Farm produces 130 varieties of tomatoes alone — it will host the 13th annual Great Tomato Celebration — a tomato-palooza weekend in their honor from May 18 through 20. 

In spite of 80 percent of business being transacted over the internet, Eliot says, the family and  employees at the farm appreciate the person-to-person banter that takes place at the retail operation and during special events. They take comments and requests from their customers seriously, often resulting in new varieties and specimens that are packed to preserve their fragility before being shipped by UPS or USPS across the lower 48 — sorry, Alaska and Hawaii. Efforts to minimize waste and use eco-friendly recyclables in packaging present challenges but are continually evolving. 

This is a horticultural business that carefully preserves specimens and takes unwavering pride in its high-quality plant production. The tagline of White Flower Farms is “Plantsmen since 1950.” This is accepted vernacular in the industry, I learn from Eliot A., son of Eliot Wadsworth II, who purchased the business in 1976. A Wall Street entrepreneur with an eye for quality, the Wadsworth family patriarch is still wintering in South Carolina, but together with son Eliot and a talented team of professionals, they have built upon history and success in the competitive mail order business of the gardening variety. “We’re a medium-sized fish in a big pond,” Eliot says modestly. 

In recent years, raising a herd of black Angus cattle that gracefully dot the landscape across the road from the farm has become a passion of Eliot II. The farm’s website provides the narrative about the steers’ humane upbringing, wanderings and details about purchase and selection. 

The Spring Garden at White Flower Farm. Photograph courtesy White Flower Farm.

In the first week of April when I visited the farm, the shipping of plants to the hardier zones had already commenced from its Torrington facility, which also houses the business’ call center. Depending upon the season — early May and December are the busiest — anywhere from one to two dozen customer service representatives familiar with the extensive product line ably field questions and take orders. Occasionally they may still receive a token hand-written order form with accompanying check — a rarity in their mostly web-based world. 

Eliot and his two sisters grew up around the farm, but its operations served only as a backdrop, as it does now for his young family. “They just want to come and hang out on the tractor,” he tells me. A Harvard University graduate who majored in history, Eliot went on to UCLA for graduate school before returning to his native Connecticut to run the marketing arm of White Flower Farm. He is at ease as we walk in and out of some of the greenhouses while chatting, greeting passing staff members. There are only about 50 employees, but their production is impressive. 

I comment, too, on the size of the visitor parking lot and ask if it’s a “cops directing traffic” type of atmosphere during peak seasons. Eliot minimizes what I have envisioned to be the case. The retail store existed for most of the farm’s existence, but the educational component through events and lectures has gained much more momentum in recent years. 

Eliot’s pride in the brand, its best practices and partnerships with steadfast growers is apparent, despite what appears to be an urge to suppress it. Now fully immersed in the operations of White Flower Farms, he acknowledges upon parting, “I do enjoy watching and feeling the ebb and flow of the business through all of the seasons on the farm.”

For more, visit whiteflowerfarm.com.

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