Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Once upon a time, the homecoming mums of Hyde Park (and the Easter lilies, prom carnations, and wedding bouquets) began life in the 55 family run greenhouses of Delhi, the “Floral Paradise of Ohio.”

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There is much in the plant business that is punishing, if not downright ugly: exhausting days during the growing season; changeable weather and fickle consumers; the threat of fungus, pests, disease, and price-slashing competition. So perhaps it’s not surprising that in the last half-century, the number of greenhouses in Delhi Township, the “Floral Paradise of Ohio,” has dwindled from a high of 55 to just a half-dozen. What may be more surprising, given that plants sold here are now routinely grown in places like Florida, California, Canada, and South America is that anyone at all still grows plants in Delhi.

Yet they do. Witterstaetter, Robben, Lutz, Feist, Friedhoff—generations ago, they raised the carnations and roses that graced Cincinnati ballrooms and funeral homes, and their grandchildren are still growing things under glass. But today’s growers search for the niche, and the next best thing, that will keep their businesses alive for another generation. They know that it’s easy for people to grab a bouquet of alstroemeria at Kroger or run in for a flat of impatiens at Home Depot. But they have weathered decades of changing tastes and trends, and they continue to bet there’s a market for the plants that are expertly nurtured here.

It’s tempting to romanticize the past as a time when people were willing to pay extra money for things of beauty and to rue the slow attrition of what was once a robust local industry with national renown. But today’s Delhi nurserymen aren’t all that different from their forefathers. The early greenhouses went from growing vegetables to growing flowers because flowers earned them more money; they all struggled to find a specialty, and eventually each grew specific flowers because the industry worked better that way. When garden centers came along, many of them converted their business models; along the way, some tracts of land became more valuable as subdivisions, and some descendants of greenhouse families decided they’d rather be accountants or attorneys. The handful still growing flowers and plants have learned to specialize, and they’ve been fortunate enough to raise kids who love the business. But they still face the same vexing question as their practical German ancestors: What can we grow that people will want to buy?

DELHI EMERGED AS an ideal place to grow crops as early as the 19th century. Nicholas Longworth turned the hills into vineyards, until a blight killed the area’s viticulture in the 1850s; next came vegetables, grown by immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine who settled in the area. Legend has it that a farmer named Frank Selhorst was the first to experiment by devoting a small portion of his greenhouse to flowers. When he made more money off his bed of flowers than all his vegetables combined—shazam!—a new industry emerged.

As a prosperous city with a busy social scene, Cincinnati soon became home to the largest flower market in the country—the Jabez Elliott Flower Market, which opened in 1890. Funeral homes, social clubs, churches, and everyday citizens came to the market on Sixth Street between Elm and Plum to buy blooms, many of which were grown in Delhi. The Cincinnati Florists Society, which emerged as a national industry leader, drew crowds of up to 75,000 people to view dahlia and carnation shows. “Depressed citizens liked to go there for the refreshment of its fragrances and colors,” a story in The Cincinnati Enquirer noted in 1949.

By the 1920s there were hundreds of acres under glass in Delhi, and times remained good through the 1930s and ’40s. Every family had its specialty: the Selhorsts grew geraniums, the Rutenschroers dahlias, the Feists carnations. There were two branches of the Witterstaetters in the business, with two specialties: Richard Witterstaetter was known as the “Carnation King”; his nephew, Richard Charles, or R.C., was an innovator of snapdragons.

“Most of the growers [in the 1920s and ’30s] grew cut flowers—carnations, chrysanthemums, snapdragons,” says Dan Witterstaetter, 48, the third-generation owner of R.C. Witterstaetter Sons. “Snapdragons were always a good crop because you can grow them in really cool weather, so they’d grow them in the fall and into winter, through February and March.” Cutting an outdoorsy figure in a baseball cap and windbreaker, Witterstaetter remembers being in second or third grade and watching his grandfather help out with watering and other chores. “My grandfather sold a lot of stuff at the Sixth Street Market and at other wholesale markets—there was one where the ballparks are now and one time they moved to Over-the-Rhine on McMicken. Those markets moved around quite a bit. My grandfather would sell retail, but he was mainly a wholesaler.”

Slowly land surrounding the greenhouses began to change. After World War I, and again after the Great Depression, people trickled out of the city and into Delhi, where they could afford a plot of land big enough for a home and a garden. Houses began to pop up in the midst of all the fields. Following World War II, the trickle grew into a full-strength stampede, and Delhi was transformed into a bedroom community of subdivisions and shopping strips. Then, in 1950, the city razed the Jabez Elliott Flower Market to build a parking lot—a sad symbol of changes to come.

Through the 1960s and ’70s the cut-flower business dwindled as florists began importing flowers from Central America. But garden centers, where newly minted suburbanites could buy bedding plants, trees, and shrubs to landscape their yards, boomed. The garden-center model helped many Delhi growers stay in business through the 1970s, though the market for homegrown plants faded as big growers from warmer states took over.

Just when the garden-center model seemed stable, along came big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, where rock-bottom prices on plants were used to lure customers, in the hope that they would buy a lot more inside. By the early ’80s, Delhi’s remaining greenhouses were reeling. “It was like a domino effect; they all just started closing,” says Peg Schmidt, archivist for the Delhi Historical Society. “Then it stayed stable for about 15 years, until five years or so ago. And then it started again.”

THE GROWERS WHO have lasted have learned to change with the times. Roger Feist, whose father and uncles started West Hills Greenhouses in 1930, put his horticulture degree from Ohio State to good use when he started growing bedding plants after returning home from the army. When consumers began demanding more choices in plant material, he started wholesaling more exotic varieties of plants to private estates and country clubs. He and his wife Linda now grow more than 500 kinds of plants in a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse; they begin work on some of their better-known locations, like the floral displays at Kenwood Country Club, nine months in advance.

Feist has the firm handshake and friendly confidence of a human-resources executive; dressed in a tidy fleece and khakis, he seems more like a gardening hobbyist than an in-the-dirt nurseryman. His humid greenhouse is a welcome respite on a brisk January day, brimming with dozens of varieties of jewel-toned coleus, spiky phormium, succulent agave, towering banana trees, Australian tree ferns, and other unusual plants. “You really have to distinguish yourself from the mass producers. You have to give [customers] better quality,” he says. “It’s absolutely changing to adapt, to finding a niche. The niche is the deal. And without good employees you can’t do the niche thing. The floral business is agriculture; this isn’t manufacturing widgets. This is a heart-and-soul business. You live and breathe it, when necessary seven days a week, when necessary 16 hours a day.”

“The ones that have survived have found a niche and they’ve modernized,” says Todd Allison, a relative newcomer to the scene. “A lot of the old Germans didn’t want to update, whether it was a computer system or facilities. And if you’re 60 years old, you’re not going to invest half a million dollars in your facilities, especially if your kids don’t show an interest in the business.” Allison’s father founded Allison Landscaping and Water Gardens in 1968. The emphasis on water gardening, a novelty back then, was another prescient move. Allison now sells the specialized plants, fish, pumps, filters, and other materials required for water gardens. As the business has grown, Allison has expanded the focus to include outdoor living amenities such as arbors, fireplaces, and bars.

“Dad was always one to be innovative with what the trade was going to do, always tried to stay one step ahead,” Allison says. “He pretty much forecast that water gardening was the next big thing.” It’s a skill, guessing what trend will sweep through the nation’s yards next. Allison says he finds himself wondering, and sometimes worrying: “What’s it going to be after this? What’ll be the next thing that pops?”

TODAY’S GROWERS FACE a new set of worries. Consumers are more time-pressed than ever; no one sells flats of bedding plants anymore because customers say they don’t have the time to plant them. Instead people want full-grown plants they can pop into containers. And the high cost of energy affects everything. Bills for heating greenhouses are eye-popping; plastic containers are more expensive; fuel surcharges on plants trucked in from out of state climb higher and higher.

As a result, the industry seems poised for another evolution. The plants that many garden stores truck in from Florida, California, and Canada are increasingly expensive, due to rising gas prices and the falling dollar. Consumers have less time and less interest in lavishing hours on their garden, so container gardens are surpassing the more time-consuming in-ground beds. At the same time, people are more concerned about the environmental impact of everything from plastic pots to synthetic fertilizers and more interested in earth-friendly concepts like rain gardens.

All this should be fertile ground for the garden industry, shouldn’t it? Yes and no. One new potential marketing ploy is, in essence, a riff on the buy-local food movement: convince customers that locally grown plants are superior to those trucked in from far away. It seems like an obvious idea. A rose grown in a local greenhouse is like a tomato plucked from a local field: it’s fresher than one shipped from hundreds (or thousands) of miles away, and it can be bred for beauty, fragrance, and form—or, in the case of a tomato, taste—rather than its ability to withstand transportation.

Nevertheless, according to gardening writer Amy Stewart, the industry’s been slow to make hay with that notion. Stewart, author of the best-selling Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, says that plant and flower growers haven’t made the case for locally grown plants as forcefully as farmers have. “They’re surprisingly uninterested in looking at what’s going on in other, similar industries, such as the buy-local movement with produce, dairy, and meat,” she says. “They have not noticed what is going on, that if people want to buy local strawberries they also want to buy locally grown flowers and plants. I think they’ve missed an opportunity. The big American farms trying to grow everyday flowers have a hard time competing with the overseas growers, but the niche farms that are growing little-known varieties—that’s where the [potential] is.”

Perhaps, but only if the industry takes the next step: organizing a campaign to convince people that buying locally grown flowers is worth the extra time and effort it takes to shop locally. And of course to do that, the growers would have to convince themselves first.

Roger Feist understands the parallel between locally grown food and plants. “We all want that fresh, local, sweet corn and we know what that is and it can’t compare to the old starchy stuff that comes from Florida,” he says. “There’s absolutely a direct correlation with flowers. When something is shipped in, it suffers in the process. When plants are closed up in a box, they suffer. It can’t compare to something fresh out of a greenhouse.” Yet he also agrees that local growers have been slow to convince the public that their stuff is better than anything at the big-box stores: “If there’s a marketing campaign to be done, we haven’t done it yet. I think if the trend catches on we might have the opportunity to convince people of the advantages, but we haven’t done it yet.”

The second, related trend—the “next thing that pops,” as Allison put it—is to get on the “green” bandwagon by emphasizing the environmental advantages of plants, especially those that are locally grown. This too seems painfully obvious. After all, what could be greener than the plant business? Yet nursery owners remain deeply skeptical about many aspects of the green movement, from reducing plastic use to eliminating pesticides. One grower told me he’d have to plant three organic acres to yield the same crop he gets out of an acre now, and that customers wouldn’t tolerate eight-legged creatures running through the plants they buy. Ever-mindful of their industry’s slim margins, they remain unconvinced that consumers will pay extra for organic plants.

In 2006, Delhi officials opened Floral Paradise Gardens on the Greenwell Avenue site of the former Rutenschroer and Steinbach Nurseries. The gardens are a tribute to Delhi’s greenhouse past, with individual gardens created and maintained by area nurseries—even some that have long since closed or moved. The 22 gardens each have different themes, from a butterfly garden to a children’s garden to a raised bed designed for the handicapped, and signs detail the history of the township’s floral industry.

It is a gorgeous, restful place, but it also raises the question: Will greenhouses remain in Delhi for another generation? Will the children and grandchildren of today’s owners, who now spend spring weekends playing in the dirt of their family’s business, want to stick around? Those who remain in business clearly love what they do. Whether they love it enough to reinvent it yet again, just as their forebears have done for more than a century—well, perhaps in another generation we’ll know.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue.
The Seitz family, posing in their greenhouse on Rapid Run Road at the turn of the last century, courtesy of the Delhi Historical Society.

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