Along Route 743 between Elizabethtown and Hershey, a father and son team has built a business out of their passion for plants.
Ed Warburton started his career with a degree in horticulture from the Alfred Agricultural and Technical Institute in NY, then spent 18 years at Longwood Gardens and 5 years at the New York Botanical Gardens. Ed’s main roles were as a grower and one of the individuals responsible for maintaining the display gardens. During that time, Ed was directly responsible for growing most of the plants, foliage and displays on site, where now most of them arrive from outside greenhouses, growers and other resources.
In 1985, Ed founded Warburton Greenhouses and started a small family retail business in a building along Bellaire Road in Elizabethtown. “We started mainly growing vegetables and branched into selling retail bedding plants,” Ed explains. The entire family, including Ed’s wife Ruth, and sons, John and Paul, were involved in the greenhouse operations.
Call it destiny, genetics or just a “generational passion that was passed along”, Ed’s son, Paul, studied Floriculture in college, with a focus on indoor plant production. His “passion” starts “right at the root of growing,” Paul explains. “It still amazes me that you can start with a tiny seed that is no bigger than a spec of dust and you can actually see what your work produces. The process of watching it grow, multiply several hundred times in size and blossom is incredibly satisfying.”
When Paul earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University in 1991, the father and son business plan really started to take shape.
Ed and Paul decided to buy a cornfield that was for sale at their current retail location along Route 743 between Elizabethtown and Hershey in 1994. At that time, the field actually sat ten feet higher than street level along Route 743. The Warburtons undertook a major excavating to dig it out, grade the land and bring the building site down to street level for easy access.
Looking back, Paul said “we started with a focus on flowers and branched out from there. Every year, it seemed there was another idea, a renovation project or another expansion.”
The greenhouses at the Bellaire Road location still serve as the main growing facility for most every plant sold at Warburton’s. That’s where the entire Warburton process begins, Paul says. In the smaller greenhouse spaces, you can regulate temperature, humidity and moisture better. That helps groups of plants start growing in their most ideal location.
“We take pride in everything we produce. We’re not your traditional garden center that purchases plant material from an outside vendor and puts it automatically on shelves for sale. We grow all of our own annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees and are able to share the exact life cycles of each plant and where they are at in their development process.
When you step into our greenhouses and you approach Paul with a question, he can confidently say… “Sure, I grew that and I can tell you all about that specific plant. I can tell you who worked on it, when we started growing it and how we cared for it at every stage of its life,” Paul explains proudly.
“At a lot of other greenhouses, all they can share is the day they put it on a rack, with a little UPC barcode and no true knowledge of its origins. However, when you grow a plant from scratch, you can offer specific instructions on its care and in the end, it will perform much better for the customer.”
“It’s a little more expensive at the front end for us to grow all of our inventory from scratch but our prices still end up much better than our competitors, because we are a smaller business overall without massive overhead and transportation costs to cover,” Paul says. “And besides, we don’t grow plants because we want to be millionaires. We grow them because we love them. Our saying goes ‘Warburton Greenhouses…Warburton Grown.’ We take great pride in that.”
When you’re around a plant for an extensive period of time, it’s very rewarding for us that we grew that plant, we take pride in that plant and we know it’s going to do well for you. And customers really appreciate that. Each of our plants is touched, handled or cared for a minimum of 4 to 5 times by a Warburton employee before it goes on sale for our customers.
Remaining a small business has also allowed Warburton’s more flexibility in what they grow. There are a number of plants that you’re not going to find at larger retail locations. “The mainstream greenhouse industry only focuses on what they can sell in volume because that’s more of their focus, not uniqueness and quality,” Paul explains.
“We grow some things that are really different in smaller amounts, but they are unique and unusual. Some are truly one of a kind items.”
The product line at Warburton’s is extensive…annuals in different-sized containers, hanging baskets, six inch pots, one gallon pots…“the reason we can do that is because we grow them here and can transport them ourselves.”
“We grow own perennials. The ones we’ll sell this spring are actually started the year before. They were sown from seed last March. There’s a lot of work that goes into having it ready for sale. We’re taking that plant from a seed that was started 14-15 months ago, pinching it, spacing it, replanting it to allow for expansion…the final step, selling the plant and moving it from ‘greenhouse to car’, only happens after all of these other things. Only annuals are started in the late winter months to be ready for spring. Most other plants have been in production for 3-4 months, with some of our shrubs and trees being in production for 4-5 years before they’re ready for sale.”
One of the first things people say to me when they walk through the doors are “I never realized this place is so big. They don’t see the large greenhouses and outdoor retail that are behind the face of the front building. The second thing is that they assume, because it looks like a smaller place, that the prices will be higher. I often hear ‘I can’t believe you are that much cheaper than _______’…and then they say where they used to shop!”
Warburton’s has more employees on the floor during their prime season to help customers. “We want our customers to enjoy their experience, see smiling faces and have people here who are happy to help! Our employees all love flowers and plants as much as we do. They’re here because they enjoy the interaction with customers.” Plus, on the customer side, Paul says there are no nicer customers than people who enjoy flowers. “Our customers enjoy the prettier things in life. They have good personalities and are shopping for something that brings them joy and happiness.”
You will most likely always see Ed and Paul at the greenhouse in the spring. “We love the social aspect of our business! We consider our customers our friends, we may only see them once a twice a year, but it’s our time to catch up on their families, their lives, and help them during one of the best times of the year, when their gardens and landscapes are coming to life,” Paul says happily.
“I’m always here in the springtime and available. If someone comes off the street, and has never shopped here before, he or she will probably run into me at some point during their visit. There are some questions I feel I’m best to answer and I enjoy being involved in their first visit. If we make it a positive experience and they feel comfortable, they’ll come back.”
Paul loves to help customers with their landscape design process. All they have to do is bring in a photograph or email one with some simple measurements and explain the location and what’s nearby. He will put together a sketch with specific perennials, trees, shrubs that grow well together. Then, customers come in and he will walk them through the basic care, positioning and watering techniques for the plant materials. He helps structure the plan with blooming at different times of the year, so they have color throughout the entire season.
“We also are happy to plant containers or pots for customers on the spot when they bring an empty container from home or purchase one of ours. Usually, they let us know if the flowers will be in the ‘sun or shade’ and we take it from there!”
Paul says what he enjoys most is encouraging and helping develop the younger gardeners. “They are mainly the 20-35 year olds who have grown up in a generation that is primarily computer and smartphone based and used to being inside. My generation and those before me were always outside when we were young! It’s interesting to me to watch young adults who buy their first home and the main terror in their life is not what color to paint the walls inside, but what they should plant and landscape with on the outside.”
“Too often, they go to the computer and think what they see is right. But they don’t know that the way we grow in Central PA is totally different than the way you grow in Jersey, or in Florida…because the soils are different, the climates are different and they are entirely different eco systems. We love to educate them and there are no “dumb questions” they can ask. Warburton’s makes sure it’s a comfortable, non-threatening environment.”
One of the most popular items for sale at Warburton’s is “Ed’s Soil”, which was developed over time by Ed from scratch…for the same reason that all of Warburton’s plants are grown at their greenhouses.
“It’s plain and simple…we’ve had thousands of customers over the years complain about the packaged, cheap, low-grade soil they buy from different vendors and they problems they have. It’s like when you eat unhealthy food, eventually the impact of that food shows up in your physical well-being,” Paul explains.
“Once a plant leaves our greenhouse, part of its continuing success is the soil you grow it in. No matter how good that plant is, if you put it in the wrong soil, it won’t have what it needs to thrive. The soil is its main water source, main nutritional source and main structural support that helps it grow in the pot or the ground. Our containerized plants respond best to lower PH, higher fertility soil and we can offer that with ‘Ed’s Soil’.”
Paul confidently adds, “Basically, if you put one of our plants, in our soil and in the right location, I can pretty much tell you that your plant is going to grow well.”
Now open for the season, Warburton Greenhouses invite you to visit their location at the corner of Schoolhouse Road and Route 743 between Elizabethtown and Hershey. In addition to a large variety of annuals, perennials, four-packs, hanging baskets, flowering shrubs and trees; the retail store also features numerous garden statues, fountains, wind chimes, garden and landscape décor and planting accessories. You can also visit them online at www.wargreen.com or call 717-367-7490.
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