Generational business banks on variety
by Sally Colby
In 1930, Sam Bridge Jr. started growing evergreen cuttings in a cow pasture. Not long after he started that venture, the enterprising young horticulturist built a greenhouse to grow geranium cuttings for his mother and her friends. Sam studied horticulture at Cornell University and Kew Gardens in England, then served in World War II. When Sam returned after the war he found that weeds had taken over his hard work, but he was determined to start again.
“He married my grandmother in the 1950s and moved the nursery to its present site in Greenwich, Connecticut,” said Sam’s granddaughter Maggie Bridge. “When he married her, he gained quite a few acres, so they were able to start more production, especially perennials.” The Bridges eventually added a variety of bedding plants and vegetables.
The family tradition continued when Maggie’s father Sam Bridge III and his siblings all returned to the business after college. “The business started to grow in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, they formed a partnership,” said Maggie. “That’s when they added a lot of hoop houses.”
The family successfully operated Sam Bridge Nursery and Greenhouse with retail sales from the barn, but it was time for some changes. In 2014, the family decided to remove about 20 hoop houses to make space for a gutter connected greenhouse that would include both growing and retail space.
“The large greenhouse includes a retail area and growing space in the back,” said Maggie, who is now a partner in the business. “We also added a potting and shipping area, and a water retention tank to hold rainwater collected from the roof.” The new house has several energy efficient features including radiant floor heat, automatic shade pulls and temperature gauges. “It has made growing a lot better,” said Maggie. “We’re able to turn over crops faster.”
The Bridges use one of the glass houses moved from its original site by Sam Bridge Jr. for starting seeds. “We also do a lot of plugs to speed up production,” said Maggie. “We still use several hoop houses and also grow outside.”
Maggie said the garden center clientele has changed over the years. “Years ago, people were gardeners and knew exactly what they wanted,” she said. “Now they’re looking for color and the feeling plants give them. They may not always know the names of plants, so when we choose plants, we’re looking for what we know people will want to buy. A lot of landscapers in our area want certain plants, so we also grow what they need.”
Lavender has been a popular seller for several years, and Maggie said they’ve had success with “Phenomenal.” Peonies, daylilies, coreopsis and yarrow are also popular among customers. “We try to grow a mix so there’s always something blooming,” said Maggie. “We found sales increased when there’s a lot of color, so sometimes we bring in some perennials from other local growers to be sure there’s always something colorful.”
The spacious retail area allows the Bridges to create unique displays in the store entrance. “We incorporated a lot more budding and blooming perennials with annuals and blooming shrubs so when customers walk in, they see a lot of color,” said Maggie. “This helps new gardeners who may be unsure of what they’re looking for – they just know they want their garden to look nice.”
Although customers often come up with ideas about what they want through seeing displays, some still aren’t sure what they want. “That’s where we come in,” said Maggie. “We’re growers but we’re also in the customer service industry. A big part of that is helping people find what they need. We ask a lot of questions about what they like, their lifestyle and whether they want plants that are easy and pretty.” In some cases, customers come in for certain plants but learn their choices aren’t the most suitable, and part of Maggie’s job is helping them figure out what will work for them.
Sam Bridge Nursery and Greenhouse has a full-service landscaping division with several acres devoted to trees and shrubs. The landscape design department, which handles everything except lawns, recently added a container design and installation service. “We go to customers’ homes,” said Maggie, adding that customers bring their own containers to the store. “It was a better option for us to hire a designer for that service. We do a consultation to determine what the customer wants. Customers can also opt for ongoing service to keep containers updated throughout the season all the way to Christmas.” Maggie said this service preserves valuable storage space and eliminates the need for employees to continually move heavy pots around the greenhouse.
Color is always a key in drawing customers’ attention, so the crew determines which colors to plant based on what will sell best. “For New Guinea impatiens, white is our biggest seller,” said Maggie. “It goes with everything and appeals to the most people. We also sell a lot of pink, and lavender and purple are also popular. We don’t sell as many reds and oranges.” Lime green is another popular color, and is often an option to replace yellow.
Sam Bridges is located in a heavy deer area, so many customers are seeking deer-resistant species. “People also like natives,” said Maggie. “Those have gained steam over the last five to seven years.”
Customers often arrive with ideas based on what they’ve seen on social media. “Most of our customers are on Instagram and there are a lot of Facebook gardening groups,” said Maggie. “A lot of people asking for native plants belong to those groups.” A local pollinator pathway is in a meadow on the property, so it’s easy for customers to visualize how native plants can work in a landscape.
Maggie has been involved with the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association (CNLA) since 2018 and is the past president. “They’re a great organization,” she said. “We look out for the industry. In addition to offering education and resources for nurseries, landscapers and other green businesses, we lobby on behalf of the industry. We talk with legislators, keep an eye on what’s coming down the pike and what we should support or oppose to make sure things are going in the right direction for the green industry, which is 51% of Connecticut’s ag sector.”
Because labor is an ongoing issue in horticulture, CNLA is starting a workforce development initiative. “We’re trying to create a pipeline for experienced people to come into the industry,” said Maggie. “We think the industry is lacking people who have the knowledge nurseries and landscapers need.” Maggie also promotes the Connecticut Accredited Nursery Professional Program, an online certification program that teaches basic botany, plant identification and professional horticultural information. “We’re also working on a pilot program that’s being taught at the technical high schools,” she said, “and we’re starting a pot recycling initiative.”
The majority of the Sam Bridge workforce is local. Other than the landscape crew, much of the nursery and greenhouse staff are part-time, mostly because it’s difficult to find full-time help. “We need to be flexible,” said Maggie, adding that the company values hard workers who have a positive attitude. “If someone doesn’t have experience, we can train on the job. Some of our best hires have started that way.”
Visit Sam Bridge online at sambridge.com.
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