DETOUR — Nestled in the Catoctin Mountains, just across the Frederick County-Carroll County border near Thurmont, sits Catoctin Mountain Growers Inc. — a 15-acre wholesale greenhouse operation in Detour started by Robert and Denise Van Wingerden in 1985.
Catoctin Mountain Growers has grown steadily from 16-hour days the couple worked in their first greenhouse built on one acre.
Today, about 100 employees help the Wingerdens produce spring bedding plants, fall pansies, hardy mums, poinsettias and specialty plants that are trucked and shipped throughout the Mid Atlantic region.
The company sells primarily to retail outlets, including Walmart, Sam’s Club and landscapers, and offers a Saturday-only retail sale for the public.
Springtime is peak season, and visitors can feast their eyes on a variety of blooming, colorful plants the company’s employees are preparing for delivery. At the end of spring, the company will have used 160,000 bedding flats and about 200,000 10-inch hanging baskets.
The operation has a four-season greenhouse and a five-acre outdoor growing area, with future expansion plans on the drawing board, Bob Wingerden said.
The Wingerdens’ penchant for efficiency and a desire to reduce their company’s carbon footprints prompted them to incorporate state-of-the-art technology in the operation.
A 500-horsepower boiler runs on animal fat stored in a 20,000-gallon tank. Two smaller 200- and 100-horsepower boilers use oil and propane.
Boilers run 24 hours a day to heat water stored in a 500,000-gallon tank that is piped under cement floors to heat the facility.
“Bob really likes efficiency,” general manager Henry Thorpe said. “He likes to find machinery that does it better.”
The company is strongly considering a biomass boiler to burn wood chips to further reduce its carbon footprint, Thorpe said.
“It would be a big investment with a huge upfront cost, but the price of wood chip is very, very cheap,” and the company could recover its cost in a relatively short period, Thorpe said.
Twelve of the company’s 15 acres of greenhouse is equipped with flood floors that deliver 1-inch-deep layer of water that plants absorb through their roots. The technology keeps water off the plants’ leaves. Three types of lime are blended with peat moss and perlite to make the soil to grow the plants.
With the aid of automation, employees run four production lines simultaneously to prepare the plants to be transported to various destinations. Workers inspect the plants, then label and water them. Then they are put in the greenhouse for two to four weeks before being shipped.
“This is a great job,” Thorpe said. “You’re inside, protected from the elements, but you’re outside, too,” he said, referring to the facility’s many roof windows that open to sunlight by computer.
The unusually warm winter means Catoctin Mountain Growers spent less money for heating, and the plants have been growing faster and stronger, Thorpe said.
The company’s retail operation on Saturday, even though never advertised, has become known by word of mouth, Thorpe said.
Planting plants is in the Wingerden family blood.
Wingderden is one of 16 children of Dutch parents, most of whom have businesses involving the greenhouse industry. One of his brothers has a much larger greenhouse operation comprising 100 acres in North Carolina, Thorpe said.
The family business began with his grandfather who was a grocery-truck farmer in Holland. The family moved to the United States and Robert Van Wingerden’s father got started growing plants in cold frames more than 50 years ago.
“With the foundation of the company built on Christian values and hard work, the possibilities are endless,” Robert Van Wingerden said.