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Customer Spotlight: Growing Poinsettias with Miller Plant Farm

We recently interviewed Dustyn Miller of Miller Plant Farm, a farm and garden center located in York County. Among the many plants grown at Miller Plant Farm are poinsettias. In the interview Dustyn shared about their operation and all about poinsettias. Listen to the full podcast episode with Dustyn here.

First, could you tell our listeners about Miller Plant Farm? 
We're a multi-generational business at Miller Plant Farm, and I'm a representative of the fifth generation. 

Miller Plant Farm got its beginning with the purchase of the original acreage by my great-great-grandfather, Howard Miller, in 1912. He purchased the original acreage with the purpose of growing vegetables, which we would take to local market houses for sale and make his living that way.

Then, along came my great-grandfather, Jacob Miller, the second generation, and he built the first greenhouse in 1928 and officially started Miller Plant Farm by growing vegetable transplants. Jacob realized was there were many advantages of going to the field with plants, as opposed to going to the field with seeds, such as gaining a lot of time on the competition with vegetables that are ready for market. Also, when you go to the field with plants, you have more efficiency because sometimes seeds don't germinate. The competition then asked Jacob to grow plants for their operations as well. And thus Miller Plant Farm was born.

We also got into ornamentals during that time. Jacob's wife, Ada, would grow petunias, marigolds and other bedding type ornamental plants in the same greenhouses. She didn't grow them in pots. They didn't have pots back then. What she did is she would grow them in what I would describe is like a sand bed. When they would start to flower, she'd pull them out, bare root, wrap them in moist newspaper, and take them to market that same day. That’s how we got the ornamental side going, and we’ve grown from there.

Present-day, we still specialize in vegetable transplants. A big part of our business is behind the scenes. We have a garden center, and we're known for selling the plants we grow. However, a lot of our plants are commercial varieties being sent to commercial vegetable producers. 

As I mentioned, we also grow ornamentals. That's actually my role in the operation as well as offering assistance in managing our retail garden center greenhouse. We're family owned and operated. My wife, Christy, is involved in the business, as well as my father, David, who would be the fourth generation. My cousin, Steve, my sister, Courtney, and I, make up the fifth generation.

What makes us unique is we exist in that grower retailer space, which is a space that's vastly diminished today’s world. The current model is many large wholesale greenhouse growers selling to mass merchant box store retailers. So it's unique we're still truly growers of plants, and people in the public can come right to our farm and garden center and purchase those plants. Our garden center is in York County, Spring Garden Township, and it was built in 2011 with the purpose of taking us into the future. 

Christmas is just a couple of weeks away, and I’m sure your greenhouses are beautiful this time of year with all of the poinsettias. Could you share about your poinsettia operation and what’s involved?
Poinsettias are a long-term crop for us to grow. We start them in the summer as early as the month of July. We receive tiny, baby plants. They're basically like small cuttings, which we call rooted cuttings. They grow into various sizes. 

The larger sizes, which are ones started in July, are the big ones you might see at a store where they're 36 inches in total height. Then we stagger our plantings every two weeks or so. The ones we plant in mid-September are what I call the window sill poinsettia, the real small one that that can fit in the small spaces.

The number of total units, or the total number of potted poinsettias we grow, is approximately 7,000 this year. It fluctuates a little bit. We mostly base it off of how things went the year before. They're a very technical crop, meaning we need to keep a close watch on all the cultural elements including the temperature, the air circulation, fertility, insect pressure and disease pressure.

I would say the most challenging aspect is finishing the crop at just the right height. Every variety has its very own unique growth habit. For the six-inch pot poinsettia, or the standard church poinsettia, we have need to have white, red and pink ones. It wouldn’t be good for us to send a 10-inch white poinsettia with an 18-inch red poinsettia. Sometimes we have to manipulate them to get them to finish at just the right height. That's the challenging part, but probably the part that I enjoy the most about the crop.

Careful variety selection is also a key component to growing poinsettias. Like I said, there are red poinsettias, but it's not just one variety or one cultivar. There are thousands. We find varieties we like, and we move them into production on a small scale. If we end up liking them, we can always make them one of our main varieties. Through variety selection, we're picking out varieties that grow very durably when you ship them or move them around.

Additionally, there’s something called sporting. That's when you have a pink poinsettia that has just a couple of red leaves on it, where it reverted or ‘sported back’ to its parent. We select good varieties that don't have a tendency to do that because they can be unmarketable.

Variety selection can help with timing too. There are early-season, mid-season poinsettias and late-season poinsettias. At Miller Plant Farm, we generally tend to grow more for the mid- or late-season. We like a poinsettia that gets ready after Thanksgiving and stays nice all the way through the holidays. The early seasons generally are ready at some point in mid-November, and by Christmas, they're pretty tired looking. Those are a few of the considerations in poinsettia production here at the farm.  

Could you help us understand what we should look for when selecting a poinsettia and anything else about poinsettias that is important to know?There are several things to consider when selecting a poinsettia. 

But first I want to dispel the myth that poinsettias are poisonous. They are not and it is a very well-documented fact at the university level. Every year I think, "Well, why is that still a thing? Why do people still say they can't have poinsettias, because they're poisonous?" In order to achieve a toxic reaction from poinsettia ingestion, you would have to eat a whole greenhouse full of leaves, so it's not even an issue.

In terms of choosing a good poinsettia, there are several things to look for. The first thing I recommend is don't buy plants that are already packaged. When I say already packaged, I'm talking about that clear sleeve that they put around the plants. Even if you can see the top sticking out of that, poinsettias are very fragile plants by nature. Go somewhere where you can select a plant that you like. If it's already packaged, when you take the sleeve off you don’t know if the plant is going to be busted up or if the shape is going to be wonky. It’s better to select one that you like.

Also, look closely at the leaves, not just the red portion on a traditional red, but the green leaves. Make sure they're deep green in color, clean of scorch or yellow spots and anything else that just doesn't quite look good. 

Probably the most important thing to look for is the presence of cyathia. And what are cyathia? They are the yellow centers on poinsettias. They're actually the true flowers of the poinsettia plant. A lot of people think that on a traditional red poinsettia, the red part is the flower. Well, those are actually called bracts which are modified leaves, and they're very pretty. However, the true flowers are the yellow centers. You want those yellow centers to be present when you select your poinsettia, because one of the things poinsettias will do when they stress at the finished state is they will abort those cyathia. They'll just drop right out. So if you're not seeing those, that plant is in decline either naturally because it's an early variety and it's getting late, or just because it's been subject to either too little light or maybe irregular watering. Always look for those cyathia when selecting poinsettias.

With the Christmas season upon us, could you share with our listeners what you are grateful for this season, along with anything else you’d like to cover. 
This year really has been like no other. Although we've been engulfed by a lot of the negative stuff regarding COVID-19, and I certainly don't make light of any of the hardships, I think it's always important to maybe keep our heads up and find some silver linings. At Miller Plant Farm, we're very thankful to be supported by a community that truly values our efforts and the fruits of our labor. 

I call it the ‘sleepless times’ back in March when shutdowns were on their horizon and it was very uncertain times. We were filling greenhouses here at Miller Plant Farm, and we didn't even know if we were allowed to be open to sell anything. We quickly adapted, got online with curbside service and did everything we thought we needed to do at the time. Just to go through the season and see that what we're doing year after year, people really do want our products and the demand was still there. We're very thankful to know that we're doing work that's appreciated.

Our lives become so jam packed with activities and obligations, I think it becomes a daunting task just to make it through a week sometimes. In the last year with so much cancellation and an absence from our busy routines, many folks found interest in simpler and timeless activities, such as cooking, gardening, decorating and crafting, which I think that's great for sustainable living on a personal level. I also think that's worth being thankful for as well.


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