CT business preserves trees and plants for owners during the winter

Kelly Considine lives on Shippan Point in Stamford and loves plants, including some that don’t do well in Connecticut winters.

Considine doesn’t have enough space for a greenhouse on her property, but she’s found a way to keep them thriving through the winter: shipping them to a business in New Haven County. This business, Gardens at Cheshire, specializes in winter plant care.

So now she eagerly awaits the arrival of Gardens at Cheshire owner John McGuinness and his staff, along with her plants.

“On delivery day, it’s like family coming home because these (plants) are like my children,” Considine said. “I’ve been keeping my plants with him for about 20 years because he does such a wonderful job and has such amazing knowledge. All my plants come home in perfect condition, which is important to me because some of them I could never replace.

McGinnis understands the connection his customers have with their plants and trees.

“It’s really hard for people to give up their plants, even if sometimes they think those plants are a pain in the ass,” he said. “The world is full of plant lovers and they expect their plants to come back looking great. Once they realize the possibilities of storing a plant every winter for several years, it makes them even more attached to it.”

That’s why when McGinnis and his staff pick up customers’ plants in the fall and return them in the spring, they secure them with the utmost care, like a parent might put a child in a car seat.

“When we transport the plants, we pack them so they don’t go anywhere, even if we’re in a head-on collision,” he said. Gardens at Cheshire collects and delivers plants within a radius of approximately 100 miles of the business.

Gardens at Cheshire care costs for plants and trees are based on how many square meters they take up. McGinnis said that although there are separate fees for picking up and delivering plants and trees, the majority of customers use the service.

“We very rarely get negative feedback about the cost of the service,” he said. “Landscapers and contractors love us because they don’t have to jump through hoops to make their customers happy.”

A passion for plants

McGinnis said he knew from the time he was four years old that he wanted to be involved in growing things.

He later received a master’s degree in horticulture from West Virginia University in 1974. McGinnis then went to work for a plant grower in Flemington, West Virginia, who specialized in holiday plants such as poinsettias for poinsettia and Easter lilies,

McGinnis then focused on remodeling houses for about two decades before returning to his true passion.

“I had a friend who was gardening and I wanted to get back into that type of work,” McGinnis said.

So McGuinness and three of his friends — Jim Boynton, Ruth Adams and Margaret Burnett — started what was then known as Broadfield Gardens in 1998. The friends tried to grow unusual annuals for the retail market.

“But as is the case with most small business startups, we didn’t have a marketing plan or enough funding to successfully launch our venture,” McGinnis said. “Our luck changed in 2001 when a contributor from Norfolk asked us to overwinter his collection of tropical plants.”

This business started with 15 customers, mostly referrals from retail nurseries in northwestern Connecticut and western Massachusetts.

“I didn’t know there would be a market for it,” McGinnis said of caring for plants each winter in a central location.

But the conservatory housing the tropical plants on Boynton’s property and his death six years later forced the business to move to Cheshire. And with the business relocation, McGuinness became the sole principal of the company, which has been renamed Gardens at Cheshire and is based at Growell and Arisco Farms in Cheshire.

The business moved to Zentek Farms in August 2013. Gardens at Cheshire now has 43,000 square feet of greenhouse space spread over an acre of land that is leased from Zentek Farms, which is located on Higgins Road in Cheshire.

Gardens at Cheshire currently has around 200 customers and looks after around 2,000 plants and trees.

Another of McGuinness’ customers is Stanley Moskowitz, who kept his Meyer lemon tree in Cheshire for five years.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Moskowitz said of McGinnis. “He treats people very fairly and I trust him unconditionally. My tree should be delivered in May and I can’t wait to see how much it has grown.’

When McGinnis and his team picked up Moskowitz’s 7-foot-tall lemon tree last fall, it had about 50 unripe lemons on it. The lemons ripened while his tree was in Cheshire Gardens, and one afternoon this past winter Moskowitz returned to his home in Greenwich to find the lemons McGinnis had brought to his home in lower Fairfield County.

Moskowitz is one of about 40 clients McGuinness has in Greenwich alone.

Marilyn Monaghan, operations manager of Gardens at Cheshire, said attention to detail was crucial when dealing with clients.

“The service side of the business is really important,” she said. “People really trust us to treat, to treat their plants and trees as if they were our own. We water them, we cut them, and if there’s a problem, we communicate it to our customers as soon as possible.”

Gardens at Cheshire’s customer base is not limited to homeowners with a love of plants and trees. Customers also include high-end hotels and other commercial customers.

McGinnis said his business continues to grow even during the pandemic.

“In all that time, the only year we saw a drop in business was in 2008 during the last recession,” he said.

If the Gardens at Cheshire has a “celebrity border” that spends the winter in the greenhouses, it’s definitely the aquatic plants found in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain in the spring and summer.

“When we clean the fountain and remove the plants, we find coins from all over the world that people have thrown into the water,” Monahan said.

Cheshire Gardens can hold trees that are up to 18 feet tall, she said. The greenhouse space has multiple temperature zones, including one for plants and trees that need a tropical environment and another focused on plants that thrive in a cooler space.

The business has seven full-time employees and hires seasonal workers at peak times, according to McGinnis. One of the full-time employees at Gardens at Cheshire “is someone whose job is just to deal with pests” that can damage customers’ plants and trees and spread throughout the greenhouse, Monahan said.

“We get good bugs to eat bad bugs,” she said.

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