Organic growth – Greenhouse Management

Gilbertie’s Organics has stood the test of time by adapting to market demands, listening to customers and building a strong organic brand.
From its beginnings as a cut flower operation 100 years ago to the well-known wholesale and retail organic herb and vegetable operation it is today, Gilbertie’s Organics has stood the test of time by truly listening to market demands. Now in its fourth generation of family leadership, the operation, founded by Antonio Gilbertie, has grown everything from bulbs to shrubs and almost everything in between.
The grower-retailer sits on seven-and-a-half acres in Connecticut, where its five acres of greenhouse space makes it one of the largest organic herb growers in the state. The rest of the space is dedicated to the company’s longstanding retail operation, which makes up about 40% of the company’s annual revenue.
Heading up Gilbertie’s Organics is Sal Gilbertie, whose grandfather founded the company in 1922. While his daughter-in-law, Carrie, heads up the garden center, Sal is focused on the greenhouse operation, which offers more than 200 varieties of 100% USDA Certified Organic herbs and more than 40 varieties of microgreens, including special blends like Sal’s Mesclun Mix, Fall Harvest and Pete’s Super Greens wholesale. The company also offers certified organic arugula, rainbow chard, mesclun mix, kale and lettuce mix to restaurants, organic markets and grocery stores. Sal has even co-authored eight cookbooks highlighting ways to use herbs and microgreens from his greenhouses.
The Gilbertie’s story began when Antonio came to the U.S. in 1901 and settled in Westport, Connecticut. Antonio and his two brothers, who immigrated with him, started out their careers working at Fillow Flower Company, supplying cut flowers to New York.
“In those days, there was no airfreight, so if you were growing cut flowers and shipping to the New York market, you had to pretty much be within either the train route or within a 50-mile radius,” Sal says. “So, there were a lot of greenhouse growers that grew everything that you could possibly think of here in the Northeast, which you could not have imagined today.”
In 1919, at 54 years old, Antonio struck out on his own and purchased the land the Gilbertie’s retail location stands on today. Two years later, he built a couple of greenhouses and started growing his own plant material. “But he was smart enough not to grow what Fillow was growing,” Sal says.
Rather than growing the roses and gardenias that Fillow was growing, Antonio opted for cool-season crops like ranunculus, anemones, freesia and dianthus ‘Beatrix’ bulbs. He then learned how to pre-cool bulbs like daffodils, tulips and irises, allowing him to ship to New York before anyone else.
“Right after New Year’s Day, he was shipping these things and nobody else was doing it until about March. So he was way ahead of the curve and he made a lot of money during those days,” Sal says.
Antonio went on to build more greenhouses, and later secured another range of facilities in Norwalk after the original owner went bankrupt. The bank let Antonio run it for a year and eventually, he bought them out to expand his growing footprint.
Antonio found great success selling cut flowers to New York buyers. In fact, Sal says they’ve found tickets in the basement from the late 1930s that show Antonio was getting a higher price for certain plants than Sal could get today in New York.
But when World War II hit, Antonio switched his focus to vegetable plants as Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged Americans to start victory gardens. Starting with the basics like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, Antonio started growing big, 104-plant trays for vegetable gardeners.
“In those days, there were no garden centers as we know them today,” Sal says. “You had to go to a greenhouse range to get your starter plants. So you bought 104 of one particular variety of tomato or pepper or eggplant, but the gardens in those days were pretty big because people did their own canning and preserving and things of that sort.”
The operation was incredibly successful, but after WWII, “everything changed,” Sal says. Airfreight took off in the 1950s and drove cut flower growers all over the Northeast out of business as buyers opted for Southern-grown greenhouse flowers.
“They all either went out of business or diversified, and our family chose to diversify into potted plants,” Sal says.
So Gilbertie’s decided to start growing cyclamen and poinsettias for the holidays, and ornamentals like hydrangeas and azaleas, among others. Then in the late 1950s, the company started looking for more options to grow to fill their greenhouse space.
Around that same time, an estate superintendent gave Sal Gilbertie, Sr. (the current owner’s father) the order for a massive herb garden. The estate owners, who had made their money in perfumes, wanted a huge pie-shaped garden designed with each slice containing 60 herbs of different kinds. To accommodate the order, Sal’s father grew 100 4-inch pots of each herb, leaving plenty of plants left over after the estate project was completed.
Sal was fresh out of school at the time, so he started helping his father, and they quickly sold out of the herb plants. “And my father said, ‘Quick, learn about herbs,’ and that’s how we got into the potted herb business,” Sal says.
Sal’s father passed away unexpectedly in 1959, leaving him to take over the business at just 22 years old. Luckily for him, the president of the Herb Society of America, Edna Cashmore, lived in a neighboring town and took Sal under her wing and helped him find his way.
“She started telling me what to grow and things of that sort,” Sal says. “She and her board of directors would meet at her house every June, from all over the country. She wanted to grow for the board of directors because they couldn’t find these herbs anyplace.”
By 1969, Sal was growing 70 or 80 herb varieties and the nearby Danbury Fair was celebrating its 100-year anniversary. Simon & Garfunkel, who had released “Scarborough Fair” just a few years earlier, were going to perform, so Sal grew 70,000 pots of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to sell to attendees.
“I figured it would be pretty easy to sell one plant to every 10th person who came to the fair that year, so I took a big, giant booth there and it turned out to be a disaster,” Sal says.
Sal only sold about 400 herbs, leaving him with tens of thousands of leftover plants. He had to think fast, so he hit the road from New Haven down to Westchester County, stopping at every garden center or flower shop he could find trying to sell his excess stock.
After receiving question after question, Sal realized his main problem was that there were no labels or care information on his pots. So he developed his own labeling system with the plants’ common names, Latin names, general uses and care.
“And then, besides that, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the ecology boom started and everybody started going on healthy diets. People started going to Europe and seeing the herb gardens there, too, and it really started to take off,” Sal says. “And we were the only game in town.”
Realizing they needed more space, the company bought a farm and built another range of greenhouses to grow herbs. They diversified their stock once again, adding microgreens and cut flowers. Since Gilbertie’s already had a reputation for herbs, the company changed its name to Gilbertie’s Herb and Garden Center. But that soon changed as well.
Garden centers were becoming more popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, so wholesale business was booming for Gilbertie’s. “At one time, we had 800 wholesale customers — garden centers that we were selling to — but then they all started going out of business,” Sal says.
While many blamed competition from big-box stores, Sal notes that a large part of the problem was increasing property values. “Guys that bought a piece of property for $10,000, all of a sudden McDonald’s wanted it for $1 million, so that’s why all those garden centers went out. And when they went out of business, we went downhill very quickly,” he says. “We had so many good customers that just closed up because their property was worth so much money.”
So the company once again switched up its stock, moving back into ornamentals. But their strong reputation for herbs and vegetables made it hard to break into the annual and perennial market. Instead, Gilbertie’s opted to focus on herbs and microgreens, gaining organic certification nearly 25 years ago as customers’ interest in chemical-free food took off.
While Gilbertie’s was once the only game in town selling herbs, large growers got into the business around the ‘90s when big growers started diversifying their crops. “That was caused by the big chains because they wanted the growers to grow everything,” Sal says. “So they weren’t buying herbs from an herb grower and poinsettias from another grower. They wanted growers that were supplying them everything from soup to nuts.”
That’s when Sal started to get “pretty fanatical” about growing organic options. Growing up with cut flower growers, Sal remembers a time when his family was spraying whatever they could get their hands on long before the rules and regulations we have today.
“I remember my dad spraying and smoking at the same time with no gear on!” Sal says.
But when he saw customers sampling herbs straight from the plants, Sal knew he had to stop using chemicals.
Sal says he became religious about organic growing and thankfully the area he’s in is pretty knowledgeable about the benefits of organic food and what it takes to become USDA Certified Organic.
And Gilbertie’s is planning to continue on its organic path in the years to come. The company has made significant upgrades to its greenhouses, building a new herb house and switching out old oil furnaces for gas. And it will soon be rolling out new, environmentally friendly packaging for herbs and microgreens.
Sal says he sees significant growth in vertical farming facilities that cut down on the greenhouse footprint and bring produce closer to urban centers, but he’ll always champion the benefits of digging in the dirt.
“I think there’s a spiritual benefit to being in the garden,” he says. “There’s so much peace to be found in gardening. To me, that’s the most important thing we can do, is to supply plants to people that will keep gardening. There’s no question about it. So as much as we can participate in, that is what I love about the whole business.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Garden Center magazine. The author is the editor of Garden Center magazine.