The first thing that catches your eye is the giant expanse of greenhouse that stretches acre after acre, 170 acres in all. Almost as quickly, the vibrant purple, pink, yellow, green and white color palette within the mile-long greenhouse draws your attention. It’s a striking menagerie of 7,000 different varieties and colors of plants numbering in the millions, all under glass in the largest single-site heated greenhouse in the country.

Metrolina Greenhouses grows plants that are destined to beautify landscapes for home gardeners over a large swath of the country. The work is a fast-paced, intense, data-driven endeavor that keeps brothers and co-CEOs Art and Abe VanWingerden scanning other industries and the world for not only new plants but new innovations.

To the VanWingerdens, it’s part of ensuring that a constant rotation of plants hits the garden centers of nearly 1,600 big box stores — Lowe’s, Walmart, The Home Depot, Sam’s Club­ — with shipments tailored to what sells in a particular location.

Their market area spans a 600-mile radius, which reaches as far north as New York, and for certain products as far south as Florida and as far west as Kansas City. During peak growing times in the spring when gardeners love to buy new plants, as many as 178 tractor trailer loads of plants leave their headquarters every day. That equates to 70 million plants per year.

A growing family. While Art oversees production and growing, Abe handles the sales and IT. Younger brothers Michael and Thomas handle shipping and logistics, and construction and maintenance, respectively.

Their parents, Tom and Vickie VanWingerden, immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in 1971 with two young sons, $5,000 and a dream. Their initial investment grew into a multi-million dollar company; in 2006, the brothers purchased the company from their parents. The company, now with $210 million in sales annually, owns 7.4 million square feet of greenhouses (170 acres) with another 40 acres of greenhouse to be added in the next few years. They own another 257 acres in York, South Carolina, about 50 miles away where they grow perennials.

The VanWingerden name is a powerhouse in the floriculture business. According to Greenhouse Grower magazine, the family is credited with building this country’s modern greenhouse floriculture industry. Extended family members of Art and Abe own large green industry companies throughout the country.

Automate or stagnate. Innovation and ingenuity are a part of the family’s DNA. Tom VanWingerden’s favorite saying, “Automate or stagnate,” is a guiding principle that his sons learned early. In the 1980s their visionary Dad designed an automated transplanter that picks up 60,000 plants per hour and places them into pots.

A mechanized overhead system for hanging baskets that optimizes greenhouse space and moves plants to one central watering area rather than requiring water over thousands of square feet or drip tubes in individual pots is an idea inspired from an uncle’s ski trip and observation of gondola lifts. Even the type of greenhouses, known as MX-1 and MX-2 by employees, is another family innovation. The brothers’ grandfather, Aart van Wingerden, invented the MX greenhouse which uses an automated roof vent system that opens to allow for a passive cooling option that can reduce operating costs. The name and design were inspired by the MX missile silos.

Heating the massive complex is accomplished by wood boilers that use recycled pallets and other biomass fuel.

Robots as farmhands. Small robots, reminiscent of R2-D2 of Star Wars fame, rove within a designated area picking up potted plants and moving them to a holding area, spacing them at the proper distance to allow the plants to grow and extend their foliage without getting tangled up with other plants.

To supplement employee efforts in the cutting room, the company has introduced another type robot. Five of them line a wall and each boasts a large box-shaped glass case with the look of a theater popcorn popper. A worker tosses a handful of tiny, tender cuttings onto a small conveyor belt at one end of the machine every few minutes. Two cameras above the conveyor belt take snapshots of the cuttings. A computer relays information to an automated “arm” at the other end of the belt, signaling it to pick up a cutting and stick it into a soil-filled tray. In less the two seconds the robot deposits the root end of a tiny, delicate seedling into the soil.

“It depends on the plant cutting, but we figure an average person does 900 to 1,000 cuttings an hour,” explains Art. “Each machine will pick up 2,400 cuttings an hour and stick them in the dirt.”

Resourceful systems. Optimization of space and efficient water usage are integral to the greenhouse design. Cranes that move tables of plants is one way to reduce wasted space for walkways. “There is only one other greenhouse in America that has that,” says Art. “These greenhouses use 87% of usable space. In a typical greenhouse you’re only using 70 to 75%.”

Considering that their average water use is half a million gallons every day – on their busiest days they pump a million gallons – they place an emphasis on this important resource. As one of the biggest water users in Mecklenburg County, home to the city of Charlotte and a metropolitan area of close to 2.5 million people, Metrolina has its own water treatment facility along with a system of ponds for on-site storage and to collect rain water.

“When it rains an inch here, we collect up to 5 million gallons of water,” says Abe. All water that falls on the greenhouse roof and the ground, from overhead watering systems or from areas that are watered from the floor of the greenhouses, goes back into the system to be recycled. “It is all self-sustained, self-controlled.”

Trial gardens, consumer preferences. All of these innovations result in optimal growing conditions for the plants. The company invests heavily in research and development and conducts its own plant trials in a stunning outdoor garden, including a pergola gallery for hanging plants. As many as 1,000 different type plants may go through a three-year trial phase at any given time.

A Home Garden Panel consisting of 2,000 enthusiastic consumers provides valuable data on not only the types of plants that will appeal to customers but also popular colors that will be in demand, and price points they’re willing to pay.

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