As spring arrives, Maine flower growers weather challenges of late-winter snow, cold

Posted March 20, 2013, at 8:47 p.m.

BUXTON, Maine — Maine flower growers remained defiant against the elements on the first official day of spring Wednesday, saying they’ll persevere despite late-winter cold and snow that drives up heating costs and stalls plant rotations.

“We’re in the midst of our spring openings, and we’re not going to let snow deter us from that,” said Mike Skillin, head of the Falmouth-based Skillins Greenhouses.

Skillin acknowledged, however, that the abrasive end to winter — with a 12-inch snowstorm Tuesday and overnight low temperatures in the single digits in recent weeks — does present challenges.

He said his company spends around $100,000 annually to heat its 4-plus acres of greenhouses in Falmouth, Cumberland and Brunswick with heating oil and propane, and that figure climbs when Maine stays colder longer.

“We’re not at that point yet, but if it goes on to be a matter of weeks, it certainly can be an issue,” Skillin said Wednesday. “We are on the cusp of that becoming more of a problem, and that does put a sting on things. It affects our ability to hire people for a spring push — we have to do more with less and balance spring heating costs.”

Susan Richards of Frugal Farmers in Buxton — who was tending to seedlings Wednesday with her husband, Bruce, and mother, Barbara Moulton — echoed that sentiment.

“The types of nighttime temperatures we’d been having before the storm — we had a night when it was 9 degrees, and another night when it was 6 degrees — those make the furnace run all night long,” she said Wednesday.

Then there was Tuesday’s storm, which provided most sections of Maine with between 10-15 inches of snow.

Jody Dekubber, one of the managers of Broadway Gardens Greenhouses in South Portland, said the snow prevents his organization from moving the spring’s first marketable flowers — pansies — from their locations in the greenhouses outside. That could mean the pansies stay indoors longer, occupying greenhouse space growers had hoped to be using for subsequent waves of flowers.

“The pansies are more of a cold, early spring crop. They’re one of the first things that can grow outside. In a couple of weeks we’ll be moving them outside. It’s just a matter of when all this snow melts, or whether we get another storm,” Dekubber said.

“If [bad weather is] too prolonged — and it has not been yet — a crop of pansies could take a long time to move,” said Skillin, whose company is holding its spring open house in Brunswick during the coming weekend. “With limits on space, it makes it hard to get a second or even a third crop growing. That can be a problem. What that means is we maybe will sell our first crop and our second crop, but we won’t be able to work with a third crop.”

But despite the tough end to winter, flower growers said they don’t plan to wilt in the face of the challenges. Plus, Richards said, Maine weather often has a way of averaging out by the end of the year.

For now, said Skillin, “We’re going full speed ahead with pansies.”