Thousands of colorful varieties of bedding plants, perennials, annuals, shrubs and fruit trees greet customers' eyes as they enter Main's Flower Garden at 7300 Lincoln Highway East, New Haven. Vivid reds, pastel yellows, deep purples, dusty oranges and bright blues explode from every corner of the greenhouse and walkways. The mixture of fragrances is strong throughout.
According to partners and siblings Luetta (Lou) Burlage and Russell Main, big sellers are hanging baskets of all varieties and individual petunias, begonias, impatiens, marigolds and geranium plants. “The first week (we opened in mid-April) is always a little slow, because the weather is a still somewhat cool, and people don't want to plant things too early,” says Lou. “Once it gets warm and sunny, this place turns into a madhouse. The parking lot overflows, and customers are shoulder-to-shoulder in every aisle, pulling wagons and pushing wheelbarrows full of plants and lining up several deep at the checkout counter.”
Plants and bushes for sale at Main's come from greenhouses of wholesale growers in Ohio and Michigan because, even though they're grown indoors, they come from a similar climate. Russell points out that “getting our plants from Ohio and Michigan reduces the chance of transfer shock. And by using a variety of suppliers, we can pick and choose each grower's specialty. Some are better at growing petunias or geraniums, but maybe don't produce really strong, hardy impatiens or begonias. The ones we get are generally shorter, but do well in this climate.”
This year's opening was bittersweet for Lou and Russell, because their father, Joe, who started Main's with his uncle, also named Russell, died March 13 at the age of 77 in Florida. Tuesday they held a memorial service for him at St. Louis Besancon Catholic Church. “He built this business,” says Lu, “and we're strong because of him. We're proud of what he built, and he'll be greatly missed around here.”
The elder Russell, Joe's uncle and later his partner, was raised on a farm on Ryan Road east of New Haven, where his parents grew vegetables and sold them throughout east Allen County and at the Barr Street Farmers Market in Fort Wayne. Joe helped out on the farm and later the two men combined their talents to continue the family tradition of selling produce. They leased land where O'Daniel Ford now stands and sold pumpkins, mums and Christmas trees.
When the present property became available, they purchased it and set up a sales office in the barn that came with the land. In 1967, with a barn full of apples and other produce, the fuel oil stove on the second floor fell through the ceiling and set off a blaze that made the entire town of New Haven smell like apple pie. The following year they built the greenhouse complex that has served as “flower central” for the past 45 years. In 1972 flowers began selling better than produce, so they made the switch.
Lou and Russell, who, along with their six brothers and sisters, had worked with their father and great uncle at the flower garden since they were kids, officially took over for him three years ago. Lou's daughter Jessica Parker, and Russell's son, Russell Jr., grew up in the flower business as well, and work at the garden now.
Main's is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. from mid-April through the end of July. If the weather is really good, they might extend a couple of weeks into August. “That month, however,” says Russell, “is generally when we do all of our maintenance, blow out the water lines, repair and/or replace the polyfilm greenhouse roofs and shut down the natural gas heaters before closing up shop for another year.”