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The Last Rose Grower in New England

by Mary Jasch

One sniff of a Pinchbeck rose transports you back to a carefree time, to a summery field where perhaps you once lay with the scent of flowers on your skin.

A Pinchbeck rose is a delicate stem of fragrant color, spiked with bright green sepals. For a rose or, for that matter, any cultivated cut flower in heavy production these days, that’s saying a lot. Somehow, fragrance and transportability don’t mix very well. So most rose growers opt for transportability – except for Pinchbeck Rose Growers in Guillford, Connecticut, the very last rose grower left in all of New England.

“We opt for fragrance,” says Tom Pinchbeck with a proud smile. “We want everything everybody wants, but we’re not as concerned about transportation. We want a rose that opens full as if it were growing outside on the bush.”

As fourth generation owner of the business, Pinchbeck is dedicated to his great-grandfather’s original vision and mission in 1929: growing quality roses with fragrance and good behavior for a local market.

“We grow varieties selected for local growers,” he says. What, exactly, does that mean?

It means they don’t care how far a rose has to travel and how long it can live out of water. It means they opt for fragrance instead of transportation ability. “The more fragrant a rose is, the faster it opens up, hence the luxury for a local grower to opt for fragrance. Our roses will open and bloom large. You get 10 days of vase life out of our varieties. The stems are not as thick as the imports, which are grown at very cool temperatures with lots of sunlight and tend to get woody.”

Pinchbeck doesn’t ship far – New York City and Connecticut. His roses are dry three to four hours max, boxed with ice. Roses from Ecuador are out of water for days, although they follow a “cold chain” with low temperatures maintained from the grower, to the aircraft, customs, warehouse and finally to a florist. Some wholesalers even hire customs officials to inspect the flowers right outside their warehouse.

Pinchbeck remembers when there were maybe 10 growers in New England. “One reason we’ve weathered the storm is we keep our heating and electricity costs down,” he says. He uses recycled wood to heat the greenhouses and fire up a cogeneration turbine.

New England rose growers folded due to high labor and energy costs. In South America, where 95% of cut roses are grown, labor is cheap. “You cut each rose by hand. It’s a discriminating harvest process,” he says. “A crew cuts every day, even Sunday and Christmas. It’s a lot like a manufacturing business in this country – it’s become prohibitively expensive to do it.”

In the greenhouse, the red roses are tallest so their beds are on the north side - then pink, yellow and light salmon. The original 1929 greenhouse is 1,200 x 81 feet; a second house is 600 x 81. In both houses, each 300 foot bed contains 1,000 plants for a total of 80,000 rose plants. Most last about 10 years.

The roses are either planted directly in the beds or, more recently, potted in coco core (coconut pith) for ease of replacement. Of the 20 or so varieties Pinchbeck grows, 50% are red; 50% are tea and 50 sweetheart.

At 7am, workers begin the day’s cut up and down the rows, looking for roses at exactly the right stage of openness – two petals beginning to unfurl. They add each cut rose to the mixed varieties cradled in their arms, then bring them to the cooler for a deep drink of water. Then the roses go to the grading room to be sorted – by machine for stem length, by hand for variety and quality. Varieties are bundled separately and stored in water in the stock cooler.

Heating pipes run along the beds’ edges. The heating and electrical systems are fairly low tech – the same as they were in 1929 – although, recently, this would be called “going green.”

“This is all old technology,” Pinchbeck says. “In this corrosive environment, electronics don’t work so well.” Humidity is at least 90%.

The boiler room is where some of the fun happens and is also the reason Pinchbeck is still engaged in the rose business. The original boiler functions in the original brick 1929 boiler building that his great-grandaddy built. A conveyor belt carries finely ground wood into the boiler room. The speed of the belt’s drag chain is determined by pressure of the boiler. On cold nights, boiler pressure drops and the speed of the drag chain picks up to compensate for increased demand. So, the colder the night, the more steam – and heat – is produced.

For those new to boilers, the boiler has two parts: the firebox and the water part which makes steam. The ground wood drops onto the firebox grate, which has pinholes on its surface. Fans blow air through the holes which fans the fire.

Then, fire and hot gases pass through fire tubes surrounded by water in the water part of the boiler, which turns the water into steam, which is piped into the greenhouses as radiant heat. As steam condenses, the water is pumped back to the boiler and recycled.

In the hallway, a steam turbine produces electricity as a by-product of the boiler’s steam. As gas goes through the turbine, it expands and drives fans to turn, which speeds the motor to produce electricity. So on cold nights, more electricity is produced and is put on the grid for use. Pinchbeck uses “net metering.” The meter runs backward when putting electricity onto the grid and forward when using the grid.

Pinchbeck sells 100,000 roses for Valentine’s Day at $30/dozen; the rest of the year – 2 million at $12/dozen. “Valentine’s Day is the one time of year there is a shortage of roses,” he says.

It takes 7 weeks to grow a rose. Around December 21, workers pinch for the Valentine’s Day crop although its quality depends on decent sunlight and temperatures. Cloudy weather produces a weaker crop. “Winter’s the hardest time to grow. We need to get all the roses for Valentine’s Day crop harvested within one week – February 7 to 14. If Valentine’s Day were in August, I could double the crop. But it comes at a time of year when the days are dragging and you need a little pick-me-up – a rose.”

On a typical day, Pinchbeck gets in around 8 and checks on the day’s cut, how things went through the night with the wood boiler, then heads for the office to organize tasks such as pinching, pruning, tucking plants into beds, and finally, filling in where needed.

“I grew up next door and used to come over all the time. I just liked the environment here – tractors, machinery, and the end product is a beautiful live thing so it’s a lot nicer to produce than ball bearings or something. Roses aren’t the easiest thing in the world to grow, but it’s a rewarding job.”

As of 2008, Pinchbeck Roses became Roses for Autism. Check it out here:

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published April 09, 2008

Photos to enlarge

The very fragrant tea rose, "Lavande"

Fragrant sweetheart rose, "Kiss"

Heating Pipes run the length of the greenhouse

Tom Pinchbeck, a man who loves his work

The original 1929 boilers at work. Boiler: water side is up top, firebox on bottom

In the early stages, the sifter kicks out larger pieces of wood, which staff shovels in through the firebox doors.

Tom's hobby. “They’re fun to keep around.”

In the cooler, lilies bundled and waiting to go

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