Balanced growth

Departments - Meet the Grower

Greg Blankenship benefits from a three-in-one business model at Gregory’s Greenhouse Productions.

March 17, 2022

Over a decade ago, Blankenship started selling plants out of the back of a pickup truck at local farmers markets. Now, he has two box trucks equipped with adjustable shelves.
All photos courtesy of Greg Blankenship

Greg Blankenship’s plant career started with growing and grafting dogwood trees as a teenager. Since then, his services have shifted several times to create a diversified horticulture business that is “beautifying Knoxville one planter at a time,” according to his tagline.

Gregory’s Greenhouse Productions, the business Blankenship founded in 1994, blends three different business models into one. The largest division is wholesale, which makes up about half of his business. Blankenship grows annuals, perennials, herbs, and vegetables to supply local nurseries and garden centers, in addition to contract growing for a couple of small landscapers.

To complement this business, while tapping into his experience in both landscaping and interior plant installation, Blankenship also offers commercial plant installations. Serving businesses, apartment complexes, and the entire city of Knoxville, Gregory’s Greenhouse team changes out hundreds of colorful containers twice a year. Besides several tropical plants that have to be ordered in, Blankenship grows most of the varieties he installs across the city.

The third component of Blankenship’s business comes from mobile retail sales, which account for about 10-15% of his revenue. Over a decade ago, he started selling plants out of the back of a pickup truck at local farmers markets. Now, he has two box trucks equipped with adjustable shelves and side panels that open up, serving as plant shops on wheels. In addition to farmers markets, Blankenship also partners with local coffee shops, apartment complexes, and other businesses to offer pop-up sales events.

Blankenship says this triple-business model gives him several options for selling the wide variety of plant material he grows, allowing him to tap into several different customer bases. “What you can’t wholesale, you retail. What you can’t retail, you wholesale. What you can’t do either way, you install,” he says. “You’ve got to have a lot of avenues. And if none of those work, there’s always the compost pile.”

Blankenship grows in nine 14x50 hoop houses filled with vented doors and roll-down sides.

Temperature control

Growing such a broad diversity of plants requires a range of microclimates and conditions across Blankenship’s nine greenhouses, which comprise 7,000 square feet of covered production space.

Most of his structures are 14x50 hoop houses filled with vented doors and roll-down sides. Three of them have heaters, fans, and ventilation systems—one of which received a major upgrade last year.

“I used to use heating pads, but I upgraded one entire greenhouse to the BioTherm system, and it has changed how I grow cuttings and plugs,” he says. “It definitely makes that greenhouse more efficient.”

The closed-loop boiler system pumps hot water through tubes that run underneath benches to maintain a steady “bottom heat” beneath trays of unrooted cuttings. Since installing the system, Blankenship says, “My cuttings are more even, and I can produce them a lot quicker. My cutting loss this year has been very little.”

After rooting cuttings in the BioTherm greenhouse, Blankenship worked in an extra rotation of herbs—which wasn’t possible in previous springs without the bottom heat. “Now, once the cuttings are gone, I can run a whole crop of basil,” he says, “and basically pay for more heating systems if I can sell it.”

Blankenships' faithful furry friend, Beamer, serves as the official mascot of Gregory's Greenhouse Productiouns.

All hands on deck

With a “low tech, high output” approach to growing, Blankenship relies on manual labor (rather than automation) to control his diverse growing environment. His team includes an office manager who handles contracts and invoices, two plant installers, and two seasonal greenhouse workers.

Although Blankenship hands most of the administrative work to his office manager, he’s still very hands-on with greenhouse growing as he trains a relatively “green” team of new employees.

Every day begins with a walk through of the facility to “see what needs to be watered or fertilized, what needs to be planted, what greenhouses need to have the doors and plastic opened up, and checking for insects,” he says. “There’s a lot of manual labor in this business.”

While he can spot potential plant issues from a distance, his employees are still learning how to read the signs. “I try to teach the girls how to do a walkthrough,” he says. “I want them to know, ‘Oh, that side’s dry, that side needs to be watered, that greenhouse needs to be opened up.’”

One of Blankenship’s goals this season is to build up his team’s capabilities, allowing himself more time off to achieve a healthy work-life balance by pursuing other hobbies like yoga, ballroom dancing, and an active social life.

“The social part is hard for horticulturalists sometimes because we live in the plant world, but we don’t take time for ourselves,” says Blankenship, who’s 57 but says he acts 40. “I can basically retire at this point, but I enjoy what I do. It’s not about making the money; it’s about enjoying growing and making people smile, and that energy that you get from making these beautiful creations.”

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Greenhouse Management magazine.