For Allison Justice, growing is about meeting challenges. The 29-year-old, who co-founded Hope Greenhouses LLC in Fair Play, S.C., with her mother, Deborah, in 2012, uses her research background in biological agents to implement new ideas in her greenhouse and lab in an effort to find alternatives to chemical pesticides.
Justice got her start in horticulture at a young age, when her mother owned an ornamental tree farm in Georgia. “When I was younger, it was kind of following mom around, but as time went on, I helped with sales and management and anything from digging trees to planting new liners. We were a team once I got older,” she says.
From there, she went through school to pursue a Ph.D. in plant and environmental science from Clemson University in South Carolina, where she received a great deal of knowledge outside of a structured class through her professor and mentor, Dr. Jim Faust.
Once Justice took a greenhouse class, she was hooked, and after Faust found out about her interest, he began to teach her more about the industry by taking her to greenhouses around the country and even in Guatemala.
“I could never learn in a classroom like what he brought to the table just day-to-day for me,” she says. “After I got my feet wet, he allowed me to pick what I wanted to do for my dissertation…I said, ‘OK, I really like fungus — [beneficial fungus] — and he [said], ‘OK go for it!’”
Her experiences in tackling biologicals has motivated her to tackle other challenges, too. For example, Clematis armandii, an evergreen clematis, is difficult to root, which is why she chose it for her first crop at Hope Greenhouses.
“I wanted to choose something that not everybody grows,” Justice says. “I probably spent a year trialing different propagation methods, and we’ve got it at about 80 percent now, so that’s actually our main crop for the greenhouse.”
Justice and her mother also grow Snow Drift and Apple Blossom flowering vines. She usually sells out every year, she says, and she’s looking to add jasmine and honeysuckle to her operation in the near future.
From laboratory to garden gloves
Justice’s day-to-day at Hope Greenhouses includes managing online orders and doing daily walkthroughs of greenhouses, scouting for pests on her hard-to-root flowering vines and pomegranate crops. However, Justice produces biological agents, specifically nematodes, in-house, which takes up most of her time.
“[Biologicals] are much more effective, less expensive, safer and less frequently applied versus chemical pesticides,” Justice says. “I would encourage other growers to implement these practices.”
Through her side business, Biological Defense Systems, she offers growers her patent-pending “starter kit,” as she calls it. The starter kit provides growers with nematodes that they can then inoculate and breed more of themselves as a sustainable alternative to ordering billions at a time.
A canine companion
And when she’s not growing or breeding nematodes, Justice is training her new puppy, Sophie, a Great Pyrenees, to become a herd dog for the beef and milk cattle on her property.
Justice also enjoys reading trade magazines, journals and whatever she can get her hands on to learn more about biologicals. Right now, she’s looking into nematodes for Japanese beetles, mainly larvae.
“I find it important to spend a small amount of time every day doing reading on current research,” Justice says.
And right now, she’s working on selling her kits commercially to two greenhouses, one in Virginia and one in Michigan, and continuing to be an advocate for the use of biologicals.
“Implementing the latest research or conducting in-house investigations on new methods, innovations, biologicals and technology is crucial to being successful and progressing,” she says.