Terry Leppo’s first garden was a radish patch he tended at age 7 under the guidance of his grandparents, who taught him how to grow plants on their farm in the Santa Maria Valley. Although his parents “wouldn’t touch another radish for years after,” Leppo says that this experience sparked his lifelong passion for horticulture.
“By third grade, I decided that I wanted to study horticulture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo,” says Leppo, who went on to earn his greenhouse management degree there in 2000. “There was nothing else I could see myself doing but growing plants.”
Now, more than 20 years later, Leppo still loves being surrounded by plants as head grower and production coordinator at Armstrong Growers, where he’s worked since spring 2015. By integrating the lessons he’s learned from his grandparents and other mentors throughout his career, Leppo continues to tweak his approach for producing beautiful plants.
“Being able to grow a crop from beginning to end and knowing that it’s going to put a smile on someone’s face is what motivates me,” Leppo says. “I’m doing my part to spread a little bit of beauty.”
Leppo oversees production at Armstrong’s Santa Paula and Oxnard facilities, which span 40 acres of combined production space since a recent expansion. Half of this total space is, or soon will be, under cover, he says.
His growing team is focused on producing seasonal color like annuals and hanging baskets, herbs, vegetables, potted plants and ground covers to supply Armstrong Garden Centers in addition to other IGCs, wholesale landscapers, resorts, and theme parks.
To keep operations running smoothly, Leppo works closely with his assistant grower, four section growers, and various department supervisors to closely track plant progress.
“I spend approximately 85% of my week in the field making crop decisions,” says Leppo, who walks the crops regularly to monitor plant growth, quality, and disease. “The remaining time is spent preparing for the following week’s production and upcoming crops by managing schedules, action plans, and inventories to make sure we’re hitting our goals.”
Leppo takes detailed notes about each crop to track how plants respond to various inputs and conditions — noting, for example, whether pesticide application rates cause chemical burns during certain conditions.
“We use our smartphones to capture images of diseases, insects, and symptoms on the leaves,” says Leppo, who compiles these notes and pictures into Excel spreadsheets that his growing team can reference throughout the year. “By reviewing these notes prior to each season, we’re able to make adjustments and avoid repeating mistakes.”
Training is another factor in achieving consistency and continuous improvement at Armstrong Growers. Although the growing team contains plenty of experience — one of the growers has been with the company for 25 years — Leppo still gathers them for regular training reviews.
“When we come to the new season of a crop, I like to get everyone together and demonstrate our processes as a seasonal reminder,” he says. “For example, we’ll review proper planting depth and placement for poinsettias. They can ask questions and plant samples to make sure they’re doing it correctly.”
The key to Leppo’s training approach is not just explaining what to do, but why. Instead of just demonstrating how to properly pinch poinsettias, he explains why the pinch height should include the correct number of nodes, because too many flowering stems could cause the plant to break under the added weight.
“Why we do something is just as important as how to do something,” he says. “By explaining the why, it instills pride, responsibility, confidence, and ownership in your employees. When you take the time to explain the why and demonstrate the procedure, the outcome is quality and consistency.”
Improving over time
Leppo is constantly tweaking his programs to improve crop quality. For example, his pest management methods have changed through the years — most recently merging into what he calls a hybrid approach of both biological and chemical controls.
At the start of poinsettia season, he relies on biological controls and beneficial releases to reduce whitefly pressures. Then, if the plants need stronger defenses during the flowering stage, he’ll introduce the required chemical inputs.
“Overall,” he says, “we’re able to cut the amount of chemical controls we use. There are definitely benefits to that, because it’s safer for the environment, for the plants, and for our employees.”
Since he hasn’t produced his “best poinsettia crop yet,” Leppo is committed to keep improving until then.
“I’ve been in the industry over 20 years, but I don’t think that I know everything. If I shut myself off with the mindset that I don’t have anything to learn, then I’d be missing out, and so would the company,” Leppo says. “I’m very proud and fortunate to work here, where employees at every level of the organization strive together to grow beautiful products and make customers happy.”