In his earliest memories, Joel DiBernardo remembers looking up at towering rows of snapdragons in his grandfather’s greenhouse. Growing up in Iowa, DiBernardo spent his summers in Baltimore at Babikow Greenhouses, named for his great-grandfather who founded the business in the late 1800s.
“As a child, I learned the routine of checking the vents, pulling the black cloth, sterilizing the soil, and drenching for disease,” DiBernardo says. The horticulture gene ran in his family, even beyond his grandfather’s company, as several of his uncles owned their own greenhouse operations, too.
It was no surprise, then, that DiBernardo attended DuPage Horticultural School to pursue the family trade. The Chicago-based program rotated between formal classroom training and hands-on work experience, giving DiBernardo valuable industry exposure beyond the family businesses.
After graduating in 1977, DiBernardo worked for his grandfather at Babikow for several years, and then worked for his uncle, who founded Green Leaf Enterprises in Pennsylvania in the '70s. Through the years, he also dabbled in a few related trades, such as construction, masonry and carpentry. For a while, he even operated his own landscaping business, building ponds and patios around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ultimately, DiBernardo kept returning to his roots in plant production because, as he says, “I’ve always been a greenhouse geek.”
As head grower at Creek Hill Nursery since 2004, DiBernardo is sharing decades of growing knowledge to cultivate the next generation of growers — including his daughter, who works alongside him.
Passing on plant knowledge
In his role as head grower, DiBernardo oversees a team of seven growers at Creek Hill Nursery’s Leola facility, which spans 78,000 square feet of the company’s total greenhouse space of 100,000 square feet. The business comprises four other ranges throughout Lancaster County, and although each site has its own manager, DiBernardo travels between locations weekly to evaluate the inventory and the overall production of perennial liners.
Additionally, DiBernardo manages a team of 12 people who plant tissue culture starts and stick unrooted cuttings. Every Tuesday after break, he holds a 45-minute session for this team to educate them about each plant in the company’s catalog, which spans more than 500 varieties.
“I talk to them about the plants we grow, their history, nativity and utilization. Every plant has a story, just like every person has a story,” he says. “This gives everyone a bigger picture about the small tissue culture or cuttings they are planting, and helps them realize what this little cutting is going to become.”
DiBernardo also walks with growers through their respective sections of the greenhouse, discussing potential problems, pests and weather changes that might impact growing conditions. With new growers, he takes extra time to walk them through each section. “We’ll have a more in-depth discussion on each house, pointing out things to look for climate-wise, watering-wise and scouting-wise,” he says.
Specifically, one of the growers oversees Creek Hill’s biocontrol program, which uses beneficial insects to manage pest populations in the greenhouse. “She assists in training all the growers about bad bugs, like identifying types of aphids,” DiBernardo says. “Her excitement for the insect world is contagious.”
Pursuing new technologies
While building up a team of growers around him, DiBernardo is still hands-on with Creek Hill’s operation, especially when it comes to irrigation. For example, this season he spearheaded the Leola facility’s transition from old, inefficient water emitters to fogging-style mist nozzles.“Using these newer nozzles helps us to keep diseases down and use less water,” he says. “We put ZeroTol in the mist lines to cut down on algae growth. Now, the barrel of ZeroTol takes almost a month to empty, whereas it used to take a couple of weeks, so we’re not using as much water anymore. There’s less disease because we’re not keeping the plants fully saturated; we’re just keeping a nice cloud of humidity over them.”
As growing tools and technologies evolve, DiBernardo keeps exploring new ways to improve production at Creek Hill Nursery. At the age of 65, as he’s nearing retirement, DiBernardo is learning that the old way of doing things isn’t necessarily best, and that growers must constantly evolve by pursuing new ideas.
“I don’t want to be the guy that can’t accept new ways of doing something,” he says. “Allowing people to come in and take over areas is a change, but it’s a happy change that doesn’t have to be intimidating.”
With no plans to retire anytime soon, DiBernardo says he’ll keep growing as long as he physically can, “at least another 10 years or so.” Even after retiring, he wants to stay involved in the industry by giving educational talks to growers. As a lifelong plant enthusiast who can’t help but share his horticulture passion, DiBernardo pursues his purpose of “seeing people blossom into the business and become growers.”