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Division of Marketing and Development
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Mayo Building, M-9
407 South Calhoun Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0800
(850) 617-7300

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Adam H. Putnam, Commissioner

Carroll Brothers Nursery

Clearwater, Florida

Although he’s been retired for years, Harmon Carroll still stays involved in the family business. Through the art of grafting, Carroll helps produce Florida-friendly gardenias for his sons, Bob and Richard Carroll, of Carroll Brothers Nursery.

Using the nematode-resistant rootstock thunbergia, the nursery grows 10 hearty varieties of gardenias that thrive in Florida’s soil. These beautiful and fragrant plants are the only crop grown by the Carroll family at its 10-acre wholesale nursery in Clearwater. Today, Carroll Brothers is one of the largest wholesale nurseries in Pinellas County, growing about 200,000 gardenia plants, making it the largest grower of grafted gardenias east of the Mississippi.

The family business was established in 1950 in the once swampy outskirts of St. Petersburg.

“I was working out in the nursery and a real-estate man came up and said we should buy a piece of land,” Harmon Carroll said. “I said, ‘Why? I haven’t got enough money to feed my face, much less buy a piece of property.’ He finally convinced me. I went right up to my knees in mud. I had to buy fill dirt to fill it in. Then we started picking up a little retail trade and from that point on we just kept on going.

“Then we started on into the wholesale business, and my boy, Bob, come home from the service and he wanted a job, so we started the gardenia business,” Carroll said. “We just started with a small amount, and that first year was 4,000 and that was a big number. We grafted them at night and Saturdays and whenever we had spare time. Then they sold right away. They sold, sold. So we said, ‘man, that’s the thing, go for it.’”

The nursery has been at the same 38th Avenue location for over 50 years. Today the retail store, managed by Richard Carroll, serves a loyal customer base. And while the city has built up around it, the nursery remains a hometown business offering a variety of services from newsletters to complimentary soil testing.

In 1979 Carroll Brothers Nursery moved its production operation to the Gulf coast community of Clearwater, where it is managed by Bob Carroll. From the outset, the nursery drew most of its irrigation water from wells on the property. But Pinellas grew into the state’s most densely populated county, and with the strain on the fresh water supply came salt water intrusion. The nursery saw the salt content of its wells rise, making it almost impossible to grow their trademark grafted gardenias. The well water was abandoned.

To find a new source of water for irrigation, the nursery connected to the Pinellas County reuse water system. But being dependent on recycled water exclusively came with its own set of problems. Reuse water from the county had inconsistent water pressure and quality that damaged the nursery’s watering systems. And the cost was prohibitive; Carroll Brothers Nursery required 18 million gallons of water annually for irrigation. The price tag on that much water jumped 400 percent between 1991 and 2007.

To be more efficient and reduce costs, the Carroll brothers began searching for irrigation alternatives. As one of the first in Florida to sign up with the state’s Best Management Practices for container nurseries, Carroll Brothers wanted a method that followed the BMPs while providing consistent irrigation. At that same time, the Florida West Coast Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC&D) and the National Resource and Conservation Service wanted to test new equipment on an actual working nursery that would instantly identify and address issues specific to growers in Florida. Carroll Brothers Nursery was a perfect site.

“We at the Florida West Coast RC&D have been working with a program for helping growers adopt reclaimed water into their water irrigation schemes,” said Laura Monton, Resource, Conservation and Development Coordinator with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Carroll Brothers Nursery is dealing with a lot of the issues on the front line that growers are already dealing with or will be dealing with. The Carroll brothers were willing to let us use them as a guinea pig for our automation and high-tech integration of these water sources, so we were able to test out some of the equipment and even some of our conceptual plans.”

In 2006 the nursery opened its doors to the RC&D. To compare drip, overhead, and capillary mat systems, meters were installed to measure rain, pressure, volume and moisture. Data was constantly collected and transmitted via the internet to the RC&D website, allowing the nursery to get real-time feedback on its irrigation methods.

The research showed that, because of inconsistent water pressure, both overhead and drip tube irrigation had irregular watering patterns, with some plants were receiving two to three times more water than required. These methods also resulted in leaching of fertilizers and pesticides.

The capillary mat system, or “cap mats,” however, had different results. Not only did the crops receive uniform watering, there was no leaching or off-site water and nutrient discharge. In fact, the nursery saw a 50 percent cut in fertilizer use.

Water -- up to 2 1/2 gallons per square yard -- is captured and held within the fibers of the cap mat. Through osmosis, water is continually drawn up to the plants. Each rainfall allows the mats to replenish their water supply; in fact, a good rain could allow the grower to turn off the water for up to seven days.

Carroll Brothers Nursery also began to see other benefits: to maximize land use, cap mats allow the nursery to put plants closer together. Coupled with consistent irrigation, this has led to better plant quality and improved production time. The cap mats have also reduced the amount of water pressure needed for irrigation which reduces the energy costs for pumping.

“I water three times a day on the Aquamats, two minutes at a time, and saving 90 percent of my water,” Bob Carroll said. “Production-wise, it grows. I can move the crop out six to eight weeks faster. And I don’t have to spray as often. There’s no overhead water. Everything is from the capillary, working up from the bottom. It’s a different way of growing, but it works and you save water.”

Today, Carroll Brothers Nursery is developing innovative plans to meet future challenges. Seeing the benefits of the data collection system installed by RC&D, Carroll Brothers now employs a more sophisticated system. Using sensors in the plants, a computer connects the entire operation to a central control system, monitors the plants’ needs, and automatically irrigates them when necessary.

“We’re kind of a work in progress,” Richard Carroll said. “What I’d like to implement is another water source. And one of the easiest and the cheapest would be to recapture rainwater and use it.”

Coming off the greenhouses’ roofs, rainwater will be collected in cisterns built under the greenhouses.

“We have a one-quarter acre greenhouse out there now, which I want to expand to about a three-quarter acre house,” he said. “And by doing that three-quarter acre it would supply enough water to actually water that nursery for almost a year.”

Carroll Brother Nursery is also working on innovative growing techniques to produce its gardenias more efficiently. An automated grafting machine is being developed by the nursery to increase production of its popular crop.

Carroll Brother Nursery is an older nursery, but by grafting new techniques to traditional methods, it is developing new ways to help growers across the state become more efficient. By using less water, fertilizer, pesticide and energy, Carroll Brothers is demonstrating that sustainable agriculture can grow and thrive in Florida.

Cutlines for Carroll Brothers Nursery Photographs

01  Bob Carroll checks plants
02  Bob Carroll on tractor
03  Examining plant with a loupe
04  Harmon Carroll, father, checks plants
05  Harmon Carroll, father, works fields in St. Petersburg in late 1960s
06  Plant on a “cap mat”
07  Carroll Brothers Nursery retail store in St. Petersburg
08  Richard Carroll with customer
09  Richard Carroll, left, with Bob Carroll, right, in greenhouse
10  Richard Carroll, left; Rick Viellemaire, water engineer and friend, center; Bob Carroll
11  Seed pod
12  Carroll Brothers Nursery wholesale operation in St. Petersburg
13  Vechii Supreme gardenia
14  Viet Nam gardenia
15  Radburgii gardenia

Watch the Carroll Brothers Nursery Video
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