Title: 2008 Ag-Environmental: Carroll Brothers Nursery
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Although he’s been retired for years, Harmon Carroll still keeps his fingers 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, Florida. 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.
Harmon Carroll I was working out in the nursery and this man came up… He said, “I want you to buy a piece of land. I said, “I can’t. I haven’t got enough money to feed my face, much less buy a piece of property.” He finally convinced me to go over and look at it. Well, I went out to look at it, and I went right up to my knees in mud. I said, well, boy, that’s, that’s it, I don’t want that. Well, that happens to be where the nursery is today, on 38th Avenue. And I had to buy fill dirt to fill it in. I had to pay a big price for it too -- $1 a yard. I filled it in then we started picking up a little retail trade. And then from that point on, we just kept on going…
Carrolls Nursery has been at the same 38th Avenue location for over 50 years. And while the city has built up around it, the nursery remains a hometown business. Today the retail store, managed by Richard Carroll, serves a loyal customer base 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.
Harmon Carroll: My boy, Bob, come home from the service and he wanted a job, so we started the gardenia business. We just started with a small amount, and that first year was 4,000. And we grafted them at night and Saturdays and whenever we had spare time. Those sold right away and we said, man, that’s the thing, go for it
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. With the strain on the fresh water supply came salt water intrusion. The nursery saw the salt content of its wells rise. This made it almost impossible to grow their trademark grafted gardenias, and 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 (or RC & D) and the Natural Resources 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.
Laura Monton : We have been working with a program for helping growers adopt reclaimed water into their water irrigation schemes. And what we saw with the Carroll Brothers Nursery is they’re dealing with a lot of the issues on the front line that growers are already dealing with or will be dealing with and 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.
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 receiving 2-3 times more water than required. These methods also resulted in leaching of fertilizers and pesticides.
However, the capillary mat system, or cap mats, 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.
Cap mats work like this: water is captured and held within the fibers of the mat – up to 2 1/2 gallons per square yard. 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.
Bob Carroll : Production-wise, I can move the crop out six to eight weeks faster. And I water three times a day on the Aquamats, two minutes at a time, and saving 90 percent of my water. I don’t have to spray as often. There’s no overhead water. Everything is wicking up from the bottom, and makes life a little easier. It’s a different way of growing, but it works good; you save water.
The cap mats have also reduced the amount of water pressure needed for irrigation and that reduces the energy costs for pumping.
Today, Carroll Brothers Nursery is developing innovative plans to meet future challenges. Seeing the benefits of the data collection system installed by the 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, montors the plants’ needs, and automatically irrigates them when necessary.
Richard Carroll: 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.
Richard Carroll: We figure we could get 1.2 million gallons of water just off the roof of the greenhouse. And by doing that acre and a half, it would supply enough water to actually water that nursery for almost a year.
Carroll Brothers 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 their popular crop.
Carroll Brothers 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, fertilizers and pesticides, and energy, Carroll Brothers is demonstrating that sustainable agriculture can grow and thrive in Florida.