When Mike Healey says Greenway Farms is always in the Christmas spirit, he isn’t kidding.
Perhaps best known for its choose-and-cut Christmas trees, Greenway can lay sole claim to another specialty in Howard County: raising homegrown poinsettias, which get their start in midsummer.
Containing 2,600 plants in 21 varieties, a large greenhouse at the Cooksville farm off Route 97 is awash in a sea of vivid red, pink, white and burgundy by late October.
“When you walk in here, it’s instant Christmas,” says Mike, 42, who oversees the poinsettias for his parents, farm owners David and Marianne Healey.
Greenway’s poinsettias — which bear such catchy names as Jingle Bell Rock, Marblestar and Shimmer Surprise — are so remarkably uniform in height, fullness and number of colored bracts that they appear to be clones.
“That is exactly what we’re aiming for,” says Mike, who begins cultivating the plants at the end of July. He purchases two-inch cuttings from a New Jersey wholesaler to get started since Greenway doesn’t have the space to grow poinsettias year-round.
Starting in September, Mike spends many painstaking hours pinching back leggy, overgrown stems by hand to achieve the desired compact, cookie-cutter appearance. He must carefully monitor watering and fertilization to coax the attention-loving plants into a showy, seasonal display.
Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, says Greenway is the only county farm growing such a large number of poinsettias from start to finish.
“Some farms buy them almost grown and raise them the rest of the way,” she says, referring to what are called “prefinished plants” within the industry. “Greenway grows some of the most beautiful poinsettias I’ve ever seen.”
The poinsettia is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico who brought cuttings to America in 1828. While the plant became popular at Christmas initially because of its juxtaposition of red and green leaves, growers have developed many other color combinations of the petal-like bracts, or specialized leaves, over the years.
The most popular variety, not surprisingly, is Prestige Red, Mike says. Winter Roses, which were originally cultivated for Valentine’s Day, sport curly bracts and have been gaining in popularity at Christmas, selling out quickly.
Since they are tropical, poinsettias require a daytime temperature of 80 degrees and a nighttime temperature of 65 degrees in order to thrive, he says — not exactly holiday weather in Maryland. They also need a set number of hours in darkness and daylight to achieve their optimal hues.
“It’s a pretty time-consuming process, and there’s not a big profit margin in it,” Mike says, “but our customers really appreciate them.”
Mike also tends to the farms’ 15,000 Christmas trees, the bulk of which are grown on 20 acres at the family’s other location just three miles away off Route 144 in Woodbine. His brothers, Tim and Dave*, work in various capacities at the family-run business.
The family’s description of their poinsettias as “florist-quality” isn’t lost on buyers: Just four years ago Mike was growing only 1,600 plants, but that number has jumped by a few hundred every season as demand continues to surge.
It was Marianne Healey who suggested in 1982 that the family start growing poinsettias.
“I figured people were coming here anyway for fresh trees, wreaths and swags, so why not?” says Marianne, who is 73, the same age as her husband, and, like him, not ready to retire.
“People like our poinsettias because they’re so fresh and last such a long time,” she says. “By the second week of May, we still hear from people who want to know, ‘When is this thing going to die?’”
For Jane Geier of Ellicott City, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to Greenway Farms.
“Most of the time I buy red, but sometimes I just like to see what they have,” says Geier, who says Mike Healey has a knack with difficult-to-grow varieties. “I like to buy from local people, and they’re all so nice it’s like visiting with friends.”
Since poinsettias can fall victim to too much or too little watering, Mike has an easy tip for avoiding that potential downfall: “If you pick up the pot and the soil feels light, give it about 12 ounces of water.”
Tim’s wife, Kristin Healey, who pitches in on the farm wherever she’s needed, says the family sells poinsettias to many local churches and schools, which resell them for fundraisers. The farm does not sell wholesale to retailers or supply plants for the popular poinsettia tree at the Mall in Columbia — two questions they are often asked.
Family patriarch David Healey is a certified horticulturist who worked on a farm in Massachusetts before he and Marianne moved to District Heights in 1966 so he could take a job with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. While employed there, he worked on the grounds of the Washington Monument and helped plant cherry trees at the Tidal Basin.
After moving to Baltimore in 1968, David grew white pines and landscaping shrubs in the couple’s backyard. They moved again to Cooksville in 1970 and began growing six other tree varieties that are also suitable for Christmas.
It has also been David’s domain to oversee the flowering annuals, vegetable plants and herbs raised in the farms’ greenhouses in the spring with help from Marianne and Mike.
Poinsettias fit in nicely with the farms’ seasonal promotion of locally grown holiday decorations that starts the day after Thanksgiving each year, Marianne says.
“It’s so sad to take a Christmas tree out of a box,” she says. This year, she’s thinking about reviving an old tradition of stringing garlands of popcorn and cranberries with a needle and thread to decorate her fresh-cut family tree.
David pointed out that the popularity of poinsettias at Christmas leads some buyers to assume the plants must be hardy enough to withstand cold temperatures.
“I nearly get a heart attack when customers put them in the back of a pickup truck for the drive home” after the plants spent months living in a toasty greenhouse, he says.
As symbolic as they are of the winter holidays, he says, “they really can’t survive on your front porch.”