Making a statement
L-R: Andy Schenck; Glenn Miller, field production manager; Lenny Wilson, sales; Josie McLaughlin, sales; Katie Arena, perennial purchaser and sales.
Parikha Mehta

Making a statement

Features - Cover Story

Andy Schenck sets Sam Browns Nursery apart by offering deep cuts as well as tried-and-true selections.

July 12, 2022

Photos by Parikha Mehta

Sam Browns Nursery is located in Malvern, about a half-hour west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The town is on what locals call the Main Line, the old railroad that ran from the suburbs into downtown Philadelphia. The Delaware River courses through that area of Eastern Pennsylvania, which is why the region is called the Delaware Valley. It’s a wealthy area, with plenty of competition between neighbors for who’s got the most impressive lawn and garden.

“There's a lot of old money along this neck of the woods,” says Andy Schenck, Sam Browns owner and general manager. “And that's mostly who we cater to: high-end residential landscapers.”

Andy says Sam Browns Nursery is also lucky to have great relationships with the area’s public gardens. The Delaware Valley is a hotbed for horticulture, and that manifests itself in the region’s ability to support several world-class public gardens: Longwood Gardens and Jenkins Arboretum & Gardens in Chester County, Pennsylvania; Tyler Arboretum in Delaware County, Pennsylvania; and Winterthur Museum and Gardens across the border in Delaware.

Kousa ‘Scarlet Fire

Green beginnings

Andy’s mom and his grandmother were always out in the garden. From a young age, he spent a lot of time pulling weeds, tending flowers. The family even grew some of their own food.

In high school, he did odd jobs, including cutting grass. He hesitates to use the term “landscaping” because he didn’t really know what he was doing back then. After graduating, he attended the University of Delaware with hopes of becoming an electrical engineer.

“I quickly found that was not my forte,” he says. “I transferred into the hort program there and everything just clicked. Then there was really no looking back from there.”

Andy’s professors at UD were inspirational. He received a lot of hands-on experience in growing there and learned several excellent plant identification techniques, which were very useful in developing his desire to find and grow oddities.

"They just instilled the love of plants,” he says of his professors. “I'm a total plant geek. My garden is drifts of 1 – a total collector's garden. The weirder or more zone-busting it is, the more I'm up for the challenge.”

Andy is definitely one of those plantsmen who thinks of USDA Zone ratings as mere suggestions.

“The plants don’t read books, so if you don’t try, you don’t know,” he says.

Upon graduating in December of 1990, he started a full-time position as a nursery manager for Main Line Gardens, a retail nursery. He spent eight years there before the opportunity arose to join Sam Browns Nursery, where he’s been ever since. The nursery was founded in 1983 by Sam Brown, who had a retail store across the street and wanted to start a wholesale growing operation on the property. In 1989, Tim Sterling bought the nursery from Sam, and in 2019, Andy bought the nursery from Tim.

“I knew as soon as I got here that I had found home,” Andy says. “My biggest goal was to honor the two gentlemen who were owners prior to me and continue the level of service and quality plants to make them proud that somebody was taking the torch and taking it into the next century.”

Andy worked with Tim for years, and he knew the nursery’s founder, Sam Brown.

“He was one of those guys who stopped in a couple time a year just to make sure everything is going smooth and neither of us had run the place into the ground,” Andy says, laughing.

Sam passed away in 2021 at the age of 92. The nursery’s founder was a state cross-country champion and member of the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame. He continued his athletic pursuits his entire life.

“He had rotator cuff surgery the year before [he died] because it was affecting his tennis game,” Andy says. “I hope I can get around like he did at that age. He was a real inspiration.”

The sales yard at Sam Browns is a showcase for the wide variety of plants the nursery grows.

A shift in palette

One of the changes Andy implemented at Sam Brown was increasing the selection of plants available to customers. He wanted to make the nursery more of a destination than just a place to pick up the same holly they could get anywhere. He knows his customer base is made up of landscapers serving high-end residential housing. And he’s more than happy to help in the battle to have the finest property on the block.

“They’re always looking for that plant that they can put into the landscape that makes people ask, ‘Where did you get that?’ to set it aside from every other Tom, Dick and Harry’s landscape,” Andy says. “We have some signature pieces that can really make a statement with a design.”

In the nearly 25 years that Andy has been at Sam Browns Nursery, much has changed. The overarching plant palette has shifted dramatically. Back then, the nursery’s offerings were slanted heavier toward azaleas, rhododendrons, pieris, and moving tons of the Ericaceae family members, Andy says.

Today, many of those plants just aren’t performing the way they used to, he says. It’s due mostly to deer pressure and weather extremes.

Now, more customers are looking for skip laurels and cherry laurels, especially Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken.’ Boxwood is huge, and Andy’s team keeps them clean of boxwood blight by only buying from reputable, inspected nurseries.

“I can remember unloading tractor trailers of Emerald Greens of all sizes and now it’s tractor trailers of ‘Green Giants’ of all sizes, so there definitely has been some changes,” he says.

The top sellers at Sam Brown are Cercis and Stewartia. Andy says they sell a decent amount of shade trees, as well, especially Acer and Quercus. He offers a full gamut of shrubs and perennials, and even has some tropicals in bigger sizes in there to round out the growing mix.

Sam Browns Nursery is thought of as a bit of a niche nursery because while they carry the bread-and-butter options, they also have more eclectic, harder-to-find plants.

Andy’s collection of rare plants varies from year to year and is subject to the whimsy of what his vendors have to offer. He’s known many of his vendors for 37 years, and because of their longstanding relationship, they’ll let him know when they have one or two of a rarity available.

When he sees a 5- or 6-foot Franklinia or a variegated Aesculus, neither of which are often seen in the trade, he can’t pass it up.

In June, some of his hottest items were 2022 Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal Winners (see sidebar, pg. 17), the 2022 American Hosta Growers Association’s Hosta of the Year, ‘Island Breeze’, and the 2022 Perennial Plant of the Year, Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) and its cultivars.

Andy has worked hard to develop a reputation as a go-to person in the Delaware Valley who can find just the right plant for a client, and his knowledge and nursery stock are both well-regarded.

He’s not immune to the supply chain issues plaguing everyone. With the downturn in the economy, many nurseries scaled back their production and that has left holes in certain areas. Also, with the excess demand during the COVID shutdown, Andy saw growers selling into their futures – selling a plant sooner than they normally would have.

“It’s left some big gaps in commodity plants as well as the oddball plants,” Andy says. “Even if it was something as simple as Deutzia ‘Nikko’, it used to be I could pick up the phone and call five different people and have five different vendors happy to send you whatever you need. But even some of the easy-to-find plants have not been there. So when we're quoting something now, we say that we really can't guarantee it until we see an availability. And even when seeing an availability, until it's sitting here on the ground, it's still a bit of a crapshoot.”

Field production uses drip irrigation and in-ground fabric Root Control Bags.

Efficiency improvements

Sam Browns Nursery has about 4 acres in production, all of it is under drip irrigation and in-ground grow bags. Andy’s staff also maintains a sales yard for customers to pick up orders.

“It's only about 4 acres, but it's always been something that's added charm when you visit the place here, because you not only have the sales yard, but you can also see things in all different stages of growth in the field.”

In the sales yard, Andy’s team stages all the orders that will be picked up that day or week. They keep it organized so that when their customers arrive, their orders are prepped and ready to go. The landscapers that are picking up orders are typically heading out to a job themselves and appreciate not having to wait around for nursery staff to run around gathering the materials for their order.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find people who want to do this kind of work, so anything that we can do to automate or ease the whole process is great,” Andy says. “We’ve kind of ‘trained’ our customers to send in the orders or come in ahead of time and tag things. Then that gives us the opportunity to stage everything together so it’s a real quick in-and-out process when they come in to pick up.”

Years ago, Andy implemented a simple system to help streamline the picking process. He had a lot of Hispanic employees, but not everyone at the nursery could speak Spanish. To circumvent the communication barrier, he started using a different color ribbon to mark plants. He also designated zones with a placard, so employees could receive a picking ticket, and even if they didn’t know what the plant is, they could tell from the combination of the ribbon and the zone where it was. From there, they could match up the Latin name on the ticket with the name on the tag. It ended up being an efficient system.

Sam Browns Nursery is a lean operation. Andy and his office manager, Laurie Nemec, are the only full-time employees. The rest of the staff are part-timers and seasonal help.

One of the ways Sam Browns Nursery has improved production efficiency was switching to fabric grow bags. Although the nursery brings in plant material from quality growers throughout the U.S., it also grows many plants in its own fields. For its field growing operations, Andy uses a product called Root Control Bags. Growing plants in-ground in these fabric bags has several advantages over other methods, Andy says. First, the time saved is immense.

“It just shaves the time off of harvest,” Andy says. “I mean literally a person can harvest the tree in about 5 minutes. Obviously if you were hand digging or even machine digging, that would take much longer.”

L-R: Andy Schenck; Glenn Miller, field production manager; Lenny Wilson, sales; Josie McLaughlin, sales; Katie Arena, perennial purchaser and sales. Not pictured: office manager Laurie Nemec.

Container growing is a popular method, but typical smooth-sided containers often lead to root circling, Andy says. The fabric bags prune roots as they reach the edge, creating a more dense root system. Another advantage to the grow bags is being able to fit more plants in a limited space, he adds. Most of Sam Browns Root Control Bags have an 18-inch diameter, which can hold up to a 3-inch caliper tree. Normally, a tree that size would have a 500-pound root ball. In the grow bags, the same tree’s root ball weighs a much more manageable 150 pounds. This requires less labor and machinery, and lets the nursery plant more closely together.

“It really works for us, because it allows us to maximize the most yield-per-acre we could get with not having to get a machine in there,” Andy says.

Drip irrigation was another major improvement to efficiency. It is all zoned; there is no need to drag a hose around the nursery. Other than cleaning the filter once a week, it mostly takes care of itself, Andy says.

“We're always looking for that other tool that can be a labor saver,” Andy says. “Anything that can ease the amount of effort on anybody’s physical strength or stamina to help you get through the day.”

For example, the Sam Browns Nursery crew uses a Toro Dingo compact track loader with forks, bucket and auger attachments for digging holes.

“I’m always open to seeing a better way to do it,” he says. “We tweak it, we roll with the punches as we have to, but we get it done.”

For more: www.sambrownsnursery.com