Stepping onto the rock-speckled dirt path, the first thing that can be seen from the front lawn of Northern Tropics Greenhouse is the rows of red, orange and gold chrysanthemum flowers out on display. Further down the path, the plants from the five greenhouses emerge.
In the small, tiki lounge-themed checkout area, crystals, locally made honey, goat milk soap and dip mixes line the shelves of the small building’s perimeter. These items come from local businesses and friends of owner Sandy Burrell, who she met during her time selling produce at local farmer’s markets.
“My mom always had a big garden,” Burrell said, “and me and my sister always said, ‘Oh, we'll never have a garden when we grow up.’ Well, guess what? We both have gardens.”
Before opening Northern Tropics Greenhouse in 2005, Burrell was a newly wed, stay-at-home mom with a big vegetable garden outside her home. While vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico, Burrell said she was amazed by the banana trees she saw and wanted to have one of her own.
“We picked [a banana tree] up on a vacation, and we got really excited trying to keep this banana tree alive,” Burrell said. “I foolishly thought that it would be easier with a greenhouse.”
With a little greenhouse built in the back of her house, Burrell stored her banana tree with the rest of her plants. At the same time, Burrell said she was researching heirloom tomatoes and started planting those in her greenhouse as well. At the end of the spring and summer season in 2005, Burrell was left with hundreds of heirloom tomatoes.
“I bought a whole bunch of heirloom tomato seeds, and I started [planting] them,” Burrell said. “Of course, they all grew because I didn't know what I was doing… So, I stuck a sign out in the yard that said plants for sale.”
Northern Tropics Greenhouse has 80 different varieties of tomatoes and various types of hot pepper plants. Along with those, flowers, foliage, herbs, grasses and tropical plants like Florida palm trees are also sold. Some of the succulent plants sold at Northern Tropics Greenhouse come from cuttings of other plants grown in the greenhouse like Mother plants and Tristania plants.
With the spring and summer season concluding and the winter season approaching, Burrell grows Christmas Cacti and Poinsettias in the “big” greenhouse, along with herbs, hanging baskets, annual flowers and pepper plants. Because something is always getting ready to bloom the next season, Burrell said she and her employees are planting things all year, and maintaining the quality of the plants is a major part of the job no matter the seasonal changes.
Common responsibilities for greenhouse workers include removing yellow leaves off the plants and consistently watering the plants to make sure customers are not getting plants that aren’t healthy.
Before working at Northern Tropics Greenhouse, Erica Davis said she and Sandy Burrell would talk about plants together when Davis would visit the greenhouse as a customer. Because Davis was knowledgeable about plants, she said Burrell offered her a full-time position on the spot.
Since she began working at Northern Tropics Greenhouse in April, Davis said she has seen gardeners with varying experience shopping at the greenhouse. Within the last year, Davis said she has noticed an increase in new customers coming in as most of them were just starting to build their own gardens.
“[Sandy] had a lot of questions that she had to answer over and over, but that’s something [one has] to do with plants,” Davis said. “Whenever we get new people, we don’t mind repeating ourselves because we’re excited to have new people coming into the plant world.”
Davis said she is surprised by how many Ball State students she sees at Northern Tropics Greenhouse. The greenhouse is located about 5 miles from campus at 1501 E. Fuson Road.
“We’re a pretty good distance away, and not a lot of students venture on to the other side of the river,” Davis said. “It's nice to see them coming out. We've even had some [students] that are like, ‘Oh, we're in a dorm, [and] we need something to lighten it up.’”
Northern Tropics customers come from all over, Burrell said. Not only do Muncie locals come to the greenhouse, but people come to visit from Indianapolis and other surrounding areas as well. Davis once had a customer who was visiting family from Arizona who loved Northern Tropics because the only other place she could find plants was Walmart.
“More than one [customer] has said they were just searching for greenhouses on the way home to where they are traveling to and decided to stop by, or they know someone in town and were recommended, ” Burrell said.
Ted Burrell, Sandy Burrell’s husband, said Northern Tropics is in the process of opening up a brewery in addition to the greenhouse. While waiting to get his brewery permit from the state of Indiana, he said he has added a counter, taps, fermenters and coolers into a space of the greenhouse that was once an office.
“I love beer, and I love making beer,” Ted Burrell said. “I’m keeping it small — it’s going to be my little semi-retirement project.”
With the brewery opening soon, the services offered at Northern Tropics will expand from just selling plant cuttings, honey, crystals and soap to its customers.
Having gotten to know Sandy Burrell, Davis said she is very knowledgeable when it comes to plants, and it’s a nice feeling knowing that customers are getting a piece of her plants whenever they buy from Northern Tropics Greenhouse.
“One of my friends and I,” Davis said, “we always joke that [Sandy] made a deal with the fairies, and that's the reason why [when we] give her a dead plant, it's going to come back to life … because she’s so good at it.”
Contact Ayah Eid with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org