BROOKSVILLE — Santa Claus has nothing on Ed Kowalski.
Like the jolly old elf, Kowalski's time to shine is the Christmas holiday season. And just as Santa's workshop at the North Pole hums all year long, Kowalski's Nursery, northeast of the city, goes nonstop for much of the year, shifting into high gear in October.
A self-taught horticulturist, Kowalski has grown this year, as in seasons past, some 20,000 magnificent poinsettias. Their scarlet, ivory and pearly pink ranks stand row upon beautiful row in a half-dozen greenhouses where he and his wife, Catherine — Cat, as she prefers — have been propagating the holiday preferred plants exclusively since 1982.
The quality of their poinsettias has been acknowledged by discerning consumers far and wide. SeaWorld in Orlando is their biggest customer, snapping up 15,000 plants each year. Hernando County churches order 100 to 300 plants each for seasonal sanctuary display. He provides for a fundraiser poinsettia sale at a school in Inverness.
But all of this will soon come to an end.
Cat has persuaded her husband to retire after this year. Although he's not keen on it, Kowalski admitted last week that he owes it to her. After all, she has worked hard in their horticulture endeavor since Ed, now 74, retired as produce manager at Publix in Brooksville in 1980.
When the strictly wholesale nursery started on 5 acres, the couple also grew trees — as many as 45,000 oaks a year — and ligustrums, cedars, hollies, viburnums, privets, hydrangeas, gloxinias, "a lot of things," Kowalski said.
"Little by little we cut down and we're just down to poinsettias," he added.
And the showy flowers radiate the results of the couple's undivided attention. Not only are they picture-perfect without blemish of any sort, the stalks are sturdy, the plants so compact they look as if constructed. A 10-inch pot bursts with 16 to 20 blossoms; the 4 1/2-inch pots are graced with three to four blooms.
This sort of perfection does not come by accident. It takes daily attention to detail.
For his biggest plants, Kowalski starts with cuttings in June. The smallest plants may be started as late as August. He adjusts the planting schedule to orders for various sizes that he receives as much as a year in advance.
Each cutting receives a dose of time-release fertilizer and days of misting water to establish a root. Then comes a liquid fertilizer for growth, administered once a week. Watering is done "just as they need it."
Kowalski said he used to use an automatic watering system, but he wasn't pleased. "I hand water everything," he said. He picked up one pot after another, noting, "This one needs a shot; this needs a good drink. This needs none.
"We baby every pot," he said.
Because all the plants are patented varieties, he must pay a royalty on every cutting. Last year's outlay amounted to $1,200, he said. Pesticides, used sparingly, are $10 a pound in concentrated form. Fertilizer accounts for a hefty expense line for the nursery.
Then there are the black-out curtains that cover the greenhouses from October on to provide at least 12 hours of darkness a day so the plants will set buds. It's a daily on-and-off chore.
It's also tiring. While the couple's adult children and grandchildren have answered the call when crunch time sets in, Kowalski said none of them are particularly interested in taking over the business.
Grandson Lucas Ellis, 19, of Brooksville has been the most stalwart helpmate, Kowalski said. One can hear in his voice and see in his eyes that he hopes this grandson will come to the nursery to get dirt under his fingernails and continue the tradition of growing the beauty of Christmas.
Meanwhile, Kowalski is contemplating what he'll take on as a third career. He's far too energetic and savvy to sit and rock on the front porch.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]