When a company has been in business as long as Gilbertie’s Herbs and Garden Center, it’s because they’ve been able to identify and capitalize on each breaking wave. Started in 1922, Gilbertie’s was originally a cut flower grower. Located in Westport, Connecticut, Gilbertie’s was the only game in town when it came to producing locally grown cut flowers. Back then, cut flowers were trucked in to New York City to feed a large market in the city.
“They were doing cut flowers when there was no air freight,” says owner Sal Gilbertie, whose father started the business. “Then when air freight came in after World War II the cut flower business went down the tubes in the Northeast and they went into vegetables and herbs.”
Sal Gilbertie took over the business in 1959 after his dad passed away and has been doing well ever since, offering potted and fresh cut herbs for restauran ts and retail outlets. Gilbertie’s has gained notoriety in the past few years with visits from Martha Stewart and Chef Plum for an episode of Edible Nutmeg On The Road. Gilbertie has also authored multiple books, including one on cooking with microgreens.
“When the ecology boom started in the '60s everybody started jumping at herbs,” says Gilbertie. “For many years we were the only game in town. If you wanted herbs, you had to go to Gilbertie’s.”
For several years they sold potted herbs to garden centers. Gilbertie said they had up to 800 accounts on the East Coast. And then a wave broke again in 2000 and garden centers faced tough times.
“In 2000, when retail garden centers started going out of business, we started to diversify” says Gilbertie. “That’s how we got into the microgreens and cut herbs.” These days they still sell potted herbs and cut herbs, all USDA certified organic, to restaurants, Whole Foods Market, and various other markets in this population dense region.
Growing under glass in soil
Just about everything at Gilbertie’s is grown under glass in 27 greenhouses sitting on four acres of land. It’s all grown in the ground, which Gilbertie insists ensures a tasty and nutritious product. Compost and organic fertilizers and natural pesticides are used exclusively to comply with organic certification regulations.
“We take care of bug problems (e.g,, thrips, whitefly and aphids) with beneficial insects and also preventative methods,” says Gilbertie. “We have a lot of thrip screens on the outside of houses.”
Fertilization comes from different OMRI approved products, including Sustane and Azomite. He says they also use liquid fertilizers in their feeding program, including Nature’s Source 3-1-1.
Fungus problems in the houses rarely appear because they take preventative measures, particularly in their watering program.
“We watch our watering, we don’t water anything in the afternoon,” says Gilbertie. “We water in the morning so the plants can dry out.” He adds that other steps can be taken to avoid fungus problems, including not crowding plants too much and providing good light and air flow with the use of horizontal fans.
Gilbertie says they grow some of their product in the field. However, he says it’s more difficult to achieve USDA's Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification in the field where birds are flying overhead.
“To get GAP certification you would have to wash everything and we can’t afford to do that,” he says.“We’re 100 percent organic and GAP certified. We’re a few steps ahead of most guys except for the big players in the West and Southwest.”
The daylight needed to grow crops under glass on the herb farm is supplemented, when necessary, with sodium lights.
“We use lights because we can get so much more production,” says Gilbertie.
He says despite the higher day-to-day cost of using sodium lights, in his opinion it’s still a better choice than LED lighting.
“From the tests the Dutch have done, you get as much production out of sodium as LED,” he says. “Sure, you save on electricity (with LED), but it takes seven years to get your money back.”
Gilbertie also disagrees with those who use hydroponics to grow cut herbs and microgreens.
“You don’t have the same nutrient value or flavor in hydroponics as in soil, you’ve got to grow in soil,” he insists. “You don’t do organics in hydroponics regardless of what they say. You can’t compare the flavor of arugula grown in soil and arugula grown hydroponically, there is such a big difference, that’s not the way God planned it!”
Offering the common and not so common
Gilbertie’s grows the herbs you might expect — basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary and parsley — but also the hard to find herbs that draw eccentric cooks, gardeners and chefs to Gilbertie’s.
“We also grow some oddball stuff,” he admits. “We grow the oddball stuff just because of our reputation and people will come from all over to get it because no one else has it.” One of the more obscure herbs they offer is nasturtium flowers. It’s an herb you could order from the West Coast — but it would be wilted and tasteless by the time it was trucked cross country.
“The demand changes constantly; we have to sell the stuff we can make a profit on,” says Gilbertie. “We can’t be competitive with stuff coming out of Mexico or the far West, it’s impossible to be competitive with that. We focus on organic and local.”
When you have a great product and a great location it’s hard not to be successful. Gilbertie’s has been riding a big wave since 1922.
“It you take a compass and put it where we are and draw a circle you’re talking about 40 million people, you can’t go wrong,” says Gilbertie. “Half of that is in the Atlantic and we’re still in a good spot.”
From their location near the ocean, Gilbertie’s can keep an eye on that next big wave, whatever that may be.