On a sunny day on the outskirts of Cottage Grove, thousands of seedlings are bursting through the earth to reach the sun’s rays.
Ed Knapton walks between the rows of plants and surveys the progress of each one--just as a parent would tend to their little ones -- in a nursery. With a little soil, a pinch of fertilizer, and a whole lot of care, he’s determined they’ll have a successful go of it.
“It really is like having a child--how you raise a plant will determine its potential,” Knapton says as he bends over to touch one of the budding green leaves.
Knapton, along with his wife Carol, has owned and operated America’s Best Flowers for more than 40 years.
It’s common for customers to stand in awe looking at the beautiful blossoms of geraniums, impatiens and pansies on display in the 19 greenhouses on Vilas Hope Road.
After years of searching for the right fit in their careers, the Knaptons, both Sun Prairie High School grads, believe God helped them find this little piece of paradise.
“Flowers are God’s art,” Knapton says.“We really believe that the Lord is calling us to do this work until he tells us otherwise we are just going to keep doing it.”
Although he puts a lot of faith in the Lord for the success of his business, the science is not far behind.
America’s Best Flowers was the first in the country to use open roof greenhouses controlled by computers that allows fresh air and sunshine to nurture the plants to become stronger.
There’s also a new process that fights insects naturally by using beneficial mites to eat harmful pests. Knapton also uses compost tea, by steeping finished compost in water, to brew a nutritious plant booster.
“We are doing everything humanly possibly to make it so the customer is happier with the product,” Knapton says.
Although it may cost him a little more to do business that way, he believes that customers will find a superior product at America’s Best Flowers.
“The big-box growers are not about consumer success, that just want to make money,” he says. “If you spend $100 on plants and they all die, you are going to blame yourself, not the supplier who sold you an inferior plant. We don’t do that, we sell customers quality plants.”
For the detailed-oriented Knapton that includes only using a customized blend of soil made especially for America’s Best Flower, and adding just the right amount of nutrients. He also insists on wire hangers for all the flower baskets—which Knapton says looks as a graceful as a ballerina floating in the air, compared with the ugly plastic hangers that his competitors offer.
While Knapton always had a garden growing up, he came about his career in a roundabout way. He served four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, then studied mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before he decided to switch majors and earned a horticulture degree.
For six years, he worked as the grounds and building maintenance supervisor at The Wisconsin Cheeseman in Sun Prairie. While there, he created the trademark colorful flower display that spelled out the company name on its front lawn. That project expanded his interest in beautiful blossoms.
“I couldn’t find the flowers that I was looking for, so I started to grow my own,” Knapton says.
Soon cultivating green plants became a passion with Knapton and his wife, and they started a pick-your-own vegetable business at a farm near Marshall, helped run other farm markets and sold produce at Dane County Farmers Market.
Even today, Knapton looks for the new trends in flowers and vegetables that offer something special to his customers. One recent favorite is the Opera variety of petunias, with bountiful blooms and stronger stems.
“They are like the Wave petunia on steroids,” Knapton says with enthusiasm.
After being told that he couldn’t get the Wisconsin 55 yellow tomato variety from a supplier, Knapton started to cultivate his own seeds so customers can buy them for their gardens this year.
Although flowers make up 90 percent of the business, Knapton says there’s a growing interest in vegetables and herbs as people move toward a plant-based diet.
“People are becoming more concerned about what they eat and realizing that what they put into their body can help support a healthy lifestyle,” Knapton says.
The busiest time at America’s Best Flowers starts in May, as people plant their gardens and buy flower containers and hanging baskets to decorate their yards.
For those who need a little inspiration and advice, the greenhouse staff offers workshops on creating container gardens. Customers can also learn to cook with herbs, or start a bee-friendly garden.
In just a few weeks, the greenhouses will start to fill with people looking for garden plants or picking out a favorite from the more than 15,000 hanging flower baskets in bloom.
While America’s Best Flowers trademark is easily recognizable to regular customers with its rainbow and “Beauty with God’s Help For You”, this year Knapton added the words “Bring Home The Joy” to the logo. He said that’s just not hyperbole.
“We are going to make them happier than anyone else, and they are going to get more pleasure from the plants they buy here, and if they don’t we will take care of them,” he says.
America’s Best Flowers
4311 Vilas Hope Road, Cottage Grove
Phone: (608) 222-2269.
Saturday, April 23 — Celebrate Earth Day with America’s Best Flowers from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. with free children’s activities. Make seed balls, plant flower seeds, paint T-shirts and more.
April 30-May 1— Container Make & Take from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Create a beautiful planter with herb, flowers and plants.
May 21- Herb cooking class 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Learn how herbs can bring flavor and nutrition to your everyday diet.
For a full schedule of America’s Best Flowers events, visit www.americabestflowers.com.