Lifelong Houston resident Steve Wilson spent most of his years employed in the bridge construction business, but he always had an eye on growing vegetables and had a strong interest in greenhouses and the way they worked. When he would see a greenhouse as he traveled around Missouri along the bridge building trail, he would often stop in and talk with its owners, gleaning information with every conversation and building his knowledge of what’s up with greenhouses.
About six or seven years ago, Wilson and his wife, Kathy, attended an auction in Texas County where greenhouses were being sold by someone who was getting out of the business.
“We just went out there to find out how much they went for,” he said. “The next thing you know we owned one.”
About five years ago, Wilson transitioned from learning what’s up with greenhouses to running a business inside one, and What’s Up Greenhouse opened on his property on the Big Piney River about two miles west of Houston on Highway 17. His upbringing made growing and selling edible plants come fairly naturally.
“I was born and raised on a farm up there on Rocky Branch, and we pretty much grew everything we ate,” Wilson said. “I learned how to pick up rocks pretty early.”
The first greenhouse Wilson set up was destroyed by the big Mother’s Day storm of 2008.
“Something about that 70-mile-per-hour wind just kind of ruined it,” Wilson said.
The idea of growing plants in environmentally controlled areas has existed since Roman times. The first modern greenhouses were built in Italy in the 1200s, designed to contain exotic plants brought back by explorers from tropical locations.
Today, the Netherlands is known as the world’s greenhouse capital, sporting some 9,000 commercial greenhouse operations and many of the largest greenhouses in the world. In fact, greenhouses are so common in Holland, they cover as much as a quarter-percent of the country’s total land area, and some are so large that they annually produce millions of vegetables.
Wilson’s What’s Up operation features two buildings; the primary “Gothic style” unit (with a peak in its roof) that houses the retail store is 118 feet long and 30 feet wide. A second unit measuring 72×30 was added last fall and is used as a warehouse to grow plants that are transferred to the main building as inventory is sold.
“We ran out of room and kept selling out of everything,” Wilson said. “This has allowed us to double our capacity on garden plants.”
The two buildings contain in the neighborhood of 100 different kinds of plants.
“When I was ordering seeds, I counted over 120 different kinds,” Wilson said. “There’s 26 different types of tomatoes, 18 types of peppers, and just a whole lot of other stuff. The tomatoes are our most popular thing; some people will grow four kinds of tomatoes and nothing else. But with the economy the way it is, a lot more people are growing full gardens.
“We get a lot of people who say, ‘This is the first time I’ve grown a garden, so how do I do this or that?’”
Gardening’s increasing popularity has led to an increase in he number of people who visit What’s Up. Last year, the business served several thousand customers and moved about 25,000 plants.
“And I’ve almost doubled that this year, and we’ve still got a lot to sell,” Wilson said. “It’s still pretty early in the season, but the weather sort of got things off to an early start.”
Wilson figures about 80-percent of what’s in What’s Up is edible, while the other 20-percent consists of flowers and hanging baskets. He even grows vegetables in colder months.
“I came out here on the first day of January and picked some fresh lettuce and radishes,” Wilson said. “Of course, this past winter was so mild, it was great for growing. I didn’t even have any artificial heat going at all.”
The coverings on most greenhouses are made of plastic material specially designed to withstand years of exposure to sun and weather. Many modern-day greenhouses – like the What’s Up pair – are fully automated with computer controlled watering systems and ventilation.
“It’s like a growing machine,” Wilson said. “I mean, these aren’t just buildings, they’re actually machines. I don’t really even have to be here for them to function and keep everything growing.”
Ventilation is one of the most important aspects of greenhouse operation. The main What’s Up building is outfitted with a five-horse power fan with blades four feet in diameter, but also has roll-up sides.
“The fan can empty all the air out of the building in less than two minutes,” Wilson said. “If you have too small of a fan, it runs forever and costs you money. But while I’m actually here, I’ll just roll up the sides manually and let it naturally ventilate and cool itself. I like to make this as energy-efficient as possible.”
In addition to hurricane-force winds, hail storms are potentially devastating to plastic-covered greenhouses.
“It’s pretty rough on them,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen them after they’ve been through hail storms, and it looks like there’s a bunch of pimples all over them. It just puckers them up, and if it doesn’t blow a whole plumb through them, it just stretches the heck out of the plastic.”
Wilson, who also does welding in his garage adjacent to the greenhouses, has had some valuable help as his greenhouse business has developed over the years. His lifelong friend and bridge-building partner, David Hutsell, has been instrumental in all aspects of the operation.
“We like to pretend we know what we’re doing,” Hutsell said.
As much as Wilson loves talking about growing fruits and vegetables, he also enjoys discussing how his property occupies land that humans have lived upon for millennia. He routinely finds centuries-old Indian arrowheads, but has even unearthed several Dalton-point arrowheads that date back some 10,000 years (and are named after Missouri supreme court judge Sidna P. Dalton, who is credited with discovering many artifacts from the ancient culture, including the arrowheads).
“It’s amazing to think that there have been people living on this very spot for such a long time,” Wilson said.
While running a large-scale greenhouse operation can be a complicated, scientific endeavor, Wilson is proof that smaller-scale operations can be kept fairly simple and run by the common man.
“I have no degree or anything like that,” he said. “All I know comes from just doing it.”