PAWCATUCK — Teaching customers about plants and flowers has always been part of Stephen and Judy Mann’s growing philosophy.
For 45 years, the couple have owned and operated Pot of Green, a florist and garden center located at 165 Broad St. since 2001. In 1973, they opened their first space in the Whaler’s Inn, where Bravo Bravo is located now.
“I came in to owning that store knowing zip, nothing, about plants, about retailing,” Stephen, 75, said Tuesday, looking at a Mystic Compass newspaper clipping from 1973. “But my presence in 45 years has yielded a bountiful amount of education, which really is hard to beat at certain kinds of retail venues, so what I would like to encourage is for people to come in and learn.”
Judy, 72, is a floral designer and a consultant for weddings, events and parties who said she can do three weddings in one day.
“I do weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, memorial services, graduations, dance recitals, birthdays, anniversaries, get well, all kinds of memorable events,” she said, “But sometimes it’s just people want to make someone smile; it doesn’t have to be a special occasion.”
Holding a bouquet of mango calla lilies and a bunch of ranunculi, Stephen said the shop incorporates “regular” flowers with unusual and perhaps more expensive ones.
“We want to be both upscale and have something for the general public who isn’t looking for upscale,” he said, picking up a bucket of bright yellow parrot tulips striped with bright red. “Not too many people are going to carry these, notice the color.”
Bringing color into people’s lives is just one of the benefits of growing plants, he said.
“I like color, that’s what’s people are missing in their life, and that’s what people miss in the winter,” he said.
Stephen has also created his own potting soil, which is for sale at the shop, though he said it’s not always easy to convince customers of its value.
“We’ve developed our own potting soil because we don’t think there’s anything better. It’s hard to tell the public that, because it’s all about price for them,” he said. “We think that the products that we grow or repot into that soil are the finest money can buy anywhere.”
Mann’s potting soil contains real topsoil, which he said is missing from other soils and helps keep the nutrients from draining away.
“The addition of soil helps the plant grow a lot sturdier, a lot better, whether it’s inside or outside,” he said. “But if you want to make what you do into an art form, you spend more money and you have a ten-times-better product.”
The couple sell plants and shrubs in containers and also create custom-designed gardens based on their accumulated knowledge of horticulture.
“It’s a three-prong deal with containers, soil and the plants, and it takes a long, long history to develop that,” he said. “Product line, service, knowledge — those are the things that really count.”
While not an organic gardener, Stephen said he was concerned about use of pesticides because he had observed a rapid dying-off of insects in the past few years.
“It’s ‘insect-geddon,’ 75 percent of all insect and butterfly species are now gone. It’s the result of pesticides,” he said. “For someone my age who has a remembrance of what nature was like 40 or 50 years ago, I’m missing the insects. For today’s 16- or 18-year-old, it’s not their fault, but you can’t miss what you don’t have.”
Business has also changed over the years. People are not as interested in plants, Judy said,
“On Saturdays, people used to wait in line at our store. This one wanted a hanging plant, this one wanted a dish garden, this one wanted a cactus,” she said. “Our stores were always packed on Saturdays. It was so packed that you could barely move.”
Judy said the busiest period was in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
‘That was when hippies and young people wanted millions of hanging plants in their houses, and we were so busy,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happened. Times have changed; there’s less money for younger people now and no one thinks of having plants, which are so healthy to have in the house.”
The couple has no plans to retire, even though they’ve had offers to sell the business. When they’re not at the shop, they spend time with their two grandchildren and their son, Seth Mann, who is a social studies teacher at Wheeler high School.
“People say, why don’t I retire? Because my business is my hobby,” Stephen said. “Philosophically, you have to think at 75, do you want to have a legacy? How do you want to live the rest of your life?”
Traveling to other places doesn’t particularly interest him, he said.
“If I go to a hotel in Miami or Hawaii, what am I going to do there? I guess I’d go out and look at the plants there,” he laughed.
The business is also a community gathering spot where people come to chat and visit with the Manns’ papillon, Liz.
“I would say that 80 percent of the customers who come in here know us. It’s almost like a Cheers bar,” Judy said. “In the meantime, it’s wonderful for Stephen and I, we’re together all day, we have something to get up to every day, and we really like the idea that we have a place to call home, so to speak.”
Stephen said his advice to young people was get involved with nature and to use cell phones a little less.
“I would particularly recommend that teachers start concentrating on the environment, including the demolition of the insect and bird species, and if they want to come into the store, maybe they can educate us,” he said. “That’s my big advice: All education doesn’t come from school.”