April 21, 2017 - 12:00 AM

One afternoon nearly 50 years ago, a 16-year-old farm girl named Rita overheard her father talking with another man. They were discussing the beleaguered state of the American small farm. The man was Mr. Arnold, a farmer near Le Roy, and the father of Rita’s new boyfriend George.
Rita couldn’t help but overhear. That world is dying, they said. It’s too hard a life, they said.
Rita knew that the men were talking about her future, too. She piped up. “Wait now — well, what about George?”
“He’s dying, too,” declared her father. “All of us small farmers.”
Rita thought but didn’t say: What are we going to do?
STILL, she loved George. They’d met a few months earlier at a church convention and knew very soon after that they’d be married. After high school, Rita studied to become a nurse and George, like the men in his family before him, turned his hand to farming, biding his time until Rita had finished up her schooling.
THE PAIR married in 1975 and moved onto a small plot of land “down by Turkey Creek,” as George describes it, “just south of Abbott Crandall’s place.” George farmed. Rita took a job as a nurse at Coffey County Hospital.
IN 1976, the young couple was returning from a short road trip into Missouri. Somewhere around Fort Scott, off Highway 54, Rita spotted a homemade greenhouse rising up from someone’s backyard. “I’d like to have one of those,’” George remembers his new wife saying. “I guess she thought it would be fun.”
THE NEXT winter George and his father built a 10’ x 16’ pole-frame greenhouse, and by the spring of 1977 the young couple had a small crop of tomatoes, peppers, and marigolds on their hands.
IT WAS AS true then as it is now that a person can eat only so many tomatoes, and so, while Rita would carry seedlings down to the hospital to sell to her colleagues out of the trunk of her car, George began selling his vegetables and flowers to area Duckwall’s stores and to some of his neighbors and friends.
IN 1983, a few years after the death of George’s father (“You couldn’t ask for kinder, gentler person than what he was,” remembers George), George and Rita took up residence at the farm where George was raised, a wind-swept patch of prairie that has been in the Arnold family for more than 100 years.
“WE SETTLED here in the summer of ’83,” recalled Rita. “We covered the very first roof of our commercial greenhouse on December 13, 1983. Our first season to be open as a commercial greenhouse was the spring of ’84. We tore down chicken houses and put up more greenhouses as needed. Anyway, it’s just gone on from there.”


“HELLO, this is Arnold’s Greenhouse. May I help you?” George Arnold presses the phone to his ear. “Now, what’s that again?” He covers his left ear with his free hand. “Tame ones?” he says. “OK, let me check for you.” George leaves the garden center’s makeshift conference room and wanders out into the 80,000 square feet of sunlit nursery that today makes up Arnold’s Greenhouse, one of the most esteemed garden centers in the greater Midwest. 
George returns a few minutes later and retakes his seat at the table. “She was looking for a tame gooseberry bush,” he explains. At 65, George Arnold is a tall man with close-cropped white hair. He’s the kind of man who, after sitting for long periods, begins to shift noticeably in his chair, as one who would rather be out working.
“I farmed all that time, even after we started the greenhouse,” says George. “But it got to the point where you’ve got to make a decision. You farm or you do the greenhouse, because you just didn’t have enough time in the spring for both. So, we went with what we figured would make a living.”
THESE DAYS Arnold’s Greenhouse employees more than 30 area residents — most of them on a part-time or seasonal basis — and caters to a customer base that arrives from all parts of the country to shop the 120’ x 288’ glass palace in search of the perfect plant.
 “If you count every cultivar, tree, shrub, perennial, annual, vegetable, herb, and aquatic,” says Rita, Arnold’s plays host to nearly 2,500 varieties of plants.
George is not an immodest man but he doesn’t mind telling you that Arnold’s Greenhouse has the widest selection of plants of any garden center in the state: “There are bigger places and places that carry more of a specific kind of plant. Whereas we do a lot of small numbers of a wide range. So, for the individual consumer, you would be hard-pressed to find anything with a greater variety. Especially perennials. I think we’re good on perennials, annuals, vegetables, and herbs. We’re not real strong on woody materials.”
Even after 40 years, every plant is still hand-picked by the Arnolds, who continue to attend the country’s major garden shows and premier trial gardens, and whose passion for plant life across these many decades has never waned.

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