Springtime Array of Beautiful Blossoms at Perna’s Florist, Plant & Garden Center
FAMILY TRADITION: “We are set apart by our long history and experience, and we are a real family business. I am the third generation to be part of it, and my son Michael is the fourth.” Sarah Conte, owner of Perna’s Florist, Plant & Garden Center, is shown with her son and colleague Michael Conte in the entrance to the garden center amid a display of May flowers.
By Jean Stratton
“I may be an old man, but I am a young gardener.”
These words were written in his later years by Thomas Jefferson to a friend. Always ready to learn more, he knew that gardening could be wonderfully rewarding, and also remarkably challenging.
When planting a garden, whether it is a casual or serious undertaking, relying on the most reliable and experienced helpers to guide the process is a priority.
Perna’s Florist, Plant & Garden Center is such a resource. Located at 189 Washington Road in West Windsor since 1976, the longtime family business dates back even further. George Mazur, grandfather of Perna’s current owner Sarah Conte, opened Mazur’s Nursery in 1931.
Alfred Perna and Irene Mazur Perna, Sarah’s parents, became Mazur’s owners in the 1970s, and Perna’s and Mazur’s operated simultaneously until Mazur’s closed in 2019.
Sarah Conte grew up in the family business, and as she recalls, “Some of my fondest memories are of my brother and me when I was 6 or 7 running around, carrying plants, and helping Mom and Dad. I worked here a lot, and I always enjoyed it. My mother taught me about the flowers and the design work. I especially enjoyed the creative aspect of the design work.”
Growing up in the business also introduced her to a wide range of customers from Princeton and the surrounding area. Over the years, many have become friends, and she is happy to welcome both the long-term regulars and the many new customers who keep coming.
“They are all ages, and some people are just starting their first garden, while others are more serious and experienced,” she reports. “We are very happy to help with advice, if people ask, and to answer any questions. We have a very knowledgeable, helpful staff, including Suzanne Smith, our longtime colleague, who has a degree in horticulture from Rutgers.”
Among the most frequently asked questions are what to do about the deer, which plants like sun or shade, when and how much to water, appropriate planting time, etc.
“We like to educate customers about what they need to know to prepare and maintain a great garden,” explains Conte. “What are appropriate soil conditions, how often to water, which plants are unattractive to deer — we can help with all of these questions.”
At this time of year, almost all plants can safely be put in the ground or in pots and planters, she notes. “All perennials can be planted now, including phlox, salvia, lobelia, and monarda. We have become a Certified Proven Winner garden center, and our goal is to provide customers with a wide variety of native plants to diversify our local yards, and help restore our natural ecosystem.
“Native plants have adapted to our regional climate for centuries, making them reliable growers and more tolerant of pests and diseases. They also provide crucial foliage and habitat for local wildlife, including song birds, butterflies, and bees.”
By mid-May, all the annuals can be planted, and Perna’s has an extensive selection of popular choices. Impatiens, petunias, snapdragons, geraniums, and vinca (the impatiens look-alike, which can withstand heat particularly well) are always favorites.
Among shade-loving plants are begonias, fuchsia, lobelia, and caladium, as well as ferns.
Hanging baskets and patio planters are big favorites now, reports Conte, as are the always popular rose bushes.
Vegetables and herbs are also in demand. “They are very popular, and especially with young people,” she adds. “These days, people like to eat what is in their garden. There is a lot of interest in this. We have several varieties of lettuce, also broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Basil, rosemary, and thyme are also popular herbs, as well as mustard and oregano.
In addition, we plan to add some new products, including a selection of Asian vegetables and assorted varieties of plants.”
A full range of potting soil, top soil, mulch, peat moss, also cow manure, deer repellents, and fertilizers is available. These include products that are all natural and free of harmful chemicals. A selection of colorful ceramic and terra cotta planters, wind chimes, and bird feeders and bird supplies is also on hand.
The garden center, which now has an additional greenhouse in which to grow more plants, also provides materials and information regarding sun and shade-loving plants, deer-resistant options (including marigolds), native plants, and those attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Easy maintenance is a priority for many, especially new gardeners, but it is a fact that all plants need a certain amount of ongoing care and attention. “There will always be watering and weeding,” points out Conte with a smile. “You can count on it!”
Perna’s is now in the midst of its busiest time, which doesn’t really end until October. The last four years have seen increased business, she adds.
“We were very busy during COVID,” she says. “People were home more, and they were doing more planting, wanting their gardens to be nice. Also, house plants, including orchids (we have an especially nice selection of orchids of all kinds), were especially popular again. People were really interested in their surroundings, both indoors and outdoors.
Perna’s is also a full-time florist, which is a big part of the business. Arrangements and bouquets for a variety of events, and gift baskets are all popular. Preparing for the upcoming Mother’s Day is especially time consuming.
“We also do a big business for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other events,” reports Conte. ”In addition, people often come in to get cut flowers as a hostess gift, or even a single stem. Some people like to come in every week to get flowers for their home. We also have gift items, such as candles, stuffed animals, candy, and balloons.”
Not everyone gets to do what they love, and despite the ongoing challenges of weather and unforeseen circumstances, Sarah Conte knows she is in the right place.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I still love it. I like putting in the seeds and cleaning the plants. It’s amazing to watch everything grow — a continuing miracle!
“I raised all three of my children here and at Mazur’s, and I wanted to share with them our family business, and my love of plants. It has truly been, and still is, a labor of love. We look forward to continuing the family tradition and serving our customers for a long time to come.”
Perna’s is open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. For further information, call (609) 452-1383. Website: pernasflowers.com.