With Longwood Gardens as her playground, a grandmother whose gardens served as a classroom and a mother who operated a flower shop in Chadds Ford, it only seemed natural that Laura Lapp’s career path would take her in a horticultural direction.
Actually, there were a few detours along the way before Laura’s company, Perfect Pots, took root in 2007. “I saw how hard my mom had to work,” Laura says of Nancy Clegg. “It immersed her life,” she continues, alluding to such red-letter days as Valentine’s, Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas, not to mention weddings and other life events that required flowers.
Laura ultimately took a different direction; as a college student, she majored in psychology and developed an interest in neuroscience. After earning her degree, she worked in the lab of a pharmaceutical company. Still, plants were never far from Laura’s mind, as she couldn’t help but notice the similarities that neuroscience and horticulture share. “Both involve a lot of trial and error,” Laura points out.
Laura’s career path took another turn with the birth of her daughters, Morgan and Kaitlyn. “I chose to be a stay-at-home mom,” she explains. Motherhood also allowed her to reconnect with horticulture. “I just started playing around with planting pots. Container gardening became my hobby. I loved it. It provided me with a way to be outside with the girls and be creative,” she explains. Unbeknownst to Laura, she had tapped into a relatively new concept that would take the gardening world by storm.
Friends, family and neighbors began to take notice of the experiments that were being carried out in Laura’s driveway. One day her next-door neighbor approached Laura and asked for her help. He couldn’t help but notice how she had transformed her own property and explained he had guests coming for a visit and felt his yard wasn’t very welcoming.
Laura, who admits she had noticed all the empty pots that dotted the landscape, said she would be glad to help him roll out the welcome mat. “I studied the property, took note of the light and came up with a plan,” she recalls. Accompanied by her daughters, Laura began visiting local greenhouses and garden centers to secure the perfect plants for the project. Her first client was thrilled with the results and his guests were impressed.
Other neighbors took notice and approached Laura for help, as well. “Word spread and soon people were just leaving pots in my driveway for me to fill,” she recalls. The neighborhood proved to be the perfect “lab” for Laura. Her preference for using large containers filled with a selection of plants provided the “wow factor” for the small yards that defined the neighborhood. “I wasn’t trying to start a business, it found me,” she says. Still, Laura was convinced she was onto something. “I’d drive around and notice all the pots that were sitting empty in people’s yards,” she recalls.
Homework revealed that the empty pots were a result of frustration – people were making mistakes such as combining plants with differing light and moisture needs or they lacked the time to shop, plant and maintain the container gardens.
Taking the next step was intimidating. “I had to do something – I was outgrowing the garage and driveway,” Laura explains. Her mother encouraged Laura to be “excited and not fearful” of where her creativity could take her.
One day, while she was driving along the Strasburg Pike, Laura noticed an empty greenhouse. She knew it as a place that was once known for its beautiful geraniums. Age and a lack of help had caused the Amish grower to retire. Now, the greenhouse sat empty. Laura connected with the property owners and asked if they would be interested in renting her a table in the greenhouse for production purposes. The couple who once operated the greenhouse and still lived next door to it was very receptive. They welcomed Laura to set up shop and pay them what she could. “That started my dream,” she says.
Fortunately for Laura, her dream met with immediate success. A flag that bore the message “Open” prompted passersby to stop. “Customers began showing up!” she exclaims. “It became a very grassroots enterprise – if the flag was out, we were open.”
The business began with a selection of pots, plants, dirt and one employee – Laura. A photo in her office captures her at work in the greenhouse as Morgan and Kaitlyn play in the background. Laura wistfully looks at the photo and comments she will become an empty nester in the fall, as her younger daughter, Morgan, will be leaving for college.
Growth Can’t Be Contained
Laura designed her business around two tenets. First, she wanted to provide her customers with the very best products, whether it’s pots, plants or soil. “Providing the best is what sets us apart,” she notes of dealing with trusted vendors, other local businesses and attending events such as the gift shows that are held in Atlanta and Philadelphia. The tactic has obviously paid off – Perfect Pots was invited to be a vendor at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, which is once again being held outdoors in June. “I was honored to be asked, but I think we’ll wait for another year or so,” Laura says. “The timing isn’t the greatest for us.”
Building relationships is also integral to the business. “The core of our business is planting pots. Everything we do is custom. We track customers’ preferences and send the same designers to them each season.” Perfect Pots works with clients who are within a two-hour radius of Lancaster.
Perfect Pots also stays in tune with gardening trends. With the houseplant craze showing no signs of abating, the greenhouse, market stand and flower shops are brimming with plants, succulents, pots and other needs. Yes, Perfect Pots has indeed grown over the years and now consists of two divisions, with Central Market Flowers being the newest offshoot.
The expansion began four years ago, when Perfect Pots set up a garden boutique at Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse. “Because we focus on a different customer there – mainly visitors to Lancaster County – we offer a different product,” Laura says of the travel-friendly containers, plants and garden décor that are available. Because they typically get just one opportunity to make an impression, employees serve as ambassadors of sorts for Perfect Pots, Kitchen Kettle and Lancaster County. “We’ll answer questions about plants, as well as what sights to see,” Laura says.
Always a fan of Lancaster Central Market, Laura dreamed of operating a stand there. Establishing a relationship with Nelson and Rose Rohrer, who operated a flower-growing farm in Manheim Township and took over a flower stand at market in 2001, provided Laura with her Central Market connection. “My mother was working for the Rohrers and when I ran out of pussy willow one spring, she suggested I contact Nelson,” Laura explains. “I bought a truckload and then began buying all my pussy willow from him.” When the Rohrers decided to end their 18-year tenure at market in 2019, they approached Laura with the idea of taking over. They only had to ask once. “I knew right away that I wanted to do it,” she says. The venture would allow her to grow in a new direction and offer customers fresh flowers.
Taking over the Rohrers’ stand also provided Central Market Flowers with a bonus space – a small shop on West King Street that was used for production purposes.
Central Market Flowers was an instant success and Laura soon found herself in need of additional production space. “I told my employees to keep their eyes open for space in the downtown area,” she recounts. Late last summer she received a call from an employee who happened to be driving up North Queen Street and noticed a “For Lease” sign in the window of the former El Jardin Flower & Garden Room (prior to that, it was Flowers by Paulette) at the corner of North Queen and West Walnut streets. “I knew the space – it would be perfect for us! I dropped everything I was doing and called the number she gave me.” As Laura was the first to call, the space was hers.
The new space provides more than 3,000 square feet of showroom and production space. “We only had about 300 square feet at the other site,” she notes. The showroom area resembles a studio apartment rather than a traditional shop and is a perfect fit for the trendy 300 block of North Queen Street. (Its next-door neighbor is Space, which specializes in mid-century furniture and décor.) The window areas are filled with houseplants, while tables and bookcases hold pots and other needs. A display of succulents creates a “quilt” effect atop a vintage brass bed, while a large communal table provides ample space for consultations, classes, private parties and First Friday make-and-take projects that visitors are welcome to create.
Floral designers work in the rear of the building to create custom bouquets and arrangements. Their assignments are guided by a theme menu that is simply geared to color and occasion. The general guidelines allow the designers to be creative, as well as utilize the products they have access to. Like everything else, the pandemic has affected the availability of floral products due to supply-chain issues, notably items coming from the West Coast and Europe. Flowers (at all locations) can be ordered for delivery on an in-person, telephone or online basis. “If you place an order by 12, it will be delivered that afternoon,” Laura promises.
Back on West King Street, Laura was able to reimagine what had been Central Market Flowers’ production space. “We’ve turned that into a wonderland for everlasting florals,” Laura reports. Everlasting florals? Back in the day, they were called dried flowers and be assured, they don’t look anything like the dust collectors of old. “Dried flowers have made a huge comeback,” Laura reports. Indeed, the product is vastly improved – the 21st-century version is colorful and whimsical. It’s also thoroughly modern – one of the favorite First Friday projects involves wiring a few sprigs of everlasting florals to a crystal. In addition to the everlasting florals, the shop is stocked with unique plants, mini-sized plants and succulents, garden décor, containers and more.
Laura is pleased with the success of Central Market Flowers. “We’ve experienced rapid growth in business since September,” she reports. However, she is looking for more ways to branch out and hopes to become more involved in weddings and special events. “We’ve already had a lot of wedding interest,” she shares. For such events, she is experimenting with combining Perfect Pots’ colorful containers with fresh flowers.
Meanwhile … Back at Perfect Pots
The popularity of container gardens prompted Perfect Pots to grow exponentially. Early on, Laura hired plant-loving retirees and moms of school-aged kids to work at Perfect Pots. Now, the workforce is more diverse and includes plant lovers of all ages and abilities. “We’ve gone from one to 33 employees,” she noted in February. Perfect Pots also took over the entire greenhouse, as well as the plot of land that surrounds it. It’s also become a year-round venture, as designers change out pots to reflect all the seasons of the year. The greenhouse is also stocked with plants on a nearly year-round basis.
The main show – the pot selection – is astounding. The pots are available in a rainbow of colors and interesting textures and finishes. The sheer size of the largest pots is mind-boggling. “You want your pot to make a statement,” Laura says. The sizes and the colors of the pots definitely achieve that! “We rely on our trusted suppliers for our pots,” Laura says. “They’re made of high-quality material and the clay is fired at a higher temperature. The glaze protects them from cracking – they can stay out in all weather.” She is so confident in the performance factor of her pots that Laura says, “You will have these for the rest of your life.”
Actually, moving the pots could prove to be back-breaking. “We fill them bottom to top with soil,” Laura points out. “They are incredibly heavy.” Designers have found that a pot filled with soil provides the best growing conditions for plants. Laura notes they have conducted experiments – partially filling a pot with “peanuts” and topping it off with soil – only to discover at the end of the season that the roots had grown through the peanuts. Compared to pots that were totally filled with soil, the plants were not as robust due to a compromised root system. Laura also doesn’t like to fill the bottom of pots with rocks/stones, as one could become lodged in the drainage hole and cause the soil to become soggy and thus result in root rot. That’s not to say that soil has to be replaced each year. “We freshen the soil on top,” she says. “It’s a one-time soil fill.”
Of course, DIYers are welcome to choose containers and the plants to fill them.
As for the plant aspects of the pots, the possibilities are endless. For spring, Laura likes to go with the tried-and-true – pansies. “Nothing beats a pansy,” she says of the harbingers of spring that can tolerate just about any weather condition that comes their way. The color selection continues to expand.
For summer, she has become a huge fan of that old-fashioned plant, the coleus. Today, it’s a thoroughly modern plant thanks to hybridization that has helped to create plants of all sizes and colors. It thrives in summer heat as well as fall’s cool temperatures. “We have 80 different types of coleus,” she notes. Laura is also a fan of salvia, which she describes as a “Hummingbird magnet.” To mix things up, Laura likes to incorporate houseplants into pots, “especially for shady areas.”
For fall, Laura thinks beyond mums and likes to incorporate other perennials into pots. She also introduces texture via grasses and elements such as pumpkins and gourds. When winter rolls around, evergreens and natural accents such as pinecones and birch branches define the pots.
Perfect Pots is located at 745 Strasburg Pike. For more information, visit perfectpots.com.