Constant learning keeps Bell’s Nurseries green

Alaskajournal.com, AK
Aug 2 2004

Constant learning keeps Bell’s Nurseries green

By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce

Bell’s Nurseries’ Mike Mosesian is constantly developing his
technique for growing tomatoes and other products like poinsettias.
PHOTO/Margaret Bauman/AJOC

In the great Alaska gold rush, an Armenian refuge named Paul Mosesian
tried his luck and failed. More than seven decades later, his great
grandson, Mike Mosesian, came north to ski and struck gold in
tomatoes.

“I went to the grocery store (in Anchorage) and I couldn’t believe
how expensive tomatoes were, and they were just horrible,” Mosesian
said. “I thought maybe I can grow tomatoes up here.”

That was the winter of 1972. Today, plump, ripe, tasty tomatoes by
the hundreds from Bell’s Nurseries are snapped up by supermarket
customers from produce bins just a day after being plucked from
greenhouse vines.

“The best tomatoes I like are when you pick them of the vine to eat,
and they are warm, hot,” Mosesian said. “You get the full flavor.”

Mosesian, who holds a master’s degree in viticulture from the
University of California at Davis, hails from a family of passionate
growers. He was helping his father farm 1,000 California acres of
table and wine grapes when he came north with his wife, Joanne, to
ski and visit with her family in the winter of 1972. Six months
later, he had purchased five acres. Inspired by a produce convention
demonstration on hydroponic tomatoes, he was ready to try his hand
growing them.

“To be honest, I didn’t know anything about growing tomatoes,” he
said. “I thought a greenhouse as a house painted green. But I had a
minor in chemistry and I just started reading about it, and I started
learning.”

Getting started wasn’t easy, despite Mosesian’s background in his
family’s California vineyard.

His first crop of tomatoes was “not good,” Mosesian said. “It almost
died in the summer, and I found out I wasn’t feeding them enough.
They weren’t getting enough fertilizer because of the long days.”

Mosesian thought they were deficient in magnesium, so he sprayed them
with magnesium and the plants got worse. Finally he got the plants
analyzed by a Colorado laboratory and learned what they needed was
nitrogen. “I fed them and they came back,” he said.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “I’m doing things today that I didn’t
do last year.”

The 2004 tomato crop, for example, is planted in coconut fiber
imported from India. “This year, the tomatoes are not stressed out
and the coconut fiber seems to work well,” he said. “It’s a
replacement for peat moss.” Once the tomato season has passed, the
coconut fiber can be recycled to grow flowers in pots, he said.

Mosesian is also an optimist in the midst of pending disaster. In the
mid 1970s his tomato crop was struck with a root disease. Local
agriculture extension agents told him his plants were finished. “But
I just kept feeding them, and they came back,” he said. “Each year I
learn more. It’s just experience.”

In the early 1980s, Mosesian tried his hand at growing red
poinsettias. First, he grew some 200 poinsettias and gave them away
to Catholic churches for Christmas for decorations.

“Then I grew 1,000, then 5,000,” he said.

The 2004 holiday crop of poinsettias is in varied shades of pink, red
and white. They are already potted and growing. Mosesian figures he
will sell 40,000 to 50,000 poinsettias again this year, starting
three weeks before Thanksgiving.

The three Anchorage greenhouses operated by Mosesian also feature, in
season, hanging baskets, bedding plants, trees and shrubs, and garden
supplies, plus upscale gift shops.

“We are successful because we have a market and we cultivate that
market by taking care of you as a customer, by offering a whole
spectrum of plants and an ambiance that you enjoy walking around in,”
he said.

Mosesian credits much of his success to America’s passion for
gardening. “Far more money is spent on gardening than any other
hobby,” he said. “There is a lot of joy and satisfaction in planting
something and watching it grow, and harvesting either beautiful
flowers in front of your home or a vegetable garden.”

Mosesian’s real passion these days is his family, and his roots. His
great-grandfather, Paul, in the 1920s, helped found the farmers’
raisin cooperative known today as SunMaid Raisins.

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