(March 29) Greenhouses aren’t just for tomatoes and cucumbers anymore.

Although those commodities, along with some bell peppers, have become almost synonymous with the term greenhouse produce, the ranks of greenhouse products are expanding.

Eggplant, pickling cucumbers, herbs, berries and lettuce are some of the items growers now produce in greenhouses.

Product labeled “greenhouse-grown” projects a perception of freshness, says Abel Meza, produce office supervisor for Henry’s Marketplace Inc., a chain of 21 stores based in El Cajon, Calif.

MINI GREENHOUSES IN-STORE

Besides tomatoes and the other usual greenhouse items, Henry’s sells “living” greenhouse products that still have their roots attached. These include hydroponically grown butter lettuce, which the stores have carried for the past eight months, and herbs like basil and arugula, which the stores have carried for nearly two years. Some of the Henry’s stores have switched completely to living herbs, while others offer lower-priced traditional herbs.

North Shore Greenhouses Inc., Thermal, Calif., is a major producer of living herbs, says Suzette Overgaag, partner and director of sales and marketing. Each herb is packed in a recyclable mini greenhouse that comes with a recipe and suggested-use information card.

North Shore’s living herb line contains 14 varieties, including dill, thyme and marjoram, packed under the North Shore Living Herbs label. There’s also living spinach and a poultry mix of rosemary, sage and thyme.

The company also developed three value-pack kits — salsa, pizza and seafood. Each kit features three herbs popular for those offerings. And the company plans to launch a pesto pack the first of March that will contain packets of olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese, along with living basil.

“You just cut the roots off the basil, pat it dry and put it in the blender with the other ingredients,” Overgaag says.

Hydro Serre Mirabel Inc., Mirabel, Quebec, also offers greenhouse-grown herbs, as does Herb Thyme Farms, South San Francisco, Calif.

THE NEWEST ADDITIONS

Here’s a glimpse at some of the latest commodities being tested and grown under glass. If you want to expand your greenhouse-grown section, consider adding some of these items.

  • Leafy greens


  • Hydro Serre Mirabel is the largest company in North America to specialize in greenhouse-grown lettuce, says Pierre Dolbec, director of sales.

    The company ships heads of Boston — or bibb — lettuce in clamshell containers. The product, which weighs about 7 ounces, comes with roots attached.

    Greenhouse lettuce has more tender leaves and a “more refined texture,” Dolbec says.

    The firm also ships mache or lamb lettuce, arugula and cress to foodservice accounts and is considering those items for retail, Dolbec says.

    You can get bibb lettuce in clamshell containers from Erie James Ltd., Leamington, Ontario, too, says partner Mark Slater.

  • Pickling cucumbers


  • Red Zoo, Ruthven, Ontario, originally launched Persian pickling cucumbers in a 7-ounce package and met with only moderate success, says co-owner Jay Colasanti. But when the package was upsized to 14 ounces in 2003, it caught on immediately and has become the firm’s fastest-growing niche item.

    Erie James also ships 4-inch mini pickling cucumbers available in 20-pound bulk containers or packaged in 16-ounce poly bags.

  • Tomato varieties


  • Red Zoo is among a number of companies in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico that have introduced greenhouse- grown cocktail tomatoes. Colasanti says the fruit has a brix level at least 10% higher than other kinds of greenhouse tomatoes. The company offers them in a variety of packages, most commonly in 14- to 16-ounce overwrapped trays.

    Cocktail tomatoes from Eurofresh Farms, Willcox, Ariz., are larger than the company’s cherry on-the-vine tomatoes, are sweet, can be used for snacking or quartered in salads and offer convenience consumers love, says Fried DeSchouwer, director of sales and marketing.

    Wilson-Batiz LLC, Nogales, Ariz., plans to launch roma cluster tomatoes grown in Mexico in March, says Benjamin Bon Wilson, chief executive officer. They will be available until June, then start up again in November. Eventually, the company would like to ship them year-round, Wilson says.

    Wilson-Batiz also plans to ship eight-ball squash — a round zucchini — in the fall, along with campari tomatoes, Wilson says.

  • Peppers with heat


  • BC Hot House Foods Inc., Surrey, British Columbia, plans to launch a greenhouse chili pepper the company has named Piro Pepper in March, says Dawn Gray, vice president of marketing. The peppers are about the size of an index finger and rank below the habanero and above the jalapeño from a heat standpoint, Gray says. They will be available in yellow, red and green varieties until October or November.

  • Berries


  • Berries usually aren’t associated with greenhouses, but they are at Raspberry Rich, Centralia, Wash. Owner Tom Wood hopes to boost production to 600 flats of greenhouse raspberries a day by spring.

    The company also is testing several varieties of strawberries and blueberries and has developed its own varieties for greenhouses. He expects to expand the blueberry and strawberry operations by the end of the year.

    CONSISTENT SELLERS

    Despite the plethora of new products, tomatoes and cucumbers remain the best-selling greenhouse items in the produce department, and Walter Schaefer, assistant produce manager at one of the three Adams Fairacre Farms stores based in Lake Katrine, N.Y., says he knows why — their larger size and superior taste.

    “I would buy them over a Florida tomato,” Schaefer says. “They have more of a homegrown tomato taste, and they are plumper and juicier.”

    The greenhouse tomatoes sold at Fairacre Farms usually come from Canada and are extremely popular, Schaefer says — even when they’re priced at $2.69 a pound and field-grown tomatoes are on sale for 99 cents a pound.

    Greenhouse tomatoes account for 25% to 30% of the store’s tomato volume, and Schaefer estimates that sales have increased 40% over the past three or four years.

    “We sell quite a few of them,” Schaefer says, “especially in winter.”

    Schaefer merchandises greenhouse tomatoes in bulk on an 8- by 4-foot table near the lettuce and packaged salads and identifies them with an 8- by 4-inch sign.

    Greenhouse tomatoes have such a superior taste that field-grown tomatoes are hard to find at many of the Henry’s Markets, Meza says. At least one hothouse tomato variety is featured on ad almost every week for 69-99 cents a pound, compared with a regular price of $1.99 a pound, he says.

    Although Acme Markets Inc., a Philadelphia-based chain of 137 stores, sells greenhouse bell peppers and cucumbers, Jay Schneider, assistant sales manager, says the most growth is in the tomato category.

    Late last year, greenhouse tomatoes were featured on the cover of the chain’s ad for half price — $1.48 a pound — but Schneider says they’re a good seller even at regular prices, which can reach $3.99 a pound.

    “It’s a great-tasting tomato,” he says.

    Greenhouse peppers, which can be priced at $3.99 a pound, usually aren’t huge sellers, he says, but a nice end cap display can lead to some good impulse sales.

    In the Midwest, Troy Mitchell, produce manager at the Sun Mart Foods store in North Platte, Neb., one of 21 stores in the chain, says he doesn’t sell as many greenhouse tomatoes as stores on the coasts might. However, he says the greenhouse tomatoes he receives from two local growers account for 20% to 30% of his tomato sales in winter when shoppers can’t grow their own tomatoes outdoors.

    The greenhouse tomatoes are priced at about $1.99 a pound, compared with $1.49 a pound for field-grown tomatoes.

    The store offers cluster and beefsteak greenhouse tomatoes.

    Produce personnel can give a nudge to greenhouse tomato sales, says Schaefer of Fairacre Farms, by recommending them when shoppers ask for suggestions about which tomato to buy.

    “Once people try them, they come back,” he says.