With its Micro Growth Systems, Aggressively Organic aims to make healthy produce readily available anywhere.

Jonathan Partlow, CEO of Aggressively Organic in Fishers, Indiana, wanted to build a growing medium “that can go anywhere that a seed would go.” He wanted to decentralize the food supply chain.



The first step in Partlow’s plan was to create a personal hydroponic system that can operate in locations as varied as apartment buildings and schools; a system that produces healthy food, is cost-effective, fights food insecurity and doesn’t negatively affect the environment.

After five years of experimentation and testing, Partlow came up with the resulting product, the Micro Growth System — a small hydroponic chamber that consists of a glueless corrugated box, plastic liner, coco coir disc and nutrient solution mix.

By picking and eating lettuce and leafy greens he grows in the system he created, Partlow has lost 40 pounds. He doesn’t exercise, and he drinks coffee every morning. “I walk by and I graze,” he says, “but I’m never hungry because my body’s getting nutrients.”

The company has shipped the systems, along with lettuce and leafy green seeds (Partlow says different crop types can also grow in the systems), to farmers in a beta group, and plans to launch a humanitarian project aimed at people who are food insecure, such as hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. For each system Aggressively Organic’s customers purchase, the company plans to deliver one system to support a charitable cause.

Coming up with the right product required reconsidering production methods — Partlow explains that even the most basic hydroponic systems may cost thousands of dollars, and some require a space the size of a two-car garage, or larger, to operate. Then there’s the whole question of portability. “I went through more than 300 prototypes just on our corrugated box so we could make it so they fold flat,” Partlow says.

But he says he found a way to deliver a harvest that is ready every 21 days, all while charging the customer less than a large pizza, and refills for less than the cost of a side of breadsticks. “We can ship 50 complete systems — a farm, if you will — in a standard, 18-inch by 24-inch by 5-inch-deep box. That’s 50 complete systems with the nutrients, the growth medium and enough refills for a whole year.”

In traditional farming practices, a head of lettuce has a 3½-gallon water footprint, according to the study “Water footprints of derived crop products (1996-2005)” by Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y., published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. By comparison, Partlow says Aggressively Organic can produce lettuce using an eighth to a quarter-gallon of water, maximum. “We harvest when we’re hungry, so we cut all along the way,” Partlow says. “As the [plant] is growing, we cut what we need. If you have 50 of them, it’s fairly easy. You can make a salad for 10 people every day — like a full, ginormous, won’t-be-hungry-again salad.”

Sloggers shoes and boots are a staple at back doors across America. Known for their colorful and playful print designs, Sloggers are available in five waterproof profiles — garden clog, slip-on shoe, ankle boot, 10-inch boots and new 14-inch boots. Sloggers’ signature all-day comfort insole supports and prevents foot fatigue while the outside materials take on rain, mud and dirt with ease. After wearing, hose them off and leave at the back door for the next project and/or adventure. Made in the USA. For ordering: info@sloggers.com. For style availably, visit the website.

MidWest Gloves & Gear has introduced new cold-weather work gloves for men. The work gloves are designed for all extremely cold outdoor work activities: rugged construction jobs, farm work and more. The new MidWest cold weather work gloves feature “Thinsulate” supreme insulation lining. A distinctive plaid wool overall pattern is on the glove backs, and the palms and knuckles are made of a tough suede leather. Available in mens’ sizes L/XL.

This dapper mole is all dressed up and ready to greet visitors to your garden. Measures 22 inches high by 11.5 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep. Made of resin. Contact SPI Home, 377 Swift Avenue, South San Francisco, Calif., 94080; by phone at 800-223-4438; fax: 800-223-4428; email: info@spi-home.com.

Spring is almost here, and this sweet little bunny rabbit is taking a break from hopping around your yard! Your customers will appreciate this statue and its level of detail as it sits still in their yard or garden. Made of polyresin/polystone. Weight: 1 pound. Dimensions: 6.25 inches by 4.25 inches by 6.75 inches.

Red Carpet Studios introduces the Wind Art Collection that includes large kinetic spinners, fishing pole stakes and kinetic rustic balancers for 2018. The new Glass Vine spinner is 75 inches tall with glass accents for any garden or outdoor space. Suggested retail is $99.99. RCS has added more than 125 new items to the line, including planters, statuary, spinner stakes and chimes. For more information, visit our website or call 877-985-0405.

Peter Rabbit’s Secret Garden figurines and accessories are perfect for miniature gardeners of all ages. Beautifully painted and made using durable plastic for inside and outside gardens. Your customers can collect, create and imagine the tale of Peter Rabbit just in time for their spring gardens and Easter baskets!

North Country Wind Bells® has designed and created these original and authentic wind bells based on the rugged coast of Maine since 1975. Themes include Nautical, Wilderness, Whimsical and Pets, too! There are six collections and over 61 melodies to choose from that fit in any storefront in any part of the country. Retailers tell us all the time that our wind bells are great hits for gift-giving for birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, weddings and even bereavements. Proudly made in Maine, USA!

Featherock’s 100 percent natural pumice rock is safe in fire features and can be used as an alternative to lava rock. Pumice combines the natural, rugged look of lava rock with the modern style of fire pit glass. Available in ¼-inch gravel to 6-inch cobbles in 5-pound bags or bulk bags. This is the perfect product for both DIY landscapers and professionals alike!

Echo Valley expands its popular line of solar Edison lighting products with the introduction of its stylish and multi-functional Vintage Edison Solar String Lights. Sold as a 10-piece set, each bulb contains two amber LED filaments that, when lit, are stunning to behold. The included solar panel can be clipped atop a patio umbrella or staked in the ground if draping the lights from overhanging limbs and structures. At 17 feet (overall length), the Vintage Edison Solar String Lights can be used in multiple settings, creating an inviting and relaxing ambiance. Attractively packaged and affordably priced, these are sure to be among the most sought-after products this spring. Call Echo Valley at 800-592-9678 for more information or visit them on the web.

Did you know that the Flower Fairies have a secret? Their wings glow in the sunlight, and that means they are happy and ready to play in the garden! The full line of Flower Fairies Secret Garden figurines and accessories are perfect for miniature gardeners of all ages. Beautifully painted and made using durable plastic for inside and outside gardens. Your customers can collect, create, and imagine the durable Flower Fairies glowing in their spring gardens!

Featherock’s Small Single Hole Planter is now available in a small, half crate of 32 pieces or a regular crate of 64 pieces. Each option has its benefits, with the small crate reducing weight and freight cost, and the regular crate earning an additional 10 percent volume discount. The Small Single Hole Planter is Featherock’s most popular sized pumice planter! Try it as an accent in a fairy garden or as the star of a succulent arrangement workshop.

Harness the energy of the wind and sun courtesy of Echo Valley’s new exquisite Rainbow Leaf — Thermometer Spinner Stake. Combining elements of steel and glass, this kinetic marvel provides rotational movement on a windy day while simultaneously functioning as an outdoor thermometer. The glow-in-the-dark PVC face of the thermometer allows it to be read at night, and the colorful, eye-catching beaded glass makes it a natural for use as a focal point in any landscape setting. Packaged in an attractive open-faced color window box, the spinner is giftable and shelf-ready. Available now, call Echo Valley at 800-592-9678 for more information or visit them on the web.

The Salad Box, available exclusively from Hydrofarm, is great for anyone who wants to keep a constant supply of fresh salad greens and herbs handy and ready for harvesting. It can be used outdoors or indoors under grow lights, and fits perfectly under Hydrofarm’s Jump Start 2-foot T5 Grow Light System. Using a passive hydroponics method, the Salad Box requires no electricity and very little maintenance. Featuring eight plant sites, the Salad Box includes everything needed (except the water) to turn seedlings into salad. Comes with eight “Root Wraps,” reservoir tray, lid, top-off bottle, net cups, drain plugs and nutrients.

Seed tape is convenient, easy to use and eliminates thinning as seeds are evenly spaced on the paper tape. Countertop displays can be merchandised with your seed displays and multiple placements on endcaps and register checkout counters.

The Duogrow holds 12 liters of water, releasing it to the roots of the plants in its two pots, as and when the plants need it. This is a great garden for any patio or sundeck. Move your Duogrow indoors with the addition of SunBlaster Lighting and accessories and grow all year round.

Exclusively available from Hydrofarm, the new Sunburst CMh System combines two extremely popular products — the Sunburst and Phantom CMh systems — into a single unit that brings the benefits of ceramic metal halide lighting to small spaces with the Sunburst’s compact, all-in-one format. The Sunburst CMh has a built-in digital ballast designed specifically to run the 315W ceramic metal halide lamp (included), which in this system operates in the horizontal position. The reflector’s interior is 95 percent hammertone aluminum and offers excellent uniformity and diffusion. Offered in two different lamp color temperature options: 3100K or 4200K, and features dual input voltage of 120-240V. Carries a 3-year warranty.

Retail Garden Center outlets have very different greenhouse needs than their commercial production and backyard counterparts might. That’s why Gothic Arch Greenhouses has gone to great lengths to ensure our retail garden center customers have access to the very distinct greenhouses, accessories and supplies they require to help their businesses grow. Ideally, a retail garden center is a complete and comprehensive retail facility with areas for living plants and various products, availability for storage and specified areas for shipping and receiving. Our experienced, knowledgeable and friendly staff offers the best customer service in the industry and will get you on the right track. We offer a variety of Retail Garden Centers designed much like a growing house to satisfy your product’s need for sunlight and appropriate ventilation, so that you are able to sell year round. We provide economical and mobile structures that allow additional plant sales, as well as comfort to your customers while shopping. Our complete packages are engineered for simple installation, ready for future expansion and offer superior strength. In our comprehensive range of structures and products, the possibilities are endless!

Fix-N-Grow is a legume inoculant, a mixture of beneficial bacteria suspended in easy-to-use granules. These bacteria take free atmospheric nitrogen and attach it to the roots of beans, peas and cowpeas, where it is converted and used by plants.

The Quadgrow holds 30 liters of water, releasing it to the roots as the plants need it. Ideal for growing tomatoes, beans, aubergines, peas, peppers and anything else that is a little larger. The Quadgrow can also be moved indoors when desired.

Southwest Agri-Plastics is proud to offer Dura-Bench Original and Dura-Bench Ultra plastic bench tops. All Dura-Bench products are engineered to replace wood, wire and expanded metal on greenhouse benches at a comparable price. The non-porous polypropylene plastic material eliminates rot, cracks, splinters, rust and sharp edges that are found on other types of bench tops.

This new sign system accommodates signs of a quarter inch of rigid material and pole pocket banners. Options include wall-mounted systems, portable units and brackets for mounting on our quality shade structures. Take your sign and graphics program to new heights with our versatile sign hardware systems. Please visit our website and go to Sign Solutions to find new ways to improve your signage program. 317-402-8400. Made in the USA.

New in our 2018 Spring Collection is the Double Sided Wooden Rack. This rack is perfect for center aisles and provides sight lines for a cleaner in-store look. It is excellent for displaying Package Units, Value Packs and Boxed Units. The rack is shoppable from two sides and can be placed side-by-side for an impactful display. Place header cards on the sides of the rack for additional signage.

Bring the “wow” to your garden center entrance with our pole displays. Bring the “wow” to your local cities with our Water-and Labor-saving baskets. Bring the “wow” to your retail customers with our Weekender Baskets. All of our baskets have an unheard of 10-year warranty. Our iron fits on any type of pole, round or square, 3 to 8 inches. Beautifying the U.S. and Canada from backyard to main street. 

The Central Florida Ferns & Foliage Pixie Plants mix is a collection of ferns, foliage and succulents for glass terrarium gardens, container mini-gardens or succulent gardens. Its fern selection includes Pteris, mahogany, maidenhair, bird’s nest, Boston types, Selaginella, Autumn, Korean rock and more; to Ficus, ivy, begonias, Peperomia, Fittonia, Pilea, Hypoestes, palms and baby tears. The 2-inch garden plants give mini gardens variety, texture and interest.

A marvelous clematis with large white and blush flowers. Petals have a wavy edge, and the dramatic burgundy anthers create a stunning display as it produces a mass of flowers from the base of the plant to the top. It grows well in a partial shady area or full sun. Blooms May through June and August through September. Grows to a height of 3-4 feet and takes a hard prune in early spring. Available from Donahue’s Clematis Specialists, Faribault, Minn., 507-334-8404.

From the very beginning, our farms in Maine and Wethersfield, Conn. produced much of the seed we offered for sale. Over the years, we have contracted with growers to produce seed that meets the needs of our demanding family, farmers and gardeners; untreated, weed-free, with a germination percentage that far exceeds the federal standard. As USDA certified organic varieties became available that were able to meet those exacting standards, we’ve offered them to our customers. Today, all of the garden seed we offer must still meet every one of those standards — plus, we’ve made a commitment not to sell any seed that has been produced through genetic engineering (The GE Free Promise). We offer 24 certified organic varieties in retail packets. These varieties were chosen because they offer many ways to enjoy them; as sprouts, micro-greens, shoots, baby greens, juice, and of course delicious mature vegetables, too! There are even organic nasturtiums for edible flowers.

‘Red Riding Hood’ is a new, thickly petaled, single-flowered rosey-pink selection that is vigorous and fills pots quickly. Covered in blooms from late July to October, this new selection is a grower and gardener’s dream with many flowers and strong, upright stems. Market these as garden plants planted en masse, and perfect for the front of the border, or as a gift plant in a 6-inch pot for late summer impulse sales. Grows to 18 inches.

If you are looking for a new and unique potato among the sea of whites, yellows, reds and russets, give Vermillion a try. With red skin and deep pink flesh, this fingerling variety is sure to wow your customers with its striking color. Vermillion has a creamy texture and earthy taste and is suitable for a wide range of cooking; try it roasted with rosemary and paired with steak and a salad. A drought-resistant, mid-to-late season variety that’s also resistant to viruses, splitting and powdery scab. This is a wonderful variety for the specialty market. Direct from our family to yours, Vermillion is an Irish Eyes exclusive.

Green retailers have distinct challenges that standard, off-the-shelf, point-of-sale systems aren’t designed to manage — particularly production oversight of living inventory. Implementing a POS solution built specifically for growers, such as Rapid Garden POS, allows you to effectively:

1. Convert inventory from single units to combined items with production kitting tools. Our system even recommends a suggested price based on items used.

2. Transition growing inventory into larger containers (and price points). Rapid Garden POS works just as easily in reverse for plants that you divide or those that need to be nursed back to a sellable condition.

 3. View real-time data, so you can track exactly where your production inventory is and its current status — without the cost of an enterprise-level production management system. Adapt your existing systems and tools into a central solution that manages dispatch and service, delivery, shipping and fulfillment, accounting and more!

The Perfect Plant, a customizable plant and pest guide, is now available for garden retailers on their websites. Within seconds, customers can find exactly what they are looking for and create a shopping list, making your time spent with customers more effective and efficient. This new feature is also great for employees to quickly guide customers to plant choices within your nursery. Available as an in-store kiosk and for your website!

Editor’s note: Though family-owned companies are not unusual, working with loved ones presents different challenges as well as advantages. We spoke with Call and Longfellow, and two other husband-and-wife teams who own garden centers, to find out what it’s like working together as spouses in this industry.

Alice Longfellow always knew she wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps by working in the industry she grew up in. But unlike many second-generation garden center owners who take the reins from their parents and work alongside their siblings, she wanted to run her own company separate from the one her father and mother started.

“My brother Scott is the one who owns the family business now. He is four years older, so it was logical. He was ready to move into that position before I was,” Longfellow says, adding that their four other siblings do not work in the industry. “My parents knew Scott was going to take over, so as a result, they were very supportive of me [owning my own business].”

Longfellow and her brother don’t compete, and they’ll swap ideas and even share numbers because the company her parents founded, Longfellow’s Greenhouses, in Manchester, Maine, is a 24-hour drive from the one she operates, Longfellow’s Garden Center, in Centertown, Mo.

“My brother and I are really best friends, and will help each other in any way we can,” Longfellow says.

What Longfellow didn’t plan on was falling in love with a man who also grew up in the horticulture industry.

Children who work in the business? They have a son and daughter who worked in the business growing up but are pursuing different paths as adults.

Longfellow met the man who would eventually be her husband and business partner, Bob Call, at a bedding plants conference in Michigan.

“We actually met on the tour part of the conference,” says Longfellow, who attended the event with her father, Lawrence. “We happened to be on the same bus, and we just started a conversation at one of the stops, and then ended up sitting together at the meal that night. We kept running into each other at the various classes, and at the end of the four days, I just knew something was going to happen. Even though we were 1,500 miles apart — he’s from Missouri, and I’m from Maine — I knew right away.”

They dated long distance for a while and would visit each other when they could. Before cell phones and social media, they showed their affection by sending letters and even cookies through the mail. Call likes to say he knew they would eventually get married after she made him a lobster dinner during one particular trip; Longfellow says she knew that first weekend they met. “But aren’t women more intuitive on things like that, anyway?” she says.

Like Longfellow, Call didn’t want to take over the business his parents started, D & R Plants (after Dorothy and Richard Call,) though he was a partner with his dad before Richard retired. But he didn’t want to pursue a separate business, either. After his dad sold the California, Mo.-based company, Call continued to work with the new owner of D & R Plants, while supporting Longfellow’s dream of owning her own company.

“He had his reservations [about owning a business], but he could see my passion for it, and he knew that I really wanted to do this,” Longfellow says. “And, of course, he had to have his signature on the loan and had to be an owner.”

In 1987, Longfellow achieved her goal of owning her own store, and founded Longfellow’s Garden Center at 28 years old. Five years later, Call officially joined the business as operations manager.

“That’s one of the problems we’ve had — he has never been as anxious to [own a business] as I have,” Longfellow says. “But he has been a tremendous support. Being 10 years older, he had more experiences in life and different experiences in life, and I would look to him for advice. Even though it wasn’t his passion, he still did it and did a good job at it.”

Longfellow had a vision for her company, where she would connect the dots for customers — not just selling plants and products, but helping them create complete landscapes.

“When I started my own business, I really enjoyed landscape design and helping people solve problems, not just on the bedding end, but on the whole home landscape, and we really have accomplished that,” says Longfellow, who has a degree in plant and earth sciences. “That is what we are known for in our area: residential landscape design, and everything that goes along with it.”

Longfellow is the face of the company that carries her name. She hosts a gardening program on the local radio station. On the garden center’s website, there is a page called “Ask Alice,” where customers can browse common gardening questions or submit their own. When she answers the phone, customers get excited that they are talking to the Alice Longfellow. But Call is very much a part of the business; like 90 percent of independent garden centers, Longfellow’s is family-owned.

Like many family-owned companies, Longfellow and Call each assumed a role based on interests, skills and passions. Longfellow used to manage the landscaping side of the business, while Call has always managed greenhouse and nursery operations. Longfellow now oversees retail operations, marketing and public relations, but the changing retail market also demanded new roles for the couple.

“Business is different now than in the ’70s when our families were in business. We had to learn to use computers and all of that,” Call says. “The social media that’s out there now, I never thought we would have anything like that. It’s been a challenge for both of us.” Longfellow manages the social media accounts now, but is hoping to hire someone soon.

Growing pains also presented new hurdles. Initially, the business was only going to take on landscape supply and design, but eventually, Longfellow started managing installations, too. Though both thought bedding plants would be their bread-and-butter, trees and shrubs are the most profitable plants. The company has had to evolve with new consumer demands, Call says.

“The type of customer is different. They expect us to have 2-inch maple trees tomorrow because they want them. Everything is high speed,” Call says. Their focus on service has helped them compete with big box stores in their area. “It’s a challenge, but you know what, there are always going to be challenges, and you just have to find solutions to them.”

Customers can be demanding, but finding, and retaining, employees has posed the greatest difficulty for both Longfellow and Call, who are not immune to the industry-wide hiring and labor struggle.

“For me, my greatest challenge has been understanding employees and their needs and how to train them and get them to do their job, and me to be able to step back and let them do their jobs,” Longfellow says. “It has taken me 30 years to figure out how to do that. I finally turned a corner and made some progress. I had a very good consultant and worked with him with six years, and he helped me back off.”

“I get too close to my employees, and sometimes that can be a problem,” Call says. “When we have fallouts, I find it’s hard to discipline them or point things out or get to the point of having to let them go because I’ve become too friendly with them.”

One of the biggest lessons Longfellow and Call had to learn was how to manage their own relationship and keep work life separate from their home life.

“Never show divisiveness in front of employees or pit one against the other,” Call says. “We’ve had that happen. So stand a united front on things, and save those discussions for private. We had to establish ground rules.”

“Things like, we will not talk about work at such and such time,” Longfellow adds. “We did bring it home a lot, and our kids, that will be the first thing they say. We finally got a little bit smarter about that. Lay down ground rules, like that you will take these days off during the week. Or you will not work past this time. Or, no matter what, you will not take on that person’s job.”

Reviewing those rules is just as important as establishing them. In 2016, after finally tracking her hours, Longfellow realized that she worked 3,100 hours that year, which included eight, 80-hour weeks in a row in spring. That was too much, Longfellow says, especially at 58 years old.

For the most part, working together as husband and wife provided more benefits than challenges, though.

“At the end of the day, the decision is really Alice’s decision, and I recognized that I needed to back down because at the end of the day, she was the boss,” Call says.

“But through the years, I did learn that I need to listen to him and get his input because he has very good ideas as well,” she says.

As much as you try to establish boundaries between work and home life, any IGC owner will tell you it’s tough to separate the two, especially when both spouses are involved and leading the business. But that’s not always a bad thing.

“We feed off each other very well, so if Alice is having a bad day, I’m having an especially good one,” Call says. “We sense when we need to support the other one a little extra. We don’t get home at night, and she’s coming from a different job, and I find out she’s had a crummy day. I’ve known about it since 9 o’clock in the morning.” 

Longfellow says Call has always been her biggest support system, and she appreciates his calm, steady nature. They have complete trust in each other, which makes running a business easy and fun.

“I love being around Bob. I love his personality, I love sharing things with him. He’s my best friend, so therefore working together, I get to spend time with my best friend,” she says. “We both have our different areas at the garden center, and we just love getting caught up with what happened that day.”

How they met: While attending the University of Wisconsin, both received horticulture degrees and had classes together.

The professional and married lives of Christine Stenli and her husband Alec are closely connected. Their business, Northern Pines Greenery — a retailer with locations in Minocqua and Hazelhurst, Wis. — was founded in April, 2000, only two weeks after they were married.

Since launching their business venture together, the Stenlis have relied on each other to carve out a market for their garden center, each contributing their own interests and knowledge in pursuit of success. We asked Christine how she and Alec manage to balance the personal and business facets of their life together.

Garden Center: Does Northern Pines Greenery have any specialties or unique features you’d like to mention?

Alec Stenli: Since we live in far northern Wisconsin, we are one of the only year-round garden centers in the area. We have many product lines for all four seasons, like grilling supplies from Weber and Primo, trees, shrubs, perennials, fruits, annuals, veggies and hanging baskets, etc. [We’re a] Belgard hardscapes dealer, outdoor power equipment dealer for Husqvarna, Ariens, Hustler Turf, Cub Cadet, Generac, and Scag, full-service center for all small engines, natural stone supplier, cultured and thin veneer dealer, [we sell] water garden supplies, outdoor furniture, gifts, fertilizers, and much more.

Christine Stenli: We met in the fall of 1996 while attending college at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Alec had transferred up to UW-River Falls and was a junior, and I was starting my sophomore year. We had a lot of classes together while we were going for our degrees in horticulture. We started dating in the fall of 1997. 

CS: We are expecting our first child, a son, in April 2018. It has always been our dream to someday turn the business over to our child. While we would love for our son to take over the business, we are going to let him make his own decision when the time comes.  

CS: We love working together and we get along really well. We play off of each other so that when a customer comes in looking for something that isn’t in one of our wheelhouses, we can go to the other and say, “I have this customer looking for something I don’t have a lot of knowledge on. Can you help them out?” It really takes a special kind of couple who can work together.

GC: When you first decided to open this business, did you share the same vision for what it would be, or did you have different opinions on how you wanted to approach it?

AS: We did share the same vision for what our garden center would be. We have worked really hard over the years to bring Northern Pines Greenery, Inc. to where it is today. We have added onto the original store and changed the interior and exterior in stages over the last 17 years with a new addition to the store to happen in early 2018.

CS: We split up the roles to play on our strengths. Alec has more of the business and landscaping background, so he takes care of all of the outdoor power equipment, natural stone and Belgard hardscape products. We also work with more than a hundred landscape and ground maintenance contractors, so he works with them to make sure they have everything they need for their projects. I have more of the retail background, so I take care of the plant materials and all of the garden center and gift related items and doing the books.  

AS: Our greatest challenges have been employees and finding product lines for the winter months. Our area is a big tourist area, where we go from about 10,000 people during the winter to over 100,000 people during the summer. So, finding a product line to generate sales in the winter had been a challenge until we brought on the outdoor power equipment lines and added the small engine service center in 2014. Snow throwers and chainsaws are big in our area during the winter months, as we can get some big snowfalls and there are forest areas that get harvested for lumber that are only accessible in the winter months.

CS: Alec’s background in business and landscaping has helped our business grow over the years. He also loves being outdoors and working alongside our employees. I love the plant materials and the gifts and have been able to grow that over the years.

GC: More than 90 percent of independent garden centers are family-owned. What advice do you have for other husband/wife leadership teams for successfully working together?

CS: Treat each other with respect. Just like a marriage, there are good days and bad days in business. You have to know that business is business and personal is personal and not confuse the two, otherwise problems can arise that may affect either one of those relationships.

AS: We do try and take some time for just ourselves but it is hard at times. We are so involved in our business that there are times we take work home with us because there just isn’t enough time at work to get it done. The nice thing is that we live about 40 minutes from our business, so we have time to de-stress on our way home. So, when we get home, the problems of the day, if any, have been taken care of before we get there. Then we can just focus on relaxing at home with each other and our three dogs who come to work with us.

CS: The best part of working with each other is that we know that we are not in it alone. If I have a problem that I can’t figure out how to handle or make work, I know that I can go to Alec, and he will give me his opinion on how to solve the problem. Alec does the same for me if he has something he’s been working on and it seems like it isn’t working the way he wanted it to. We are always bouncing ideas off of each other.

How they met: Margy worked at the Dairy Queen store in Kingston, Pa., close to Ed’s hometown of Forty Fort, and “Ed was one of my steadiest customers,” she says, laughing. After seeing each other around town, they finally started talking one evening while they were both out with friends at a local watering hole.

Children who work in the business? They have three children. Ed Jr., a teacher, works part time in the summer. Sara works for a local insurance firm and Jim, a recent college graduate, has worked on the landscape crew for six years.

Garden Center: You opened your business, what is now known as Edward's Garden Center, in 1978, and got married a year later. Did you both want to own your own business? Did you have the same vision for what that company would be? 

Ed Kopec: I went to a community college for two years, and I had a little grass cutting business. The first truck I purchased cost $250, and I paid my way through school. Then I went in a partnership with a fellow, and he’s still in business today. That partnership lasted three-and-a-half years. We split the partnership up in 1978, and that’s when I went on my own. It was tough because back then, the interest rates were about 19 percent. So, to start a new business was not easy, and Margy was just getting out of college, but we made it work.

Margy Kopec: I never really expected that my life would take a turn that way. I went to college to get an accounting degree, but I never dreamed that someday I would end up owning a business with my husband. It was never in my realm of thought. But once we started dating and kind of knew that things were heading in that direction, I knew I’d someday be part of the business. It’s a lot of hard work, and we made sacrifices along the way, but it’s all worked out.

MK: Finding more things to involve children. That is the route to go, as they are our younger generation, and hopefully that will get them more interested in the Earth and all things garden. 

EK: My passion is just the industry, really. I’ve always had an interest in it. I love being creative. Our garden center is more different than any garden center that I’ve ever visited. We reinvest heavily into the garden center and pick new projects each year. We built a concession stand this year. Last week, we just got done putting a sound system in. We’re always doing something different and neat, and I love the creative side of it.

MK: I do tours with groups of children from different schools in the area, day cares, summer camps, and that’s been very successful. We have 10 animal stations here, and at each animal station, we have popsicle sticks. They’re numbered 1 through 10. I talk a bit about the animals, [explaining] what the animals eat and where they go in the winter. One of our employees who is in charge of animals will be with me at the time, and she will bring them out for children to see and pet. At each stop, children will collect a stick that they count along the way, and at the end we provide all of the children with a goodie bag. We didn’t charge when we started doing the tours, and then two years ago we decided, just to cover our costs a little bit, that we would charge a nominal fee.

We try to make it about the kids at our garden center, and that’s worked out very well for us. We have customers who come in with their children repeatedly just because the kids love to come. In the school groups we’ve had through, some of them have [included] children who are underprivileged. I always ask, “How many of you have been here before?” Our findings have been that a lot of kids maybe don’t get the opportunity to come to a garden center with their families, so they really enjoy the time they spend here.

EK: I love what I do. I have had the good fortune of surrounding myself with an incredibly talented team. They are dedicated to making Edward’s Garden Center a true destination.

GC: More than 90 percent of independent garden centers are family-owned. What advice do you have for other husband-wife teams for successfully working together?

EK: We’ve got a great relationship. I never bring problems home. I leave them at work. We share stories about the business but really only positive things. We leave the negatives out. If I have a lousy day, I want to forget about it, so I throw it over my shoulder, and that’s the end of it. That’s been beneficial.

MK: I think being a support system for one another. Just being there for each other. We’ve always gotten along very well otherwise and carried it through the business, as well.

EK: We never missed any of our children’s school activities, never missed their sporting events. I would just work that into my schedule. Maybe I’d have to go back later at night to catch up on what I missed during the day. And I am always home for dinner.

MK: We always made time for family. That’s really most important. Everything else comes second. But that has seemed to work out best for us. 

EK: In 2007, Margy and I decided to expand both the garden center and the landscaping business, and I brought a consultant in for about seven months with the plan of taking the business to the next level. We invested about a quarter of a million dollars in both the garden center and the landscaping business, buying equipment. Timing was bad because the economy crashed. It was tough. But we just sold some trucks off, our estimators ended up leaving for one reason or another, and I basically scaled back because of the way things were. When I scaled back, I liked it. The garden center was growing, the wholesale business was growing, and getting up in age, it was more comfortable being a little bit smaller in size. When I scaled back to six or seven employees on the landscaping business, I was able to cherry pick the work that we were doing and take better jobs, and that’s been very beneficial.

EK: I went on my own [in 1978] and started just the landscaping maintenance side of the business. Margy and I purchased a property in 1983, which has terrific highway exposure, and people would drive in to our site and want to buy trees and plants that I had set aside for landscapes. I said, “I have to be crazy. It’s a lot easier to put the shrub in the back of their car and get paid and have them drive away.” So that’s when the idea for a garden center came to mind. In 1993/1994, when we opened the garden center, our name changed to Edward’s Garden Center (DBA), but we’re still Edward’s Landscaping Service.

On the wholesale side, we mostly sold contractors aggregates and mulch. There was a wholesale seed supplier that was a half mile from us. All landscapers bought seed and fertilizer from them and topsoil/mulch from us. About four years ago, that business went out of business, and we saw an opportunity, so we built a warehouse. And everything they used to sell to contractors, we now sell to them. It’s an excellent business, and it really complements the garden center. We might have a slower day at the garden center and a terrific day wholesale, and vice versa.

EK: About four years ago, we started a program called “We plan, You plant.” We noticed that when people would come into the garden center, they were just puzzled by the amount of plants and trees and didn’t know where to start — that kind of spurred this on. A homeowner will bring in pictures of an area that they want to have landscaped as well as a very rough measurement, and we walk them through the garden center to get a feel for what their tastes are, and then we draw a design up. If they spend $500 or more on retail plant material, we deliver the plants and set them up exactly the way they should be to be planted. This year to date, we did $108,000 in the We Plan, You Plant service. In 2016, we did $60,000.

MK: Over the years, I have learned to trust Ed with all of his business decisions. Everything he’s ever done, he’s always put a lot of thought into things before actually jumping on the ideas. Of the two of us, I’m certainly more cautious and conservative, and he always wants to go ahead with the ideas. Maybe I’m a little bit more grounded, but at the same time, I’m willing to take chances because I know we’ve never been steered wrong. Ed’s got a good business head.

Given that we spend a significant portion of our life at work, it’s easy to understand how workplace romances get started. However, with harassment in the workplace a common topic in the current news cycle, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when considering office relationships:

1. Roles. Power imbalances are taboo in workplace relationships. Owners and direct managers need to be particularly mindful as employees may fear retaliation and the loss of their job or upward mobility should they say no or if things end in a breakup. Bottom line, no one should ever date a supervisee. If a relationship begins, immediately move supervision to someone else.

2. Inappropriateness of flirting and sexual banter. Flirting is likely to make at least some employees and coworkers feel uncomfortable. Additionally, there is absolutely no place in today’s workplace for sexual comments. Not ever! If you or one of your employees is interested in someone, make sure that interest is expressed respectfully and reciprocated. Sexual comments and unwanted advances can lead to accusations of sexual harassment.

3. Professionalism. When there is a romantic relationship at work, it is each individual’s job to keep their dating separate from their work, to treat everyone fairly, and to maintain professionalism at all times. Having a fight? Not OK to bring it into work. Physical affection? Stays outside the workplace. Long lunches or breaks? Unacceptable. Preferential treatment, private jokes, lingering glances, or excluding others? Inexcusable.

4. Potential relationship issues/fallout: Whether it’s you or an employee, if the vast majority of your relationships end in drama and hurt, or you’re a serial dater, I strongly advise against a workplace romance. Good breakups require maintaining privacy and treating the other person with dignity and respect. Tough to do when someone is hurting.

In order to keep a productive, united workplace, ask employees to predetermine how they will handle things if the relationship doesn’t work out. Request that they refrain from discussing relationship ups and downs or a breakup with co-workers. If you see them moving from relationship to relationship, ask that they not start another workplace romance after they’ve broken someone’s heart. It’s one thing to realize two people aren’t a match. It’s another thing to regularly remind a co-worker that they aren’t enough.

5. Address dating head-on. People are always watching, and gossip is a natural consequence when behaviors change. Ask employees to let others know if they decide to start dating. They shouldn’t elaborate beyond the fact that others might have noticed their interest in each other and that they are dating.

6. Employees or co-workers already married? The standard is to keep it professional at all times. This entails protecting their relationship, employees and colleagues by refraining from complaining, talking about their relationship, or bringing arguments into the workplace.

7. Supervising dating employees? Once again, the standard is professionalism at all times. If their behaviors are negatively impacting their performance, other employees or workplace stability, it’s your job to hold them accountable for their workplace conduct.

At the end of the day, people are hired to do a job. Encourage employees to keep their eye on their job and their private life private. Everyone wins when workplaces are free of relationship drama.

Sherene is a widely acclaimed speaker, author and coach who demystifies how to lead, motivate and resolve conflict for optimal results. Learn how Sherene can empower and equip your team to be even more successful at sherenemchenry.com.

A series of blazes destroyed homes and businesses throughout Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in October.

There was very little warning when a veritable firestorm ravaged wooded and residential areas throughout Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in California, destroying homes and businesses by the thousands.

Several separate fires were active in the region after the initial wildfires began on Oct. 8. According to CNN, at least 41 people were killed by the blazes, with nearly double that number of people reported missing by the time the fires were contained later in the month. More than 217,000 acres of property and 5,700 structures had been scorched. Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated as entire neighborhoods were burnt down.

One city hit especially hard by the fires was Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, which several independent garden centers call home. Although the store itself wasn’t damaged by the fires, many customers of King’s Nursery in Santa Rosa weren’t as fortunate.

“There are about 5,000 homes that have been lost in our area, and those folks were our customers,” says manager Susan Hatch. “People come in and share their stories about, if not losing their home, then having to flee for their lives. It was pretty heart-wrenching here.”

Hatch adds that none of her employees lost their homes to the wildfires, but several were evacuated for most of the following week.

At Bennett Valley Gardens in Santa Rosa, operations were closed down in order to not interfere with the ongoing evacuations in the area, says store manager Taylor Black.

“We did close down for four or five days,” Black says. “For a couple days, there were some evacuations in our neighborhood, and then we also just wanted to shut down so there weren’t people on the roads unnecessarily.”

As a result, Black says that business took a hit at Bennett Valley Gardens, but fortunately, the building was untouched. The situation was similar at Prickett’s Nursery, which operates two locations in Santa Rosa and nearby Healdsburg. Both were shut down due to the active evacuation in Santa Rosa, but neither was damaged by the fires.

“The damage we had was basically from not being able to water [the plants] because there was no power, and we’re on well water,” says co-owner Deanna Tubbs.

Bloom’s Wholesale Nursery, a grower in the area that supplies green goods to some Santa Rosa retailers including King’s Nursery, was also damaged in the fires but is working to return to regular operations. Comment from the owners of Bloom’s Wholesale Nursery was not available to Garden Center magazine by press time.

The unprecedented destruction from the fires left thousands of Central Californians without homes and with no choice but to rely on the mercy and kindness of their neighbors. Relief initiatives by private and public entities were launched across the impacted counties, and people opened their homes to friends and strangers in need.

“The amount of support that the community has given to one another has just been a beautiful thing,” Black says. “It’s county-wide. Shelters and donation centers had to shut down because they had so many donations coming their way. Strangers being kind and helpful to one another — I think there’s some beauty in all of it.”

With their businesses intact but their neighbors and clients suffering, garden centers in and around Santa Rosa saw opportunities to make a difference.

In order to help some of its clientele return to normalcy, Prickett’s Nursery is offering discounts to those looking to replace plants lost to the flames.

“We’re inviting our customers to fill out an application and turn it into us, and we’re giving them 25 percent off discount vouchers, which are good until 2021 for them to use at the nursery so they can re-landscape,” Tubbs says. “Applications are starting to come in. Some of the folks have lost their homes, and they’re not ready to landscape yet. We also have several customers that have just lost their landscapes, where the fire came right up to their house. Some of those folks are ready to make things green again and re-plant. They are very fortunate, for sure.”

The fires have also affected the local schools, Tubbs says. An elementary school building in the Mark West Union School District was closed down due to damage, so Prickett’s Nursery has coordinated multiple charity efforts to help the district recover, including a fairy gardening workshop, from which 25 percent of the proceeds went toward repairs for the damaged school. Also, for two days in December, Tubbs says 20 percent of cut tree sales will go to the district.

Sloat Garden Center, which operates 14 stores throughout California, announced that it will donate 10 percent of pre-tax sales from Dec. 1-3 to North Bay Fire Relief, with a minimum donation of $25,000. All donations will benefit the Sonoma Community Resilience Fund.

Unlike some other natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires often strike with little to no advanced notice. Tubbs says officials in her region determined that the October fires began with a sparking transformer setting fire to nearby foliage — combined with high winds and dry conditions, the flames expanded rapidly.

“It’s one of those things that nobody would expect for our area at all,” Tubbs says. “I don’t know that there’s a way to really prepare for anything like that.”

“There were four major fires in our county at the same time. It was nuts,” Hatch says. “The weather was very, very dry and the wind was coming out of the east, which was unusual. Any small spark was fanned into a large flame very quickly.”

Aside from the direct damage caused by the wildfires, there are unexpected side effects that survivors must be aware of. According to FEMA, regions recently hit by forest fires are at an elevated risk of flooding.

“Large scale fires like the ones that raged in October leave the land stripped of vegetation, charred and unable to absorb rainfall,” according to a press release from Sonoma County officials. “This creates the perfect conditions for flooding because of run-off.”

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While there’s only so much one can do to be ready for a sudden, out-of-control wildfire, there are resources available to inform citizens and businesses of unexpected natural disasters. Tubbs recommends Nixle, an app that forwards mobile alerts from emergency response agencies.

“I’d say everybody should sign up for those Nixle alerts. You sign up for it, and on your phone, you’ll get a text message — that’s how I knew about the fire,” she says.

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