From the ground up
by Sally Colby
Art and Candy VanderWaal had a dream: To own a greenhouse business. Although Candy describes herself as a city girl with no growing experience, Art grew up raising peppers and other vegetables in his family’s greenhouse in Holland.
The VanderWaals purchased a property in Elkhart Lake, WI, to start Millhome Nursery and Greenhouse. Art was working as an ag teacher and began working as a landscaper just prior to the business opening in 1997. He recently retired from his 33-year teaching career and grows for Millhome’s landscaping sector.
“We built it from the ground up,” said Candy, adding that the property included a run-down dairy barn and several sheds. “The first thing we did is take down all the stanchions in the barn and turn it into a retail area. After that, we put up our big greenhouse.” After Art and the trucker who delivered the gutter connect greenhouse unloaded the parts, Art assembled the greenhouse on his own. Five hoop houses provide additional growing space.
Art knew how to grow vegetables, so he adapted that knowledge to flowers and continued to learn along the way. “When we started, we grew mums in the greenhouse,” said Candy. “But they need to be grown outside because they need cool nights to set blossoms. That was a learning curve for us. Poinsettias have changed a lot since we started growing them – at first we had to pay attention to lighting for coloring. Now most poinsettias are day neutral.”
For the first several years, the VanderWaals opened in spring with the basics. “Everything was simple compared to what we have now,” she said. “We had geraniums, impatiens, marigolds, vinca vine, ageratum, salvia and spikes for basic baskets. We also had market packs, which sold well.”
Although there are several other retail greenhouses in the area, Candy said Millhome customers come for the unique plant selection among annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. Customers express appreciation for the greenhouse layout as well as the health and quality of plants.
Selecting colors each year can be somewhat challenging – one year people will seek muted tones, the next year they’ll want brighter colors. “We try to be aware of Pantone® colors,” said Candy. “During the summer, we go to shows to see what’s new. If it’s beautiful, people buy it.” While they continue to offer what has sold well in the past, new options are added each year.
Art and Candy have found that maintaining attractive beds and planters throughout the property help provide ideas for customers. “The beds closer to the greenhouse feature annuals, and farther out are perennials,” said Candy. “We have another perennial bed, a grass bed and another big annual bed. We also have a patio where we feature the perennial plant of the year.” Candy watches for what’s in bloom in the perennial house, then brings out those plants to decorate because customers will purchase plants in bloom.
While many customers arrive with a list of what they plan to purchase, once they’re in the greenhouses, they often find they’re attracted to plants that aren’t on the list. “We have planters throughout the greenhouse,” said Candy, adding that full planters provide a good visual for customers. “In some areas, we’ll put the components of the planters next to the planters so people will know what goes into them.”
Some customers visit to purchase native plants, while others are looking for plants that attract butterflies, pollinators or hummingbirds. “When things slow down with the annuals, we switch our displays to show what’s native to Wisconsin,” said Candy. “We’ll identify a bench with a hummingbird and a butterfly so people can shop from that bench, and more of those plants are alphabetized with the rest of the perennials. But we also pull them out so people can see the choices.”
Ambitious gardeners can purchase seeds in the retail area, but Candy is careful to offer seeds most likely to thrive in a home garden. “We want customers to have a successful gardening experience,” she said. “We provide as much help as we can. We plant and sell things that will help them.” She often has to convince customers to not purchase and plant vegetable starts before the last frost date.
Some of the Millhome staff come with prior greenhouse and nursery experience; others are trained on the job. Candy is adamant about cross-training employees – everyone has to do everything. “I’ve hired people who just love to garden,” she said, “and when Art was still teaching, we had a lot of students who came in through the school.” Several young people who have worked for the VanderWaals have received national recognition through FFA.
As the green industry changes over the years, the VanderWaals strive to listen to customers’ suggestions. “There have been years we’ve listened to our customers and put perennials out early, then the plants froze and they lost them,” she said. “We used to hold an open house the last weekend in April, and now we don’t have an open house. But I feel nervous if I don’t have the greenhouse ready to go by the beginning of April, so we’ve been planting earlier and earlier each year. Once the season starts, it moves fast.”
Like other growers, Art and Candy found that COVID initiated a boom for the green industry. Some customers who started gardening for the first time several years ago are sticking with it. “2020 was a huge year for vegetables,” said Candy. “We started in April and our greenhouse was wiped out of what we had by the beginning of June.” Last year the sale of vegetable starts dropped off sharply, which Candy attributed to customers who didn’t realize how much work it was to maintain a productive garden.
The increased interest in gardening has also brought some unexpected changes. When the VanderWaals started their business, there was no social media. Today, the family maintains a website and take advantage of social media to feature plants in bloom and provide gardening tips.
“It has forced me to be on social media more,” said Candy, “and now we’re seeing some younger faces. There’s a trend toward foliage plants too. A certain sector of people have always liked foliage plants, but this past year, it’s trending even more.”
Toward the end of the year, the VanderWaals begin to finish poinsettias and make wreaths for Christmas, both of which are sold in the farm store and as fundraisers. Candy said it’s been difficult to find greens the past several years because many Wisconsin tree growers are aging out and no one is taking over their farms.
While each growing season brings changes and challenges, the VanderWaals make every effort to remain flexible while ensuring customer success.
Visit Millhome Nursery and Greenhouse online at millhomenursery.com.
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