Although Frank Vleck studied business, finance and accounting in college, his eventual career as a grower started as a high school hobby. This year, Vleck is celebrating 30 years of growing at his Wakefield Valley Nursery in Carroll County, Maryland.
“Everything I learned about landscaping and growing was through hands-in-the-dirt experience,” said Vleck, who started the nursery in the mid-1980s. “I tell my retail customers who get overwhelmed with what to plant that it isn’t rocket science – just follow the basic instructions and have fun. It should be a hobby, and it should be therapeutic both physically and mentally.”
When Vleck started his business, he concentrated on field-grown trees and shrubs, but has recently transitioned to smaller container grown plants to suit customers’ needs. “People are really into local plants,” said Vleck. “I grow all of my perennials here.”
The trend toward including native species in home landscapes led Vleck to offer a variety of native trees and shrubs. He says that most customers who come to the nursery seeking native species are well-informed about natives and know what they want. “The old idea about natives is that they become overgrown and messy,” he said, adding that he defines ‘natives’ as native to the mid-Atlantic region. “There are a lot of very useful natives that can be used in the home landscape, and I try to pick the best varieties for that. I want my customers to succeed – I want them to plant something once and be happy with it.”
Many of Vleck’s customers have relatively new homes that border on wooded areas, which means many requests for deer-resistant species. “I can sell them plants that are mainly deer-resistant,” said Vleck. “A lot of people realize that it’s a losing battle, but they’re happy with a few plants that aren’t being constantly chewed on.”
A unique service offered by Wakefield Valley Nursery is environmental property analysis. “A lot of local schools were doing rain gardens,” said Vleck. “I was supplying them with perennials and shrubs for their native gardens, so I thought it was a good idea to help homeowners learn more about how to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.” The service includes a visit to the homeowner’s property and guidance about how to maximize the property’s potential while maintaining environmentally sound growing practices.
In response to customers who want to include more useful plants in the landscape, Vleck offers small fruits including blueberries and blackberries. “About three years ago, it was a big thing,” he said, explaining customers’ interest in small fruits. “Then in the past year, the interest has dropped. I’m not really sure why.” Vleck says variations in interest may be due to factors such as popular health trends and food programs on television.
Wakefield Valley Nursery offers landscaping services for area customers. Vleck maintains a small staff and works with a local contractor for customers who want to include a hardscape. He fits the retail garden center schedule around the landscaping portion of the business by doing installations early in the week and opening the garden center later in the week. “I used to have the retail center open all week,” said Vleck. “Now, the garden center is open Thursday through Sunday, which are typically better days for retail sales.”
Vleck has noticed trends in regard to the need for landscaping services. He says the economy is a big influence on whether people want full service landscaping or prefer to do the work on their own. “When I first started the business, there were a lot of young homeowners who wanted to buy something, take it home and plant it themselves,” he said. “Then in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it seemed like everybody had money to spend, they just wanted me to put it in.”
For home landscapes, Vleck works with the customer to come up with a plan. “I try to get them to come out here to the nursery to find out what they want, then work on the design,” he said. “I use my knowledge to get the right plants in the right spots, and we go from there.”
One popular landscape species is crape myrtle, which Vleck says is easy to grow. However, he’s looking forward to seeing how crape myrtle recovers after this winter. “In real cold winters, some will die to the ground and come back up from the roots,” he said. “In the past four or five years, there’s been no die back so it will be interesting to see what they do this year.”
Like all growers, Vleck pays close attention to the weather, noting patterns and trends. “I keep my eye on the weather and am constantly looking at the long-range forecast,” he said. “In this area, we only have a certain amount of winter. A lot of times it’s mild in the first part of winter, and I know we’re going to get it on the other end. This year I think that’s reversed – the weather pattern seems as if it’s in a 10-week cycle, and once it changes, it will moderate.”
In previous years, Vleck has been able to do a lot of spring preparation fairly early in the season. However, this winter’s prolonged cold temperatures and continuous snow cover might mean a late start to the growing season. “My fear is that we have a short spring and gets real hot in mid-May, and people stop planting,” he said. “That’s one negative about this industry – everything is crammed into a short period in spring and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Vleck has started to prune young, sensitive plants that overwinter in a hoop greenhouse. “It will start getting warm in here soon,” he said as he checked plants for new buds. “Then it’ll be a cat-and-mouse game of getting it out before it starts growing, but not getting it out too early. By the middle to end of March, this will be empty and the newer plants I pot for spring will be in here until those plants go out for sale.”
One of Vleck’s plans for the future is building a stronger retail portion of the business. “When I first started, retail was very good,” he said, adding that the big box stores weren’t yet drawing customers from independent growers. “The retail market has changed, and people are more into convenience. I’m trying to focus on building the retail segment to where it used to be.”
Vleck currently uses social media to keep customers interested in what’s happening at the nursery, and plans to increase his use of social media to continually build his customer base. He posts photographs on Facebook to show the progression of plants from very early spring and throughout the growing season. He also uses Twitter, Pinterest and the nursery’s website at www.wakefieldvalleynursery.com .