by Bill and Mary Weaver
Sargent’s Gardens, managed by Nick Sargent and his wife Nina, has grown from the small lot where Nick’s father Forrest started the business in 1971. As a result of wise business decisions and an emphasis on quality and service over the years, it has become a key supplier of quality plants, landscaping services and greenhouse goods in southeastern Minnesota. Today Sargent’s Gardens grows 40 acres of nursery stock and hires eight landscape crews and four professional landscape designers, in addition to its two acres of greenhouses growing annuals and perennials. They also have a second location, an in-town outlet with a floral shop and expanded gift shop, that is open year-round. Nina handles the communications between their different divisions and locations.
Attracting area customers with regular special events is important to Sargents, who do not sell wholesale. Sargents have found many ways to attract and involve customers, including a brand-new CSA this year, “Wee Wednesdays” classes for preschool children and a steady flow of free, hour-long informational seminars through the year.
Some of the topics of these classes include: Outstanding Perennial Combinations; Growing Terrific Tomatoes; Bringing WOW to containers; Straw Bale Gardening; Seed Starting; Rain Gardens 101; Orchids; Simple Techniques for Urban Gardens; Herbs; and Adding Berries and Fruits to Your Landscape.
These classes help their customers to be successful in their gardening efforts, and remind them that Sargents is a friendly, helpful place to go for their gardening and landscaping needs.
When we visited the greenhouses this spring, the potting line was in full swing, and the crew was hard at work transplanting into hanging baskets and large pots.
“This potting line will be running for months,” commented Nick Sargent, co-owner with his parents and wife. “We use five semi-loads of potting soil a year. We are fortunate to have a group of excellent, experienced managers who take care of much of the day-to-day organization of their departments.”
Paul Pike, for example, has been with Sargent’s since 1979. He orders most of the annual cuttings and seeded plugs.
Of Sargent’s two acres of greenhouse space, one and a half acres will be in annuals. Pot sizes have changed over the years. “We no longer plant in 4-packs. Sales of those have dropped off. It doesn’t pay for us to grow them ourselves any more. We grow 4 ½ and 6 ½ – inch pots instead, including 4 ½ inch “thriller, filler, spiller” combinations.”
In addition, demand has grown steadily for large pots, both of geraniums and mixed plants, for customers who want “instant gardens,” and also for hanging baskets. “Seventy percent of our plants are vegetatively propagated from cuttings,” Sargent explained, “and the rest are planted as seeded plugs.”
The floor space of the currently heated section of the greenhouse was filling rapidly with planted large containers and already-watered hanging baskets, including the first crop of combo baskets.
New perennials that Cathy Maxson, annual and perennial growing manager, finds most exciting include the stunning Daylily ‘Pastel Cheers’; a yellow iris, ‘germanica Eggnog’; salvia ‘Color Spires® Crystal Blue’; ‘Coral Charm’ peony; and Sedum ‘Frosted Fire.’ Sargent’s perennials fill about three quarters of a greenhouse and protected outdoor space. “Many of the perennials we replant and grow are from the ‘Proven Winner Series’,” commented Sargent. “We try to stock the new, branded varieties.”
In the 40-acre nursery, pruning starts about mid-March. Their trees are grown from “little whips” to 1 ¾ to 3 ½ inches in diameter on site, and all are sold B&B.
Sargent’s has an exceptionally large landscaping division, which sells about 40 percent of the nursery stock the operation produces. “ My Father, Forrest, although partially retired, still comes in frequently to work on landscape designs,” which can range in complexity from fully redesigned outdoor living spaces to yard-sized sanctuaries for wildlife to the careful choice and planting of a single tree. “We also retail trees to small local landscapers.” The operation delivers anywhere in southeastern Minnesota, although a small charge is added for longer distances.
“When my brother and I were young,” Sargent continued, “’it was our job to plant, fertilize and grow the bareroot shrubs. Today we purchase these in pots, along with some trees from other growers.”
New last year at Sargent’s was the sale of fresh vegetables, grown on site by a retired IBM employee with a love of gardening. This year, with his help, Sargents is offering CSA memberships, which are already sold out for the season. “CSA members will get first crack at the vegetables,” explained Sargent, “which last year included more than 40 kinds of tomatoes.”
“Farmer Mike” decided to join Sargent’s to head their vegetable garden because they offered him flexible hours; almost unlimited manure, compost and tractors; easy access to watering; and a couple of high school students to help. In this way, Sargent’s new CSA was born.
Sargent’s in-town location, with a floral shop and an expanded gift shop, is well located near a large hospital, and is open year round. It has busy sales of greenhouse plants and nursery items in season, and plenty of space to display them.
A children’s program, “Wee Wednesdays,” with 2 one-hour sessions a week for pre-school and kindergarten age children with a parent, is very popular. Running from April to December, the classes include a hands-on activity, a story, and a tasty treat. “We’re committed to helping kids to get out and enjoy the great outdoors through gardening. We teach the children how to grow, plant and cultivate.” Very much a family affair, the operation has a 5th generation (the original operation in Red Wing, MN, was started by Nick’s Grandfather,) eager to “work in the nursery” when they grow up.
By growing what they sell, emphasizing quality and offering many “how-to” classes and other opportunities to visit, Sargent’s has successfully made the transition to a large, successful business, sought out by many customers.
Sargent’s Gardens: growing success
by Bill and Mary Weaver