Pops of color in the garden are harbingers of several seasons for both home gardeners and commercial landscapers. The Berbee family has made it their business to supply high quality bulbs and other plant material to both local and nationwide customers.
Leo Berbee began bulb production and distribution in Holland, and in 1972, his son Henk opened a distribution warehouse in Ohio for the Leo Berbee Bulb Company. Henk’s son Bob Berbee opened Dutch Mill Greenhouse in Marysville, Ohio, which he operates with his wife Mattie.
Mattie said her husband realized that since the family business had traditionally sold bulbs and other bare root products to other growers and garden centers, offering the public an opportunity to shop wholesale products on location showed that a retail store front would likely be successful.
“Not only would we be selling to other garden centers, we grow the product here in our garden center and learn the needs of wholesale customers,” said Mattie. “That was 22 years ago, and the retail business has grown every year.”
There was a learning curve as Bob learned to operate a business. “He was young, barely 21,” Mattie said. “He had a degree in greenhouse management but realized it didn’t fully prepare him for operating a retail business.”
About a decade into running the business, the young Berbees figured out what worked best and which direction to take the business. “Anyone can open their doors, put price tags on things and sell them,” said Mattie. “As time went on, Bob learned what he should grow himself and what to buy in, and what the market in the area needs.”
Dutch Mill Greenhouse’s location puts the Berbees in one of the fastest growing areas of Ohio, which has helped the family learn more about which direction to take the business. New construction means people need gardens, and like others, the Berbees saw a sharp rise in new customers during 2020 and 2021.
“Because of the new growth in the area, we didn’t see the drop a lot of others saw,” said Mattie, comparing current business to that of several years ago. “Some businesses had the best year ever but didn’t retain customers. We’re getting to know the people who are moving to the area and what they’re looking for, and that has been beneficial for the business.”
Their customers comprise two groups: Avid, experienced gardeners and young families who have never owned a home or had a garden. To provide the best help for first-time gardeners, the landscapers at Dutch Mill Greenhouse offer staff consultations.
“A lot of people were coming in with pictures to talk about their yards on Saturday mornings but we couldn’t focus on them,” said Mattie. “We ask them to schedule a time to ask questions so our staff can be prepared when they come to the meeting, and to bring pictures or send pictures ahead of time.” Customers pay a consultation fee but receive money back in the form of a voucher to use for their project or in the store.
The garden center starts a variety of hanging baskets, custom planters and porch pots from plugs. Each year comes with the challenge of coming up with the “right” color combinations. “Half will be sun-loving, half will be shade,” said Mattie, describing hanging basket selections. “Of that mix, we’ll have the tried-and-true colors, and the team comes up with new combinations. Each year we introduce two or three we haven’t carried before.”
In the past, Dutch Mill Greenhouse offered an online pre-order program starting in February that allowed customers to pre-purchase their favorites and pick them up in May. This program helped determine the most popular colors year over year. This season, the Berbees didn’t offer this service due to the space required to stage pre-orders as well as growing the rest of the hanging baskets.
The Berbees grow about half of their own vegetable starts and bring the rest in. “The ones we grow are specialty items,” said Mattie. “We bring in fast turnover items like cherry tomatoes because they move so quickly. We grow our own super-hot peppers in limited quantities, and those have become popular with some customers.”
Dutch Mill offers a large selection of perennials, some of which are bare root, grown by their wholesale division. A variety of hostas, peonies, bleeding heart, canna, liatris and clematis are popular selections.
Mattie has seen a renewed interest in dahlias. “Everyone thought dahlias were all giant dinnerplate size, but now they see smaller pom-pom varieties in different shapes,” she said. “People are excited to have space in their garden to grow them.” The garden center also stocks seed dahlias and grows unique dahlias from tubers in gallon pots.
For the many customers who like spring bulbs such as tulips, Mattie explains bulbs’ lifespan is about five to seven years. While most homeowners leave bulbs in the ground, cut flower growers dig up bulbs each year to keep them in good condition for replanting.
“Bulbs don’t like moist soil,” said Mattie. “That’s why they do well in the Netherlands and the West Coast where the soil is more sandy and wicks moisture. We recommend not planting bulbs in the same area as annuals because annuals are watered throughout summer. If the bulbs are underneath, they’ll be drowned out or get a disease, or freeze in winter with so much moisture.”
Because tulip bulbs attract deer, Mattie suggests homeowners plant tulips close to the house. She also explains to customers that alliums help deter wildlife. “Hyacinths are also not attractive to wildlife,” she said, “and fritillarias have an odor most animals don’t like so they help repel deer and small mammals.”
Garden center customers can attend workshops on container bulb planting for optimal seasonal color. “We teach people how to plant in pots and how force bulbs,” said Mattie. “Then they can plant bulbs in another pot to save yard space for annuals.”
One of the garden center’s best-selling items is the “Dutch Garden 50 Days of Blooming,” which consists of 50 bulbs including tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, iris and crocus. “They can be grown in a pot or a small trench, layered according to bloom time,” Mattie said. “Something is always coming up to hide foliage that’s dying back. We also talk about co-planting, like with tulips and hostas. Tulips like a little shade when they’re dying back, and hostas are coming up and hide and shade tulips.”
In autumn, when it’s time to plant bulbs, Dutch Mill has the largest fall bulb selection in the area. “We ship millions of bulbs all over the nation but we also carry them in our garden center,” said Mattie. “We have at least 50 to 100 daffodil and tulip varieties. We don’t pre-package them so people can choose the quantities and colors they want.”
Mattie said Dutch Mill Greenhouse is known for being a family business that cares about families. “We like seeing generations and new families coming in,” she said. “We have three young kids, so we know what it’s like and try to create a welcoming atmosphere.”
Visit Dutch Mill Greenhouse online at dutchmillgreenhouse.com.
by Sally Colby