When Art Smith and Mary Eckstrom purchased the East Pierre Landscape and Garden Center seven years ago, they had no experience operating a business. But as the couple read books on business management, they discovered a common theme: draw up a business plan.

Art immediately realized the big box stores would always be competitors, so he and Mary set a goal that their business would be a center of information, providing knowledge and the ability to help customers create what they want. However, the existing business was a seasonal greenhouse that featured trees and tomatoes. It took two winters before the couple could keep the business open year-round.

As they began to grow the business with their own unique style, Art and Mary decided what they wanted to do, and almost without exception, their ideas were successful. “The way we wanted to decorate was met with great applause by both staff and customers,” said Art. “It was kind of lucky that what we wanted in a greenhouse garden center is what other people wanted.” One idea was to use unique items such as hutches to display items rather than standard shelves.

They quickly learned what customers wanted. Many asked for porch pots, which Mary said they were unfamiliar with, but it didn’t take long before those were offered. They also started to offer weekend classes. Mary found many of the same people attend classes throughout the season and year after year. The first classes of the year in January and February will feature houseplants; additional workshops for Valentine’s Day are followed by container gardening.

The East Pierre Garden Center grows and displays plants in four gutter-connected greenhouses, three of which are 120 feet long. A 70-foot gutter-connected greenhouse serves as the rose house. When Art and Mary first started growing, most plants were started as plugs or finish, but they’re gradually moving to just plugs and seeds.

“We’ve started to move away from smaller pots and concentrate on 12-, 14- and 16-inch pots,” said Art. “People will pay the extra for those, and they like them because they’re bigger.”

In late February, the East Pierre crew will be busy potting bareroot roses. Next they’ll seed peppers, onions and other sensitive plants that require heated beds. “Then we get ready for Mother’s Day,” said Art. “Our goal is to have everything in the greenhouse ready to go by May 1. We keep the roses inside until mid-May when we can move them outside safely.”

For the landscaping side, Art and Mary grow a variety of trees and shrubs suited for the region, including species for windbreaks. “Windbreaks are a big thing,” said Art. “We are probably windier here being in the center of the state. For new construction, a windbreak is one of the first things people think about.”

Art noted that customers several states away can select from numerous arborvitae cultivars. “Here, we’re limited to two,” he said. “Some are just too unreliable. We tend to use very specific ones in specific locations – we sell only plants we know will survive. Our landscape designer is very aware of that. Sometimes people don’t want grass – they want hardscaping or hardy natives such as buffalo grass or blue grama.

Mary Eckstrom and Art Smith quickly learned what their customers wanted when they started their business. Art also serves on his Arbor Board, which guides homeowners in determining the appropriate trees and shrubs for the region. Photo courtesy of East Pierre Landscape and Garden Center

“We talk with customers about the natives as short to mid grass prairie,” said Art. “That’s the dominant vegetation in central South Dakota. Eastern red cedar is about as tough as it gets. That and cottonwood and a few other plants, and only in riparian areas. If someone is going to have trees, they have to take care of them – even mature trees. That’s a constant message we try to get out.”

It’s common for inexperienced homeowners to put in a native grass and think they don’t have to do anything to maintain it. “They don’t understand unless they’ve done their homework,” said Art. “If they say they want less grass, they’re usually planning a garden with rock and a drip system. Drip is not the solution for everyone, but when we do a landscape job, I try to help people understand it’s an expense up front but worth it.” He also encourages fencing young trees to help prevent deer damage.

Art has found that people will visit to shop for a tree without knowing anything about the species. “I’ve learned to become a good salesman very quickly,” he said. “We talk with people to figure out what they want, not what they think they want. Then we can give them the best options.”

When customers look for landscaping species, Art encourages them to start with plants they know can succeed, such as cedar, hackberry, burr oak and Black Hills spruce. Art serves on Pierre’s Arbor Board, which offers a tree brochure that includes tables and guides to help homeowners determine appropriate trees and shrubs for the region. He encourages homeowners to use the internet to search for accurate information, often from university or Extension websites.

During the growing season, Art participates in a weekly radio show, spending a good bit of time discussing the water needs of plants. He urges people to water well for a long period of time once a week rather watering frequently for a shorter time. “It’s up to us to teach customers and at least introduce them to ideas [about watering] and hopefully they’re successful,” said Art. “We’re mindful of that as professionals. A successful customer is a happy one, and that’s a returning customer.”

Like other businesses, Art and Mary have dealt with insufficient personnel. “Pierre, South Dakota is not a college town,” said Art. “We’re 200 miles from anywhere. It’s difficult for us to attract staff, especially someone with a horticulture degree. We have a landscape designer and an installation supervisor and four to six laborers depending on the job, but the landscape division shuts down for the year.”

In searching for employees, Art looks for stability and willingness to work. “Some people think it would be fun to work here and play with plants,” he said. “But standing up all day to put plugs into six-inch pots can wear someone out and the fun vanishes after 10 minutes. The biggest thing is work ethic and that’s the most important part – we can work with that.” Art said he can quickly spot an employee who is doing the bare minimum.

In 2020, Art heard a lot of customers say “We have never gardened before” or “I haven’t done this for 20 years.” “It was very noticeable, so we tried to help them keep it simple with what they liked,” he said. “We did more classes and developed more handouts so we could be the educational, informational source for the area. From North Dakota down to Nebraska, we are it, and we take that very seriously. We try to provide for everyone.”

Art said people want to be successful with plants but sometimes they just don’t know how. “I think we have a much more satisfied base when we give them information,” he said. “They’re more likely to come back to us in the future.”

Visit East Pierre Landscape and Garden Center online at eastpierregarden.com.

by Sally Colby