by Sally Colby
Levi Heidrich remembers spending much of his youth digging trees with his father Jerry. That time proved to be the ideal start for a career in the nursery business.
“When my parents moved here from Kansas in 1979, they cut a lot of firewood,” said Levi. “We also dug a lot of natives. We had three spades and dug a lot of pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, bristlecone pine, white fir, Englemann spruce and aspen. In the 1980s, during the recession, we opened a little retail lot in Colorado Springs and my grandparents ran that while my dad grew trees and shrubs.”
Levi says the family eventually sold that nursery and went back to wholesale, digging B&B trees and selling Christmas trees. Levi recalls that when his father was running the nursery, it was open six months out of the year — five months for the nursery and one month for Christmas trees. Now Heidrich’s is open for 11 months a year. It is closed in January.
Although the business has changed, the focus is the same: providing nursery stock suitable for the elevation and the customer base. Levi is part owner along with his brother Joel and sister Katie. Jerry is still involved in the business as an advisor.
“We’ve grown a lot in the past five years,” said Levi. “Each of the last three years has been a record, and our gross revenue is going to be about 25 percent this year. As the business grows, there will be more diversification. We’re investing in land and constructing an office building, and next will be investing in people who can take over leadership roles in the business.”
Heidrich’s Colorado Tree Farm Nursery includes 10.5 acres at the main site, 80 acres of ponderosa pine and another 80-acre parcel that will be used for growing nursery stock in the future. The majority of income is from sales of nursery stock, with wholesale customers throughout the West and Midwest. The business also includes a retail segment, which is popular among local customers.
Levi, Katie and Joel concentrate on offering species that customers can grow successfully. “Our nursery is at 7,000 feet,” said Levi. “We’re high elevation, but we try to focus on plants that will work for our customers, whether they live in Pueblo, which is 2,000 feet lower, in Denver or up on the Palmer Divide. Dad’s focus was that plants don’t necessarily have to be native, but must be able to adapt.”
Heidrich’s purchases the trees and shrubs they don’t grow themselves from local Colorado growers whenever possible. Levi avoids buying stock from the Northwest because the climate there is more humid with heavier rainfall. “The plants that grow there aren’t necessarily the same as what grows here,” said Levi. “We try to focus on growing them locally, and using heavier potting mixes for container plants so they don’t dry out in our five percent humidity. We require that our B&B plants meet or exceed standards in the Colorado Nursery Act. We want to be known for the highest quality plants possible.”
Heidrichs’ schedules jobs and trains landscapers to install landscapes installations to their specifications. One condition of working on the landscape crew is attending the ProGreen EXPO each year in January. “We pay for them to go there,” said Levi. “Most of the ‘what to plant and where to plant’ is done at the nursery. With digital photos and soil samples, we can do a lot without being on site.”
In addition to the family members who work at Heidrich’s, a crew of summer employees helps keep the business running smoothly. The family hires high school and college students, and has a scholarship program to encourage summer help to return. “It’s an incentive to get them back the next year,” said Levi. “If they work for us during their junior and senior year of high school, they’re eligible for a scholarship at the end of their senior year. If they come back, the scholarship goes up every year.” Levi says writing guidelines for workers has also helped maintain a good workforce. If workers quit or get into trouble, they aren’t eligible for the scholarship. Student workers must maintain a B average and arrive to work on time.
Levi says Heidrich’s will likely start to grow more stock in-house, and will probably add greenhouses at some point. “We start getting shrubs in in late April/early May,” he said. “This year we had to move things to the equipment shop when in the middle of May we had two nights in the low 20s to prevent them from freezing.”
Construction is currently underway on a new building that will house offices, a break room, storage and a larger sales area; with potential for an attached hard-frame greenhouse. The new building will be far more energy efficient than the thin-walled mobile home they’ve been using for the past 12 years, with LED lights and a high-efficiency furnace.
Although they aren’t big money-makers, Heidrich’s brings in locally-grown mums and pumpkins. “It keeps the nursery attractive,” said Levi, “and contributes to the experience people are seeking.”
One of the most profitable segments of Heidrich’s is Christmas trees — they sell about 1,000 trees in approximately two weeks time. “We start on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and sell out in about two weeks,” said Levi. “We bring in the amount of trees we know we can move in a short time.” Customers can also purchase fresh wreaths, garlands and tree stands. Heidrich’s website offers tips on how to care for a fresh cut Christmas tree, winter watering of trees and shrubs, proper staking and mulching.
With several big box stores within just a few miles, Levi is aware that customers have a choice. “We have good word-of-mouth reputation,” said Levi. “We see a lot of repeat customers, but we also have a lot of new customers. Our prices are competitive with big box stores. Dad always told me that if we have beautiful plants, the rest falls in line.”
Heidrich’s Colorado Tree Farm Nursery ~ growing by growing
by Sally Colby