by Sally Colby
For nurseries and garden centers striving to remain viable, change is key. Although Varner’s Greenhouse and Nursery in Niles, MI, has seen plenty of changes, they remain committed to supplying high-quality, affordable plants suitable for the growing region.
Carla Varner talked about the business founded by her parents Jack and Mary more than 35 years ago. “We initially had a farm and grew crops including cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, sweet corn and raspberries,” she said. “My parents built their first greenhouse in order to germinate cantaloupe plants so the yield would be better. Since they were only using the greenhouse several times a year, they decided to grow other plants in it.”
The introduction of that first greenhouse coincided with local growth in the area in the mid- to late 1990s. The first greenhouse crops were flats of popular spring annuals including petunias, impatiens and begonias.
After Jack passed away, Carla continued working with her mother along with a manager and a grower to make strategic decisions. “Our grower learned the business from my father,” said Carla. “He’s the backbone of the business, with the help of others who support him.”
As Carla takes a more active role in decision making for the business, she’s creating a list of changes and improvements she’d like to see. Varner’s is open to customers who are welcome to browse the options in more than five acres of greenhouses and a larger outdoor area, but Carla would like to bring shrubs and trees from the nursery area to create an idea garden of display options that would help customers see how to effectively blend larger components with annuals and perennials.
The existing gutter connect greenhouses are heated with a hot water system. Some of the houses are equipped with individual gas heaters to provide supplemental heat. Under-table heating helps support plugs transferred from the germination room. While the system is functional, Carla and her team are working on plans to upgrade the system.
“We built a new greenhouse this year,” said Carla. “We’re trying to expand production to keep up with the demand. Last year we were sold out by Memorial Day and couldn’t supply all the customers who wanted to buy our products. We put in additional lines for hanging baskets and built a new checkout area. This has increased the need for more employees.”
Two years ago, Varner’s added an automatic transplanter which Carla said has been a huge help, especially when labor is in short supply. While the watering systems in most houses are manually operated, the new greenhouse has an automated system.
Another new addition is a transplanter, which replaces an old conveyer belt system that took 10 people to operate. “Now it takes three people to run the transplanter,” said Carla. “Our target goal is 55,000 1204 flats.” The transplanter can also transplant into baskets, but Carla said it’s a little tricky so they haven’t used it for baskets yet.
Less noticeable but important changes include a new parking area and a new checkout system. Carla plans to host more educational programs and will continue to improve community outreach and customer engagement through a newsletter. She’d like to add a horticultural expert to the staff to act as a liaison between the business side and the growers – someone who knows the business as well as plants.
The important task of choosing varieties each year was previously managed in a handwritten notebook, but it’s now in an Excel spreadsheet. “We look back year to year, remember what sold well and what didn’t,” said Carla. “Last year we ended up with impatiens, so we pulled back a little on those this year. Looking back at records, we see communication with vendors who sell us liners and seeds and let us know about new products, and what customers are asking for all play a role in decisions.”
Selecting colors is a matter of balancing what the team knows are good sellers along with trying some new ideas. “This is where our grower and his team are helpful,” said Carla. “He’s moving plants around to keep the main retail area stocked with products, calling all those shots, so he knows what customers want.”
As was the case for nearly all greenhouses and nurseries last year, by the time Michigan shut down, the Varners had already started seeding. “We cut back on the pace of production – with five acres of greenhouses, we weren’t sure if we’d have the ability to sell it all,” Carla said. “But we were so far in, and since most of the seeding was completed, we just went for it.”
When they couldn’t sell early in the pandemic, Carla kept in touch with customers through social media. “We couldn’t have them here, but we wanted them to know what we had as we were looking forward to the opportunity to open the doors. I posted pictures of different plants each day on social media. It’s been fun and interesting to look back to see how plants grew, such as the progress of petunia baskets.”
Like other nursery and greenhouse businesses, Varner’s has seen an uptick in interest in houseplants. “My parents would bring in houseplants in summer, after the spring crop was mostly gone, just to have something to sell during otherwise slow summer months,” said Carla. “Last year we got them in the fall, and we’re trying to get another order now because the spring order is sold out.” Varner’s has also been keeping up with the strong interest in container gardening and offers plenty of combination baskets each season.
One challenge that’s been especially noticeable in recent years is timely arrival of supplies. “We sell some landscaping materials like landscaping cloth, border material, pottery, fertilizers and amendments,” said Carla, “and much of it is backordered.”
She recalled the day Varner’s reopened last April, and said it was a joyous occasion. “We did some curbside sales before that,” she said, “but things kept changing regarding what we were allowed to do. We feel so fortunate at a time when some people were going out of business. It was stressful for a while, but the timing worked out well.”
Visit Varner’s Greenhouse and Nursery online at VarnersGreenhouse.com.