Jesse Eastman had to consider taking over Fort Collins Nursery from his father on several occasions, but since he kept working with plants, eventually it just made sense. Photo courtesy of Fort Collins Nursery

by Sally Colby

When Jesse Eastman started college, his plans didn’t include returning to the greenhouse and nursery his parents started. Although the Fort Collins Nursery, in Fort Collins, CO, had been in the family since the mid-1970s, Jesse’s interest in the business was limited to working there.

As Jesse pursued a degree in Spanish, his father offered to sell him the business. Later, when Jesse was working in landscaping, his father offered him the business again. “About two years after I graduated, he called me and said he was ready to retire and wanted to sell,” said Jesse. “It was my last opportunity to transition it within the family.”

Jesse considered his options and realized that every job he had had throughout high school and college involved plants – landscaping, gardening and working at other nurseries. “I kept working in plants, so I thought maybe there was something to it,” he said. “I followed up and decided to move back. I worked there as a manager for two years, enjoyed it and decided to buy the business.”

Although he’s owner and general manager, he’s quick to credit his employees for helping to maintain a successful business that specializes in perennials and ornamental grasses. Customers can browse through 20,000 square feet of indoor growing space to select tropical plants, cacti, bonsai and seasonal specialties. Outside, 14 hoop houses support seasonal crops and are also used for overwintering plants. “We grow about 60,000 one-gallon perennials each year,” said Jesse. “We also have some uncovered blocks where we grow about 7,000 to 10,000 trees and shrubs.”

The ornamental grasses at Fort Collins Nursery are native to the region and include switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem and blue grama, cultivated for landscape use. “We also have non-native grasses that are regionally appropriate,” said Jesse. “Our goal is to always sell plants that customers will be able to grow successfully.”

Over the last few years, Jesse has seen gardening become more popular. “People want house plants, vegetables, annuals, patio pots, perennials and trees,” he said. “More people are planting privacy screens, and a lot of stock is going to newly built homes.”

Jesse is careful to select plants that will do well in the region. “We have a unique climate that’s very dry and windy with intense sun, and winter temperatures are erratic,” he said. “We get a lot more freeze and thaw than other areas that may actually get colder, so a lot of plants that survive in cold areas don’t do well here because it might get down to 0º then go to 60º in a week. We also have spells where it drops from 50 to 60º to 5º in less than 24 hours, so we have to be selective and make sure we’re curating plants that will survive erratic weather as well as the general cold of the Rocky Mountain West.” The nursery participates in a program called Plant Select, which identifies and promotes plants appropriate for the high plains and mountains of Colorado.

Perennial selection is also based on which plants are commonly used and have sold well for years. Jesse is always on the lookout for new introductions and will test those plants to see how they perform. If numerous customers request certain plants, he’ll try growing them and determine whether the selections will do well before offering them for sale. He realized consumers often get ideas for landscaping through various media outlets, so he’s careful to make sure everything he sells will do well in the region.

Jesse noted that houseplants have become trendy and said that over the last four or five years, the volume of houseplant sales has increased dramatically. “It’s become almost a status symbol for some people,” he said. “People are buying rare plants. If we can get certain varieties that are considered rare, people talk about it online and we’ll have people rushing in because we have those plants. We’re trying to walk the line between not profiteering from it and also making sure others don’t either.”

Part of this trend includes customers who purchase houseplants, cut them into pieces and sell the cuttings. However, Jesse said variegated varieties don’t always remain true to variety. “Someone can buy an expensive plant and it can revert,” he said. “That makes it difficult for them to grow them consistently. When we get those plants in, we’ll post an announcement on social media.”

Quite a few new houseplant customers are young people, many of who keep up with the latest plant trends on social media. Jesse said the extreme side of this movement is people who are constantly striving to search for the latest new and sometimes rare varieties and searching for those online. Jesse offers a few unique specimens and plans to auction a rare pink philodendron and donate the proceeds to a nonprofit the business supports.

One challenge in a dry climate is keeping plants watered. Plants in the retail area are watered with an overhead system or hand watered. In production areas, automated drip keeps plants uniform and healthy. “We can’t get too creative with drip irrigation in the retail area,” said Jesse. “A customer might remove the drip emitter when they’re looking at plants, and we won’t know the emitter hasn’t been placed back in the pot until the plant dies.”

Jesse said he was fortunate last year to not be forced to shut down. “We voluntarily shut down in April last year because we didn’t know which way things were going,” he said. “We realized that if we were going to be shut down in May, we needed some time in April to figure out how to do it. Fortunately, because most of our business is outdoors and the indoor areas have good air circulation, we were able to open up.”

Like other growers, Jesse is dealing with supply chain issues and said it’s been challenging to maintain an updated list of stock available online. “We did a little bit of online ordering at first, but some people didn’t like what we brought out and picked out their own,” he said. “People can come in so they aren’t ordering online – they want to pick out their own plants.”

Most Fort Collins Nursery employees are certified nursery professionals, which benefits both customers and the business. “Of the retail garden centers in Colorado, we have the most certified nursery professionals on staff,” said Jesse. “We encourage staff to become involved in the program, and we’ll pay for them to take the prep seminars and the exam. It sets them up to help customers make good plant selections and good gardening decisions. We want customers to be successful long term, so we make sure staff is giving them the best information possible.”

Jesse values his staff’s effort in keeping the business successful. “I’ve always run this business to keep employees first,” he said. “If our employees are happy, our customers will enjoy working with them.”

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