Behnke Nurseries closure is a reminder of the tightrope that many garden centers walk
Photo courtesy of The Behnke Nurseries Co.

Behnke Nurseries closure is a reminder of the tightrope that many garden centers walk

Independent garden centers struggle to compete on price and instead play to their strengths: plant selection, quality and expert growing advice.

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From the Washington Post:

Even before the Behnke Nurseries closed up shop in Beltsville after 89 years, the impending end of this cherished Washington-area institution was apparent to anyone who visited in recent weeks.

Lots, where dozens of container trees and shrubs would normally stand, were thinning to reveal fields of asphalt, and the benches that were until recently jammed with one-gallon containers of perennials and grasses were bare, too.

Within the enclosed and labyrinthine nursery shop — there were always so many unpredictable passages and chambers at Behnke’s — office fixtures were up for grabs where glazed pots once crowded. As you made your way toward the checkout registers, Christmas goods were heavily discounted. The racks were well picked over when I visited recently, but there was still an authentic, antique sleigh. Supply your own red-nosed reindeer. Once at the heart of Behnke’s festive displays, the sleigh now stood a little frayed and forlorn, and its isolation seemed to capture the sadness and loss of the nursery’s closure.

Behnke’s began as a simple roadside plant stand run by two German emigres, Albert and Rose Behnke, in the 1930s, when the D.C. suburbs were only just getting started. Workers in an expanding federal government were moving into their new neighborhoods of red-brick Cape Cods. Behnke’s thrived by furnishing all those new yards. By the time some of the founders’ children began to take the reins, Behnke’s was so popular that it employed traffic cops to direct weekend customers in and out of the 12-acre site off Route 1. At its height, the enterprise included large off-site plant production greenhouses, first in Largo and later in Lothian, Md.

The main retail location, created initially as a place also to propagate and grow plants, morphed into a disparate horticultural wonderland, its haphazardness contributing to its quirky appeal.

For staff and customers, the past few weeks have offered a moment to reflect on the qualities that made Behnke’s special. It was a place for inter-generational family outings and their attendant memories, a place to find reliable advice, and a place where both beginner and advanced home gardeners could find what they needed.

Professional horticulturists found a home there, some for a year or two, others spending their entire careers at Behnke’s, where they developed a rapport and friendship with regular customers.

In the customers’ memories book, a writer named BT seemed to sum up the last, sad days of Behnke’s: “Where am I going to go? Who am I going to see? What am I going to do?”

The family business closed for a number of prosaic reasons: The next generation was not gung-ho on the nursery business, key employees were reaching retirement age, the structures and their systems were aging and in need of a major overhaul, and the land became too valuable for its current use. “It would cost millions of dollars to fix this up,” said Stephanie Fleming, vice president and granddaughter of the founders. The family is preparing to develop the property.

It would be a mistake, thus, to ascribe Behnke’s closing to an industry-wide malaise, but the same forces the company faced are at play in independent garden centers everywhere. It’s a retail business that is inherently precarious and faces challenges unlike any other. Many went under in the Great Recession, and the survivors have had to navigate a retail landscape that shifted fundamentally when mass merchandisers got into the business. More recently, e-commerce has added further competition.

Independent garden centers can’t compete on price and instead play to their strengths: plant selection and quality and expert growing advice. Still, it’s a tough business.

The most obvious challenge is that the merchandise is alive and needs to look good to sell — that means employing enough knowledgeable people to nurture it seven days a week.

The other market phenomenon is that most of the year’s takings occur in a 12-week period from mid-March to early June. Spring is the season most people shop for plants, for obvious practical reasons, but for emotional ones, too; nothing is more affirming after a long, dead winter than filling a pot with pansies or refreshing the herb garden.

You can read more on the Washington Post’s website here.