Water feature wonders

Features - Cover Story

Ready to catch the wave? Independent garden centers with a passion for aquatics share how they make the category work.

Subscribe
November 4, 2019

An aquatic plant division can attract new customers, maintain current ones and cultivate a new interest they weren’t privy to.
PHOTO: NATHAN PEDIGO

For some people, it’s the soothing sound of a trickling fountain. For others, it’s the sight of sunlight reflecting off passing fish. Whether the goal is drowning out traffic noise or creating an intricate backyard ecosystem, consumers are reconnecting with nature — and themselves — by communing with water in their own landscapes. And they’re looking to IGCs for help.

Steve Albanese, owner of Albanese Garden Center, aims to give his customers backyard access to a place that blocks the stress of the world.
COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER

Getting started with aquatics

Talk with long-term IGC leaders in aquatics and aquascaping, and you’ll soon conclude that lasting success depends on two essentials: passion and commitment. Dan Masterson, manager at Masterson’s Garden Center Inc. & Aquatic Nursery in East Aurora, New York, explains this category is not as simple as just putting some water gardening products out.

“Every customer isn’t going to know what they need,” Masterson says. “We say here, ‘Every sale is a seminar.’ You’ve got to know your stuff and be confident in your knowledge of how these ecosystems work before you put it on the shelf.”

Water gardens have been a Masterson specialty since the IGC’s founder, Dan’s father Mike, started incorporating water features into the business’s landscape side nearly 30 years ago. Inspired by his enjoyment of a creek near his home, he wanted to help others experience something similar. “His success far exceeded his expectations,” Masterson says.

For Steve Albanese, general manager at Albanese Garden Center and Greenhouse in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, his love of water was nurtured by aquariums, scuba diving and woodland waterfalls. Starting an aquatic division at the IGC founded by his grandfather seemed like a natural fit. “I just wanted people to have an area in their backyard where they could get away from the stress of the world,” he says.

Albanese, who credits part of his success to his qualification as a Certified Aquascape Contractor (CAC), says passion for the aquatic category is critical. “If you don’t have passion for it, you need someone on staff who does,” he says. At Albanese, a fourth generation of the family has inherited the love of aquatic work.

Derek Johnson, owner of JVI Secret Gardens, completed his first water feature about 16 years ago. Now, water feature construction is 65% of the business.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JVI SECRET GARDENS
PHOTO COURTESY OF JVI SECRET GARDENS
PHOTO COURTESY OF JVI SECRET GARDENS
PHOTO COURTESY OF JVI SECRET GARDENS
JVI Secret Gardens, located in Nashville, Tennessee.
PHOTO: NATHAN PEDIGO

Planting seeds with consumers

Helping consumers realize what a water feature can bring to their lives and homes is key to growing your aquatics or aquascaping business. Derek Johnson, owner of JVI Secret Gardens in Nashville, Tennessee, says people often don’t know want they want until it’s seen.

Johnson did his first water feature about 16 years ago after an Aquascape catalog image spurred his creativity on a landscape design that had left him stumped. As people passed the construction site, community interest grew. Johnson sold one job during the construction, and 10 more followed soon.

Today, water feature construction and maintenance account for about 65% of JVI Secret Gardens’ total revenue. And Johnson was recently named Aquascape’s CAC of the Year for 2019.

At Albanese, water-centric displays around the garden center have increased extensively over the years — and sales have grown along with them. The IGC started with one large pond and waterfall feature in 1986. Now water features from ponds to pondless waterfalls to fountainscapes comprise about one-fourth of the property’s outside plantings.

“Our curb appeal is splash,” Albanese says. “Water-related sales have doubled as a result.” While he declined to talk specific numbers, he estimates the IGC’s aquatic division conservatively accounts for 50% of overall sales.

Albanese Garden Center completed its first large pond and waterfall feature in 1986. Albanese says its water-related sales have doubled since then, and account for 50% of overall sales.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER AND GREENHOUSE
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER AND GREENHOUSE
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER AND GREENHOUSE
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER AND GREENHOUSE
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER AND GREENHOUSE

Growing with the aquatic category

When Albanese first started offering aquatics, he says most people thought of water features as whiskey barrels with liners. But the attraction of water is strong and interest evolved, first to plastic pre-formed pools with small waterfalls, then on to full-scale aquascapes. And, as interest grew, so did requests for products and services, such as installation and maintenance. Albanese responded to demand.

For aquatic success, Albanese says you can’t hold back: “You have to jump in with both feet, love what you do and carry everything needed to fill your customers’ pond needs.”

Shoppers at Albanese Garden Center find an aquatic nursery devoted to water plants and “wet pets” such as koi, along with all the equipment, water treatments and other items customers need. With the right tools, Albanese says water features that get five to 10 minutes of weekly maintenance reward their owners with joy instead of stress.

Masterson’s devotes a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse (about one-fifth of their space) to aquatics. The division accounts for an estimated 30% of the IGC’s revenue. You’ll find imported and domestic koi, aquatic marginal plants, water lilies and floating tropical plants, as well as pumps, filters, water treatments and various kinds of fish food.

The IGC no longer offers landscaping services. Masterson’s brother, Brian, operates a separate company, Innovative Landscapes, which focuses almost exclusively on water features and other water-related work. A special area of interest is lake and pond restorations. This niche is growing as former city dwellers go rural and need help restoring and enhancing natural water features to complement their homes.

Masterson’s Garden Center and Aquatic Nursery Manager Dan Masterson, left, with his father and founder/owner Mike Masterson
PHOTO COURTESY OF MASTERON’S GARDEN CENTER AND AQUATIC NURSERY

Cultivating consumer interest

Masterson shares that several IGCs in the region have closed their aquatic divisions. He speculates the housing market was to blame — large water projects are often tied to established homeowners. But Masterson’s demand for aquatics and aquascaping has stayed remarkably consistent from year to year.

He acknowledges that the IGC staff’s enthusiasm for the category has a significant positive impact on sales. Two special areas of interest are koi and natural ecosystems, and consumer interest is high in both.

In Nashville, Johnson has developed a strong YouTube presence with “reality show” videos that help consumers learn about aquascaping and get to know his team. He’s also experienced a jump in business from new homeowners inheriting water features, who need a hand with education and renovation as well as new construction to make existing water features their own.

Both Albanese and Masterson have regular in-store seminars to educate consumers on pond maintenance, particularly in spring when ponds open for the season and again when they close in fall. Johnson focuses heavily on staff education but hopes to add an employee to focus on consumer education. Though seminars are helpful, Masterson says most education still happens one-on-one. “Every pond, every project is different,” he says.

Albanese, who is a certified aquascape contractor, says having a passion for the aquatic category is critical.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBANESE GARDEN CENTER

Capitalizing on aquatic allure

With Nashville’s population and economy booming, Johnson has seen sales climb steadily. His company already far exceeded his 2019 goals. But he doesn’t believe interest in water features is limited to Nashville.

He shares that pond contractors are a tight-knit bunch that engages in a lot of support and networking. He sees a trend of steady business growth nationwide, as consumers turn to water-focused landscapes to relax, lose themselves and calm down. By creating and caring for true ecosystems, homeowners give back to their world as well.

For IGCs considering aquatics and aquascaping, Johnson circles back to passion once again. As with Albanese and Masterson, it’s clear it’s more than an industry buzz word to him.

“The reason this works is because I obsess over it in the most beautiful way. It’s extremely lucrative. It’s a beautiful business. It’s a beautiful add-on because it’ll bring another cog to your business wheel,” Johnson says. “But it’s passion. As a horticulturist, I still love my plants, but there’s just something about water.”