Retailer To Grower: Get Crop Ideas From Retailers

Retailer To Grower: Get Crop Ideas From Retailers

Mike Lemke, owner of Nelson Nursery, says trialing new combo combinations suggested by his retail clients is well worth the risks involved.

Mike Lemke of Nelson Nursery says trialing new combinations suggested by his retail clients is well worth the risks involved.

There is always at least one grower that stands out from the many plant suppliers a garden center uses from a retailer’s point of view.


It’s striking how diverse these great growers are in size and the types of plants provided. What they have in common is a willingness to listen to their customers and work out conflicts in a way that everyone wins.

An example of a fairly small grower who gets raves from his customers: Nelson Nursery’s Mike Lemke.

Jim Schroer of Plant Place in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area recommended Lemke to me. Plant Place is an atypical garden store business. It operates 25 seasonal locations and has no central store. Schroer’s seasonal stores are well-run, and he stocks quality plants that are well-merchandised and supported by solid marketing. It’s been in business 30 years and competes on convenience and quality, not price.

Talk It Out
At the end of each season, Schroer and Lemke compare notes about which plants and combos worked well and which didn’t, with an emphasis on the combo planters and baskets. They also discuss which new plants or new combinations Schroer would like to see the following year.

“He’s one of those people that’s fortunate enough to see plants as he travels, and so he brings a list of prospective plants to me. And we talk it out,” Lemke says.

What Lemke terms “talking it out” is at the heart of why this retailer/grower relationship works so well.

Lemke’s growers join the discussion, and weigh in on how viable Schroer’s ideas are. Do the plants have similar enough growing needs and timing? In turn, Lemke will push his growers to be more open-minded when cultural problems are not an issue. He places a lot of value in Schroer’s understanding of what his customers want.

“If a customer sees something he wants, then we should research it and then do it,” Lemke says.

Lemke says Nelson Nursery doesn’t jump in fully on new plants, but he’s open to trialing just about anything that makes sense.

“We’ve trialed some things that have been disasters,” he says.

That’s why trials are limited to a few hundred plants.

“We put several hundred to trial, give it a good taste, and see how it performs. Then it could be grown in the thousands. You might say, walk before you run,” he says.

That said, there is some risk. “We have such a short season, we only get one crack at it,” Lemke says.

But his goal of making the home gardener happy with plants trumps any qualms he has. And he says he finds that most trials are well worth his time.

Lemke and his team also take the time after a trial to discuss the results. Keeping everyone open to new ideas is important, since few of them get exposed to other operations outside of trade magazines and a couple of trade shows.

“If people don’t talk it out, they get stuck in a rut. We find ourselves doing that, but then we say, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do,’” he says. “If the gardener isn’t successful, we’re not successful. You want to talk about it, debate if it will be successful.”

Be Open To Sharing
When I asked Lemke what advice he’d give fellow growers about how he manages his retail relationships, he suggested everyone look to their peers.

“Most people in our industry will share information with you. ‘How did that spray go? How did that plant perform for you?’ You get true answers and you can act on them. Relying on other people is key.”

As for the risk involved with regularly trialing new combinations, Lemke says he thinks it’s well worth it.

“All we’re out is that we won’t grow those plants next year,” Lemke says. “I would be lying to you if I said everything was perfect, because we learn. And the retailer is on the same path as you. You’re in this together.”