— An Old Hwy 61 Blog by Gail Gates
“Remember that children, marriages, and flower gardens reflect the kind of care they get.”
— H. Jackson Brown Jr.
My husband cringed. He does that whenever I mumble something vague like, “I’m just going to look around for a couple of minutes.” He knows my weaknesses, and one of them is plants. The vehicle’s trunk popped open, and he began to make room for what was to come.
I admit it. Get me near a garden center, and my imagination ignites.
And while my yard never quite looks like those lush and glorious photos in home and garden magazines, I take great pleasure in digging and dreaming.
One of my favorite garden centers is Wayne’s Greenhouse, located a few miles south of North Branch, MN, just off Old Hwy. 61. They are a rare thing nowadays…an independent, family-owned nursery in a world of commercial chains and big box stores. I’ve been giving Wayne’s my business for decades because not only are they friendly, knowledgeable, and local, but they are small enough to care about the customer. What do I mean by that?
Over the years, when I’ve gotten a yen to purchase a specific plant or shrub or tree, I could bring my request to Wayne. He’d share what he knew or didn’t know about the desired item and then order it for me.
“I’m learning all the time, too,” he’d say, “So get back to me on how it grows for you.”
Sometimes he would talk me out of a purchase. “In my experience, that plant just does not grow well in our area. It’s supposed to thrive based on its zone rating, but we’ve had a high rate of winter kill.” And that’s what I mean…he’d choose customer service over a quick sale.
On a recent drive on Old Hwy 61, I decided to make a “quick” stop at Wayne’s. After parking, I took the handle of one of the little red wagons they keep on hand for guests to use… in case I bought a plant or ten. (My husband wasn’t along. Mwahahahaha.)
The greenhouse was busy and well-staffed for a weekday afternoon. I meandered through the aisles, inside and outside, and noticed areas I had not seen before.
I walked through a newer greenhouse and came out into a wooded area where a small backhoe was moving dirt. I felt as though I was intruding, so the creaky red wagon and I started back to the main greenhouse.
As I walked along, I soon realized I was being followed by the backhoe. Assuming I was in the way, I stepped aside and looked at the driver. It was Wayne.
“I thought that was you,” he said. “Didn’t you move to Northfield?”
I laughed. “Yes, but I still keep coming back here for some strange reason. What are you doing back there in the woods?”
Wayne explained that their greenhouse business had exploded during 2020-2021 when folks were isolated at home due to Covid-19 concerns. “People decided they wanted to spruce up their yards and to start gardens. It was a little crazy. The truck would deliver plants in the morning, and we were sold out within a couple of hours. Nonetheless, we hit financial goals I never thought we would hit in our 45 years of business.”
“Okay,” I said, “But what are you doing back in the woods? It looks like you are expanding.”
Wayne confirmed they are.
Thus far, they have added a children’s play area, a bigger space for delivery trucks, a new greenhouse, and are landscaping in the woods so that people can hold wedding ceremonies or other special events in the future.
Wayne shifted in his seat. “I’m getting old, Gail, and starting to think about retirement. My daughter is taking over the business and has big ideas. And while I’ll be helping out until I’m no longer physically able, I’d like more time to follow other interests.”
After I paid for my purchases, I walked back to my car with mixed feelings. Not seeing Wayne bustling around the greenhouse would be strange, and I will miss his expertise and humor.
On the other hand, hearing about their success is refreshing. Many small establishments along Old Hwy 61 start with great enthusiasm and rely on word of mouth and sustained traffic to survive.
It’s not easy, and just one of the reasons the Old Hwy 61 coalition strives to bring awareness to the many unique cafes, stores, and businesses along this storied highway.
As I pulled out to head home, I gave one last wave in Wayne’s direction. All I could think was, You grow, Wayne, you grow.