Q: What sets Wagners apart from other garden centers?
A: The most important thing is the family tradition. The business has gone through each generation since 1901, so we’re concerned with the product. We’re personally involved with making sure it’s a good product that every vendor or retail customer will be pleased with.
We started in 1901 growing finished vegetables for grocery stores — mostly tomatoes, leaf lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and herbs. Johanna [Founder August Cornelius’ daughter] (and her husband) Emil Wagner took ownership of the greenhouses around 1931 and continued with vegetables, but later added a few potted petunias. [Their son, my husband Rich] and I took leadership in 1967 and incorporated the business. We added production of potted geraniums and later discontinued veggie production to all floral.
Young plants (plugs) were added during the ’70s and sold through brokers to other greenhouses. We now ship nationwide and to Canada, but we also sell our finished floral products in Wagners Garden Center at three locations in the Twin Cities. We feature a large selection [of plants] in our garden centers that are homegrown by professionals from seed or cutting to finished garden products. They are only available in our garden centers and not available in other garden centers.
Q: How has the business changed most in its 115-year history?
A: The biggest change was the transition from vegetables to young plants (plugs) and finished products. This changed procedures, equipment, distribution, marketing and production schedules completely. The vegetables we grew in ground beds we are now growing on tables. Instead of getting on their hands and knees to harvest a crop, they’re at waist-height. It’s entirely different.
Technology played a big role in switching to plug production. We had to invest in a lot of automation equipment to produce them quickly. It takes a lot more climate controls and control of rooting mixes to grow plugs than to grow finished plants from pot-size on. A lot of greenhouses didn’t want to invest in that technology at that time, so we became a supplier for other greenhouses.
Q: What are the keys to managing retail, production and wholesale operations efficiently?
A: Managing the three parts of the business has not been a big problem with the help of the fifth generation. They are active, responsible, dependable and knowledgeable; they’ve grown up in the business so they know what to expect and what the customer expects.
We do not sell finished retail merchandise to other retail garden centers. We sell plugs to them if they order through a broker. We also do cutting production through a broker. We sell finished product wholesale to landscapers, too.
At the same time that we’re growing for other greenhouses, we’re also growing for Wagner retail. Probably 95 percent of what we sell is what we produce. We order nursery stock, hard goods and tropicals.
Q: What have been your bestsellers or most popular plants this year?
A: Our bestsellers are usually annuals, but they change every year as we keep up with new introductions. Petunias, impatiens — New Guinea impatiens, SunPatiens — are very popular. I suppose we grow more petunias than anything else, but there are all sorts of petunias.
[Customers] mostly come for plants; the hard goods are just add-on accessories. However, we sell a lot of our own Wagner potting soil.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced recently, and how do you overcome it?
A: The biggest challenge has been finding competent seasonal employees to produce and ship products. It’s much easier to procure competent seasonal help for retail, and we are fortunate to have repeat retail help. We probably get most [candidates] from online ads.