Don Rietveld didn’t know what to expect when he bought out a friend’s agricultural chemical establishment in 2008 to open his own garden center. The Great Recession had shrunk the economy to a point where any new business venture was a tremendous risk.
“I started at the bottom,” Rietveld says. “I only had to go up.”
Rietveld started small, moving his friend’s business 20 minutes south from residential South Holland, Ill., to Crete, a rural community in need of fertilizer to fill the regions’ abundance of one-to two-acre plots.
“Right off the bat I had a large commercial base where we were selling 15 semi-loads of fertilizer a year,” Rietveld says. “Not many garden centers were doing that kind of volume.”
Crete Garden Center & Nursery still carries a strong foundation of customers in need of fertilizer, agricultural chemicals and grass seed. Rietveld and his son, Josh, have also expanded their inventory to include a healthy selection of annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs, topsoil, mulch and hardscape materials.
Year-by-year growth allowed Rietveld to build a 10,000-square-foot barn that houses the garden center’s landscaping division, while a matching space holds the business’s retail area and administrative offices. A diversification of services, married to a consistent customer experience, has been key to the garden center’s success, its owner notes.
“Word of mouth about our knowledge of products was big for us,” Rietveld says. “The economy is loosening up and people are spending money again.”
A suite of services
About half of the family-owned business deals with landscaping, a testament to Rietveld’s previous quarter century of experience maintaining lawns and plowing parking lots for a mostly commercial customer base. Crete Garden Center sells paving and decorative stones alongside high-end hardscape materials from manufacturers such as Unilock and Belgard. Patios and other outdoor living spaces are popular this summer, with Rietveld often directly involved with the design and build.
“I like laying out the job with my guys,” he says. “It’s great to see the customer reaction after you’ve made their property different and beautiful. Our customers want to deal with a mom-and-pop business that’s hands-on.”
Full planting services for all items purchased at the nursery, meanwhile, include a liquid fertilizer starter kit as well as any needed topsoil or soil amendments.
“Our planting service is very popular,” says Rietveld. “We’ll help the customer find the right spot in their yard for shade trees and other plants.”
Fans of Rietveld’s topsoil delivery service appreciate the speedy turnaround from completing their order to the product’s appearance on their doorstep.
“We can haul material with our own trucks usually within an hour,” Rietveld says. “This is big with small contractors who don’t have a way of getting material to their job sites. Anything we install, we guarantee. We’re located in an area where people want this kind of service.”
Hydrangeas and other blooming plants are current hot sellers, complementing a wide variety of “Heartland Fresh” tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers and eggplant the garden center grows in 3.5-inch pots. Fruit fanatics have their pick of apple, peach, pear and cherry trees.
“We’ve got a good reputation and a lot of equipment to go in and knock out (projects) competitively,” Rietveld says. “Customers come to us because we have the advice they want. Then we get repeat business from customers who want to see our new shipments.”
Knowledge is power
That knowledge extends to Crete Garden Center’s 20 employees, among them Rietveld’s wife, Donna, who works in flower sales. Josh oversees the garden center and runs the snowplow division.
“It’s rewarding working with my family and seeing what they can do,” Rietveld says.
Together, the Rietvelds promote the business as an epicenter of gardening know-how. During spring 2017, the garden center hosted a seminar on creating a fairy garden. For Mother’s Day, children were invited to plant flowers on site, enjoying a festive atmosphere that included games and an inflatable bounce house. Rietveld is currently planning Crete Garden Center’s fall fest, where families are welcome to peruse his seasonal assortment of mums, kale and asters.
“We’ve been doing on-site activities for a couple of years,” Rietveld says. “You’ve got to have those activities to show your expertise. It’s something to bring in people and promote the business.”
Rietveld opened the garden center nine years ago, but a total of 30 years in landscaping has prepared him for any question a shopper may have.
“A new landscaper may come in with no idea what to do about the yellow nutsedge in their yard,” Rietveld says. “We’ve got the knowledge of how to spray it and how to treat it. We know what works and doesn’t work, and that’s helped us grow every year.”