After humble beginnings as a produce truck and roadside market operation, Thies Farm and Greenhouses has evolved through six generations of family ownership into a Missouri staple and renowned source of knowledge for up-and-coming gardeners. Fran Thies, store manager of the St. Charles location, discusses the strengths and improvements that have led the business through more than a century of growth.
Q: How was your spring season this year?
A: We had some flooding and high water that came in early, so you’re always dealing with that. It was a good growth year. We’ve been open for five years at St. Charles, and that was kind of that turning point year — for the first four, you’re building and trying to get customers in, so we had a really remarkable year. [It was a] just a really good growing and retailing season.
Q: What do you think is a main strength of Thies Farm and Greenhouses?
A: I think the advantage we have is that we are the growers of what we sell. It’s locally grown and hopefully better stock, with a lot of natives. Just the attention, in general, on plants in gardens and the homesteading that’s going on has really brought a lot of attention to young people coming in and wanting to do their own gardens. We do a lot of classes and education, so that helps cultivate our customers. We’re seeing it trend toward more natural, organic gardening, and that comes with that younger generation. So, we’ve really gotten into that.
Q: You mentioned before that natives are a specialty. What specific varieties are popular in your market?
A: The big thing now is the butterfly garden and rain gardens. At our new location, our entire frontage, which is probably 800 linear feet, is a complete rain garden with all butterfly-attracting plants in it. When that is in full bloom and in season, we’d better have those plants in stock because that’s what everybody wants. The minute they see it growing, that’s what they want to have.
In line with that, we just put in an indoor observation beehive in our St. Charles location. We thought it was just a fun thing to do but we heard that it’s the only one in the state of Missouri because they’re hard to maintain and keep. I remember when I was young, you could go almost anywhere and find one in a business. We can show [customers] close-up how the bees are working and that we’re trying to help maintain the bees in the area for our farming operation and just for the whole circle of life in general.
Q: You opened your St. Charles location about four years ago. Have you encountered any difficulty managing two retail locations?
A: It’s very labor-intensive, and we went from too much rain in the spring to the horrible drought that we’ve been in for the last two months. Here in the Midwest, we actually had that two weeks of 105-degree heat, so dragging hoses around … It’s hard in a labor-intensive business to find those people out there that want to put in that labor and do that kind of work.
Q: I noticed there are recipes posted on your website. Is the food/edible angle a part of the Thies Farm and Greenhouses identity?
A: At our new location, we actually have an in-house bakery, so we do home-baked pies with our seasonal fruit. Since we grow everything, we start with strawberry pies in the spring — right now we’re doing home-baked peach pies and we just had a canning class, because I think it just all goes together. We start in the spring, showing [customers] how to grow their own food, we then provide all home-grown food for them and continue to help them with their gardens and their harvest. The recipes you see [on the site] are normally what’s in season. We’ll have a chef come in to show them different ways to prepare some home-cooked vegetables. It’s just a fun outreach to the community.
Q: Another big focus for you seems to be fall events. Can you tell me more about the Pumpkinland event?
A: That’s huge here, really huge. In fact, financially, [October is] probably our biggest single month of the year. It started as a small “let’s just do something for school groups” event and it’s turned into a multi-location must-have thing. In fact, we’ve been taking reservations for the past month already. It’s only open from Oct. 1 through the 31st. It’s very fall-themed more than it is Halloween or scary themed. It’s really just a wholesome, corn-maze, tractor-ride event. We’ve done that probably for about 40 years now. Our [October] weekends are absolutely crazy. We could probably do [roughly] 5,000 or 6,000 people a day for at least two to three weeks during that time. We didn’t know that many people were here!
Q: Do you have any particular plans for the future or things you want to implement down the road?
A: It’s hard to say when we’re in the middle of our season. We’re still overworked and looking for that break at the end of the year. I guess [we plan] to continue the honest knowledge, customer service and quality product that we’ve had for over a hundred years. That’s really what we plan on doing. Keeping up with the times as new plant products come in, but other than that, the basics are about the same. It’s been fun to educate the public and grow with them.