Ikl Brawner founded Harlequin’s Garden with his wife, Eve, and for 27 years he’s worked to hone their Colorado business into an IGC that uses sustainable plants, materials and methods. Brawner’s operation uses potting mixes formulated in-house to produce strong, well-adapted plants that aren’t reliant on fertilizers. They also aren’t sprayed with pesticides.

“We’ve risked a lot to be this sustainable because it takes a while to create a market,” Brawner says. “You’re out there in pioneer territory trying a new thing. It’s risky.”

However, the gamble has paid off. Their facility is off the beaten path, at the end of a dirt road in Boulder County. It took a while, but once people began to find out about their sustainable approach, they would go out of their way to find them.

“People are willing to drive from Denver so that they can shop in a place where pesticides are not being used,” Brawner says.

ILLUSTRATION © DENK CREATIVE, iSTOCKPHOTO.COM

He doesn’t promise customers that the nursery is 100% pesticide-free because he does bring in some products from suppliers that use pesticides. However, none of them use neonicotinoids, the controversial chemical blamed for the worldwide decrease in pollinator populations. Brawner even started a wholesale nursery on the one-acre lot next door to ensure Harlequin’s Garden had an ample supply of pesticide-free plants.

Brawner also grows a large variety of native plants. They’re seen as a key cog in the sustainable approach because they support pollinators and are well-suited to local conditions. They don’t need as much fertilizer or water and they typically don’t suffer from the pest problems that plague introduced species.

Harlequin’s Garden has also been promoting the use of xeriscape plants for 27 years. Early on, it wasn’t popular. But as droughts happen more frequently and water scarcity becomes more of a factor, marketing themselves as xeriscape experts has helped draw more customers. It’s a useful specialization, Brawner says, and is one that any IGC looking to become more sustainable should consider adopting.

“Anybody who’s considering investing more in the sustainability direction might as well figure the way that global climate change is going, to jump on the bandwagon now,” he says. “It’s not really early, but still there’s plenty of time to get on and make a reputation for yourself before things get really bad.”

The time for IGCs to learn the xeriscape market is before governments put water restrictions in place. When (not if, Brawner says) that happens, natives and drought-tolerant pIants will be on everyone’s wish list. He believes it’s a market that is primed with potential growth.

PHOTO BY LAURA CALDIE
PHOTO BY KIM DILLION
PHOTO BY KIM DILLION

Plants with less plastic

Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop is a hybrid venue that aims to be sustainable on both sides of the business. Based outside St. Louis, Missouri, Maypop knows that their choices matter to their customers. Laura Caldie, Maypop’s marketing director, says sustainability is fundamental to everything they do, from paper straws and composting all of their coffee grounds to their potless plant program.

“We’re marketing to people that have a sustainable lifestyle,” she says. “The coffee that we serve, some people are coming here because they know that it’s single-origin; it’s good to the producers. It’s ecologically produced coffee. They’re coming in for that, but then a lot of them are home veggie gardeners because they understand that it’s best to get healthy food by growing it yourself. We have the edibles department for that. And they know that they get tranquility and peace and happiness from having house plants. It just meshes together in a cohesive way.”

Maypop’s main sustainability initiative on the garden center side is its “No pot, no problem” program. It’s a line of plants that are sold in Ellepots instead of conventional plastic pots. The idea came about through questioning the amount of plastic used in the horticultural supply chain. Many growers have the equipment and machinery to not use the plastic pots. The question that needed to be answered was whether there was enough consumer demand, and whether customers could adjust to a potless plant.

When curious shoppers ask about the program, Maypop’s staff explains the system, and that the plastic trays the potless plants ship in are sent back to the grower to be reused.

Currently, it’s a small collection of annuals and perennials available at the garden center. Caldie says Maypop is planning to expand the line next year to include more variety. They’ve received a lot of positive feedback from customers.

“It really just comes down to taking a stand,” Caldie says. “Whether or not they’re going to buy the product, it does help with the branding by saying, ‘look, this is something we care about. We’re beautifying the environment. So we don’t want to put as much garbage into it.”

SCREENSHOT FROM INSTAGRAM
Harlequin’s Gardens uses its display gardens to educate and inspire its customers.
PHOTO by RUSS COOP, COURTESY OF HARLEQUIN'S GARDENS

Developing disciples

The type of customer who cares about sustainability often is eager to evangelize for their efforts. Caldie manages Maypop’s social media and she is consistently amazed by how many customers take photos and tag them with messages not about how pretty the flowers are or how delicious their latte is, but about how the business they’re supporting is helping the planet.

“There’s so much demand for this that can be harnessed,” she says. “These people want to associate themselves with a business that is sustainable and present it to the world and say, ‘Look, this is important to me.’ I feel like we’re only just barely tapping ?into that and there’s a whole lot more that we can do, but the consumers really want to feel like they’re making an impact on the world. And visiting our business is part of the way that they can do that.”

Brawner agrees that customers want to make a statement by contributing to the success of a sustainable business.

“When people come to Harlequin’s Gardens, they get it,” he says. “They’re saying they’re supporting a business that’s not using poisons, so they’re supporting fewer poisons in the whole environment. They’re supporting a business that uses less energy and has a low carbon footprint. So when they buy plants from us, it’s not costing the environment as much as it is at the next guy because we’re doing so much for sustainability. And that makes people feel good. That’s an important, important thing. If people feel good, they’ll come back. Then, they’ll multiply those same ideas in their own gardens. They come and ask us for advice. How do you do this without pesticides? And we tell them, we show them, we sell them the products that help them. It’s a whole system that can work positively to attract an ever-growing market of people who were interested in supporting the planet.”