Experience shows eager gardeners need to wait until late May
The calendar proclaimed Wednesday, March 20, as the first day of spring.
Don and Lisa Dohrwardt, owners of Don’s Greenhouse, 313 S. Milwaukee St., Fredonia, know that meteorological milestone is really just a date on the calendar.
The real spring arrives when gardeners can sink their fingers into the soil and begin the painstaking process of planting this year’s crop of flowers or vegetables.
That time, at least in this part of Wisconsin, is two months away.
Still, for the Dorhwardts, the inevitable — although tardy — arrival of spring means these are chaotic times in the greenhouse.
“For us, the first day of spring — March 21 — means if we aren’t working like crazy, we are way behind schedule,” Lisa Dohrwardt said.
“It doesn’t get real busy here until around Memorial Day, and then it can be crazy for a couple of weeks. Once we get past that, it kind of levels off.”
The two-person business has about 5,000 square feet of greenhouse space spread out over four enclosed buildings and two outdoor growing shelters.
“I like to say we are farmers under plastic,” Don Dohrwardt said.
Like farmers, he said the business has high front-end expenses every year.
“We probably put $40,000 a year into stock and materials before the season. If a tornado were to hit now, we wouldn’t see any return on that investment,” Dohrwardt said.
The business was founded in 1979.
Dohrwardt called the business, which was founded in 1979, his “victory garden” because he started the greenhouse after losing his job at Simplicity Manufacturing in Port Washington.
“I started with a small greenhouse, and eventually neighbors would stop in to ask if they could buy some of my tomato plants. That’s when the light went on, and I realized it was something I could make money at,” he said.
Dohrwardt has built all of the greenhouses, initially by simply stretching sheets of plastic over some two-by-fours.
College training in math and architecture gave him the confidence to tackle the hands-on aspects of the gardening business.
Dohrwardt has also been pushed into the business side of the operation, doing building maintenance as well as bookwork. He also tracks the schedules for the surprisingly complex task of tending to the garden stock before customers stop in to make their purchases.
“I don’t get to do as much of the fun part of the business as I would like now. But after 34 years, the patterns follow the calendar, and things pretty much fall together,” he said.
Much of his preseason work is preparing gardening soil. The rich, peat soil is heat sterilized and enhanced with organic materials like coconut husks and fertilizer.
“By the time the customer buys our soil, I have probably touched it 18 times. Each time we add something, it is to address a problem or to make it better for growing,” Dohrwardt said.
He estimated the greenhouse sells about eight cubic yards of the treated soil — affectionately called “Don’s magic dirt” by some customers.
Lisa Dohrwardt came to the business from a different angle. An artist by training, she was drawn to gardening as a way to come up with subjects for her paintings.
“My grandmother grew African violets and my mother studied botany. I like to take kind of a Georgia O’Keefe approach to flowers,” she said.
When life as an artist wasn’t paying the bills, Lisa Dohrwardt took a job at a greenhouse and eventually met Don.
She has been the second boss at the greenhouse for 22 years.
Some of the garden stock has been around even longer, including heirloom flowers and vegetables that continue to be clipped and replanted.
Two of the prized offerings are a pair of geranium plants from France that were given to the couple.
“They have distinctive colors that you can’t find anywhere else,” Lisa Dohrwardt said.
People may be surprised to learn that each season brings new fashions, at least in the color of the blooms.
“Pinks have been big for a while. This year, I think the new colors are tangerine and raspberry,” she said.
The greenhouse has an abundance of annual and perennial stock started from seed on site, along with more than 60 varieties of herbs used in cooking and ornamental borders.
Even in the depths of winter, the greenhouse has proven to be alluring to many people. The business is open by appointment only during the off season.
“We have people who stop in just to be in the warm, moist air and to see the plants taking root. It is their way of beating cabin fever,” Lisa Dohrwardt said.
Playing on her artistic inclinations, she hosts a series of workshops on such topics as floral arrangement, herb pruning and holiday centerpieces.
Customers are also welcome to bring favorite pots or planters to the greenhouse, where they can be filled with new, conditioned soil.
“It keeps the mess out of their house. A little spilled dirt isn’t anything to us,” Lisa Dohrwardt said.
Some customers are a lot less concerned about getting dirty.
“We have a group of women who come to the greenhouse every year, making a girls’ day out of selecting plants and potting them for their homes,” Don Dohrwardt said.
“We think that kind of customer service is important to our business because we aren’t located on the main drag. People have to go a little out of their way to get to us and we want to make it worth their while.”
Oh, and about the calender, Dohrwardt doesn’t put too much stock in it yet.
“If someone comes in and wants to buy flowers, we’ll let them know if it is too early and they’ll probably freeze. That might cost us a sale, but we want to provide the most
information we can to our customers,” Don Dohrwardt said.
Image Information: SPRING IS HERE, or at least it is at Don’s Greenhouse in Fredonia, owned by Don and Lisa Dohrwardt (above). Photo by Mark Jaeger