Editor’s note: A version of this story first published in the May issue of Wenatchee Valley Business World.
WENATCHEE — This past March marked 53 years since Clyde Ballard approached then-Sav-Mart Owner Lonnie DeCamp about opening a garden center at Sav-Mart. DeCamp agreed, and in the spring of 1966 the Sav-Mart Garden Center was born.
It started out small. A truckload of trees and shrubs were all they got for the season. A plastic-covered hut was the only shelter from the sun in the parking lot. It wasn’t until 1986 that the permanent greenhouse structure was built in the parking lot. The bark and irrigation came later.
Ballard ran the garden center for another four years. It’s had multiple managers since, the most recent being Karen Mickel. She has managed the garden center for 12 years and is credited with bringing it “into the 21st century” with online ordering for their plants.
Mickel said the garden center has been popular since it first opened.
“That garden center has almost a cult following. People are so excited when they see that bark go down, because it’s spring then,” she said. “We have good prices, we have good selection, we have good service, we have knowledgeable people there that can help you.”
Sav-Mart’s Owner and Lonnie DeCamp’s son, Steve DeCamp, echoed the sentiment.
“We continue to do it because people really enjoy it — people look forward to seeing it and they love shopping here,” he said. “People who like to garden, this is where they come.”
Mickel said she has been an avid gardener all her life, wherever she’s lived. She uses her gardening experience to help people who shop at the garden center. She and her 14 employees at the center are honest with people about whether plants will thrive in their yards.
“We answer questions about where to place something — in sun or shade. Or ‘Does this have invasive roots?’ Or ‘Is this a plant that’s going to go to seed and take over my yard?’ ” she said. “I try to only bring in plants that work here.”
The garden center’s most senior employee is Polly Price.
“The knowledge that Polly has is encyclopedic. She can look at a dead plant and tell you what did it,” Mickel said. “She’s so dedicated.”
This spring marks 37 years at the center for Price.
“I like the people, being outdoors, working with the plants. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint one particular thing because I like all parts of it,” she said. “I like to help people get their plants going, and every year I learn something new from something I read or looked up because I was curious.”
She said anyone can learn to be a successful gardener if they’re willing to put in the time.
“It’s just a learning process,” she said. “You can’t just throw something in the ground, say ‘Grow!’ and walk off and leave it.”
Besides expertise, the garden center offers standard trees and shrubs, a variety of flowers and all your standard vegetables. It also brings in lemon and lime trees, tropical flowers and garden decor.
Mickel said the demographic of people who shop there has changed since the garden center started. While it used to be mostly orchardists, now she sees new families landscaping their homes, more Hispanics, and young people wanting to learn to grow their own organic food.
“It’s kind of rewarding to grow your own and learn from your mistakes,” Mickel said.
Mickel said they go through a lot of plants. They sell multiple flats (48 plants) at a time and have multiple truckloads delivered each week. The most popular plant in terms of sales? Roma tomatoes.
“We sell so many roma tomatoes, I’m surprised that when I’m driving around town I don’t see them in everyone’s front yard,” she said.
The garden center opened in late-March this year and should wrap up around mid-June, Mickel said.
“We’re like the circus; we pop up one day and then come mid-June — poof! — we’re gone,” she said. “We wouldn’t be there without our customers that come back every year and we appreciate them and we look forward to seeing all their faces.”