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FAIRFAX - Gardeners follow the calendar and weather reports. But when you're the one who supplies the gardeners, your planting season comes in the dead of winter.
'This is our eighth season of growing,” Tony Schmidt said one morning last week.
Schmidt and his wife, Nancy, purchased Fairfax Greenhouse and Landscaping in 2014.
'This place was for sale, the opportunity was here,” Schmidt said.
'I thought if I had the time to devote toward it, this was the time to do it.”
Schmidt had operated his own groundskeeping and snow-removal business on the side while working in retail and insurance sales.
Growing up in Tripoli, he'd cared for his family's yard 'from the time I was real young. My father passed away at a young age, so I always did the yard work from about the age of five. I was the gardener with (my mother). She always needed someone to turn the soil, and she wasn't going to pay anybody to do that.”
Schmidt found he liked 'turning the soil,” perhaps even in spite of himself.
'I probably wasn't the happiest teenager, helping her,” he said. 'But at the same time, it gave me all that knowledge. My grandfather was a farmer, and I learned a lot from him, too.”
The previous owner opened the Fairfax greenhouse to the public only a few weeks a year. The Schmidts took it year-round.
'When we bought the place, there was very low inventory,” Schmidt said. 'It was in desperate need of repair and we had to fix it up. It's been a process.
'In our eighth year, things are running a little smoother, but not as smooth as what the world throws at us.”
Including last year's global pandemic and inland hurricane. With Highway 151 traffic through Fairfax disrupted due to a bridge-replacement project, he'd cut back on inventory even before COVID-19 hit in March 2020.
'A lot of garden centers across the state were shutting down because they didn't know what the governor was going to do,” he recalled. 'I spent days and nights with the legislators and the governor's office advocating because I start growing at the end of January, the beginning of February.
'All of a sudden they start talking about (COVID-19) and I've got all this inventory and if I can't be open to sell it, it's like having a cow and not being able to milk it.”
'He was phenomenal during all that,” Nancy Schmidt said. 'With everything shutting down, he made sure that he contacted our legislators and advocated for us. He helped push them to allow us to stay open.”
Which they did, with enhanced sanitation and social-distancing practices and a reduced staff. They found that with homeowners staying closer to home, gardening and landscaping became popular do-it-yourself projects.
'We had different customers last year and I don't know if it was because of advertising or because of COVID,” Schmidt said. 'People had more time on their hands.
'Some might have done it with their parents and grandparents, and now they were wanting to do it with their kids. They bought everything from seeds to plants.”
They quickly bought out the Schmidts' reduced inventory. Meanwhile, the greenhouses - there are six - had just been repaired after an April hailstorm when the Aug. 10 derecho struck.
'With the roofs being plastic, we lost those,” Schmidt said. 'Ten days after those were replaced the derecho hit. The derecho pretty much wiped out all the greenhouses. Everything had to be replaced.”
With just two greenhouses fully operational, Schmidt nonetheless managed to plant a full inventory this year. He and his staff of eight - 'not counting family” - are ready for a big weekend.
'This weekend is probably going to be phenomenal,” he said. 'It's supposed to be 70 degrees, sunny. It's Easter weekend, people are home. Families are going to come in.”
Schmidt estimated his groundskeeping and landscape services accounted for 80 percent of his business when he bought the garden center. Greenhouse sales since have grown to about 40 percent.
Still, son Aaron Schmidt, a full-time teacher, keeps busy designing and working with the landscaping crew of three.
'He does all my landscape design and the bidding process and everything else,” Schmidt said.
'He's pretty much hands-on. I'm a little a little older, and it's harder on the body.”
Keeping up with customer interest and trends is a constant challenge.
'Prior to getting into this, I never even knew there was a black petunia,” Schmidt said. 'The first year we started with seeding 25 of them. Now we sell over 250.
'They're different, and people want that. We probably have over 50 different kinds of petunias.”
Schmidt also stocks about 50 tomato varieties and some 150 annual plants.
'Each person is set on a different variety, and they don't like to change,” he said. 'We do everything from annual flowers to perennial flowers to trees, shrubs, vegetable gardens.”
Many customers still are working through their own derecho recovery.
'The yard will somewhat come back” is Schmidt's advice. Where it needs some help, he's ready with seeds, fertilizer and trees - some '25, 30 feet tall, three or four inches around.”
With added attention and maybe some adjustment for lost shade, Schmidt said most damaged yards and gardens will return to their pre-storm condition, or even better.
'Mother Nature seems to take care of itself,” he said.
'We're in an instant-gratifying world. It's not going to be taken care of in one, two years. It's a long-term process.”
Meanwhile, Schmidt's dealing with another supply-chain issue.
'I just found out all of our ceramic pots won't be here until June through August,” he said. 'They're on some ship, and they're stuck.
'That's part of life. I'm not the only one dealing with it. I'd rather be short on a pot than toilet paper.”
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At a glance
' Owner: Tony and Nancy Schmidt
' Business: Fairfax Greenhouse and Landscaping
' Address: 555 W. Southview Rd., Fairfax
' Phone: (319) 846-2260
' Website: fairfaxgreenhouse.com