North Jersey garden centers find a new niche

The business season for North Jersey garden centers typically begins in the middle of March, but local store owners say this winter’s relentless assault of below-normal temperatures and above-average snowfall has forced homeowners and companies to delay overhauling landscapes and buying lawn upkeep products such as mulch and topsoil.

A slow start to the season can badly damage their business, especially when they are faced with stiff competition from larger retailers like The Home Depot and Lowe’s, they said.

“I haven’t gotten any of the normal calls for pansies or things like that,” said Norman Frederick, a co-owner of Rock Ledge Garden Center in Wayne. “I’m glad firewood makes up 30 percent of my business now, because no one is calling. The ground is still frozen, so people couldn’t start planting.”

The increased competition in the past few years and the compressed season this year have forced North Jersey garden center owners to think of new ways to appeal to customers — including specializing in niche aspects of garden work or selling uncommon trees and shrubs.

Denny Wiggers, owner of Denny Wiggers Landscaping and Garden Center in Paramus, said that after seeing competition from larger retailers, and mismanagement of other locally owned garden centers, he decided to focus on becoming known for high-end stonework — such as retaining walls, patios or lawn furniture cut out from large slabs of stone. The stonework can be done in colder temperatures than most of the landscape design and maintenance. Wiggers said the stonework helps propel sales in other areas of the business, such as lawn maintenance.

The key to becoming a leader in stonework is being willing to take risks, Wiggers said. He visits Mexico yearly and will visit China in October to find new ideas to incorporate into the projects he does for corporate clients, he said.

After revamping his store’s online presence with examples of his stonework, Wiggers said, he has worked with pop singer Lady Gaga and radio personality Don Imus, and he is designing a large stone pizza oven sculpture for pizza retailer Papa Razzi’s renovated store in Short Hills.

Wiggers said that without his online presence, which he updates during the day, he would not have been able to show his work. Any business not embracing the Internet won’t succeed, he said.

“I try to make my stonework be one-of-a-kind, and there is a real market for customers looking for that kind of work,” he said. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to be creative.”

Wiggers said his stonework now accounts for about half of his yearly business. His store also sells rare or unusual ferns, provides fencing, and sods Manhattan rooftops for weddings and other large events.

Cristina Alves, a co-owner of Mayberry’s Nursery Garden Center in Woodcliff Lake, said her store works mostly with residential clients and has more than $1 million in annual sales To be competitive, she said, she focuses on ordering high-quality ferns and trees from Oregon, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania that can be used as part of the store’s landscaping design and construction business.

“A lot of our clients are people who move from Manhattan and have no idea what it takes to maintain a yard,” Alves said. “But they still want a high level of quality with the work they get. The customers we typically get orders from aren’t looking for the cheapest work; they want the highest quality work they can get.”

Alves said Mayberry’s projects range in cost from $1,000 to more than $200,000, depending on the expansiveness of the design and plants used in it. She said customers typically look for large evergreen plants or ornamental plants that are different from what can be bought at a large retailer.

Despite the compressed business season this year, Alves said she expects a boom in business once the weather finally gets warmer. “Sure the weather has delayed everything this year,” she said. “People don’t think of spring until they can step outside and actually feel it. But that’s the way it is for garden centers.”

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