Whitefish Gardens: It’s on the Other Side of the Rainbow By Tom Cosgrove

Certain people reach a point, not just in their careers but in their lives, when all the logical career and life paths appear to lead to all the wrong places. At this point, a select few of these people opt to step off the path altogether.

Viewed in this context, it makes perfect sense that a Kansas attorney would chance upon a rundown garden center and greenhouse operation in the shadow of Glacier National Park and realize that she found exactly what she was looking for.

“I went through a divorce a couple years ago, and I did some serious thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” says Gail Shrager, now the owner of Whitefish Gardens, Whitefish, Montana. “I had a successful law practice in Kansas City, but I was tired of the conflict and I knew that in my heart I wanted to live somewhere out West. So I sold my practice, put my furniture in storage and hit the road. My only plan was to find the place, maybe in California, maybe in the Rockies, that felt right to me. Beyond that, I figured I'd try to start up a small business, or maybe do consulting work.”

Anyone who yearns to experience the full glory of the American West would be a fool to bypass northwestern Montana. Shrager, who is no fool, drove into Whitefish and decided to stay at least a week. While in search of patio plants to provide some color to her temporary digs, she happened upon what she describes as a “broken- down place” that nonetheless was the only retail greenhouse in Whitefish. “I found what I was looking for,” says Shrager. “The place was due to close in about a week and the current lessee couldn't get the financing to buy it.”

Shrager was able to devote about four months researching the area market and the competition before purchasing the operation through a business loan and a portion of the “modest” nest egg she had accumulated.

“Historically, this had been the floral and greenhouse center for Whitefish,” Shrager explains. “The nearest competition is 20 miles away in Kalispell. “What I found was that local gardeners were making the drive to purchase plants at two retail garden centers or at the chain stores because the local garden center didn't offer many options.”

The next order of business for Shrager was to roll up her sleeves and “spice up” her dream come true. With help from her sister, who flew in from Missouri, Gail cut weeds, hauled dirt, replaced ten-year-old poly on the existing Stuppy hoop house, “sterilized everything,” and renovated the garden center.

In the midst of this work, Shrager found the inspiration for her new company's logo. “The town's name 'Whitefish' was so unusual and I felt I could do something playful with it.” The logo, which Gail designed herself, features a whitefish (a denizen of the local waters) holding a fern in its mouth. “Everyone seems to love it,” she pronounces. “It's certainly different.” (See photo on pg. 4)

The time and elbow grease Shrager devoted to Whitefish Gardens can only be appreciated by perusing the “before” and “under construction” snapshots in the photo album that chronicles the work. She was not all that surprised that the local customer base flocked to Whitefish Gardens when she opened for business in Spring of 1999. In addition to a nice selection of bedding plants, specialty annuals, perennials and assorted foliage, herbs and veggies, the 3,000-ft.-garden center contained a well-thought-out mix of high-end and modestly priced garden sculpture and other ornamentation, along with a diverse selections of containers, garden tools, fertilizer and related hard goods.

“I figured that one of the best ways to compete as a garden center was to provide a level of artistry not available at the garden centers in Kalispell,” she explains.

What Shrager did not anticipate was an untapped demand for garden design and landscape services. “A lot of wealthy people come here in the winter to ski, but a lot of wealthy people also own summer homes in the area,” she says. “Within days of opening, I was getting inquiries from these folks or from their groundskeepers. Basically, they wanted me to bring them landscape material, design their landscapes, even do landscape work. The issue with these folks isn't money; it's to bring landscape interest and color to their properties as quickly as possible.”

Shrager listened with a poker face as potential clients sounded her out on projects ranging from terraced slopes to the excavation and finishing of large garden ponds. More often than not, her only question was, “How soon do you want me to get started?” She was confident enough in her innate ingenuity and artist's eye to personally handle garden design and modest landscape projects. She subcontracted any work she knew was out of her league. “I think I've found success in my professional life because I don't like to say 'no' to any opportunity.”

Landscaping work accounted for 25 percent of revenue generated by Whitefish Gardens in 1999. “My goal for 2000 is to quadruple that,” says Shrager, adding that she has just hired Bob Ferguson, an experienced landscape design and maintenance manager. “Bob, who has 25 years of experience in heading up landscape maintenance programs, will be expanding our own commercial and residential landscape management program.”

No longer a novice

Having doubled her production space with the addition of another Stuppy poly house, Shrager also plans to expand production. She sold 200 baskets in 1999 and expects to sell 500 in 2000. Demand for perennials has been very high, particularly “natives” well-adapted to high-altitude conditions. (Average elevation around Whitefish is 3,500 ft.) “The demand for natives is even bringing me some wholesale customers, who in turn are supplying the conservation and reclamation market,” she says.

Shrager will be heating her greenhouses over the winter to propagate about 20 percent of next spring's bedding plant crop and a significant number of perennials and natives. Indeed, with the recent hiring of noted propagator Jeff Evans, Shrager has sent a signal to growers the length and breadth of Montana and beyond that she is no dabbler in floriculture — she means business. “Jeff has twenty years of experience in horticulture; he's a nationally recognized expert in the propagation of native plants, and a garden designer whose work has appeared on the cover of Garden Design magazine.”

When considering the pace at which she built and refined what was little more than a dream just two years ago, Shrager does not lose track of what has driven her success. “I'm a pragmatic, hard worker with a dream,” she says. “I've developed the garden center into the sort of garden center I would want to patronize as a customer. The emphasis is on total service, which includes housecalls for customers of any income level, informed advice, top quality stock, and complete landscape maintenance service, from garden design to installation to comprehensive lawn and landscape maintenance.”

Tom Cosgrove

Tom Cosgrove is editor of GPN.

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