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Springfield, MO

Business Spotlight: ’Tis the Season

Christmas Trees are in, but Wheeler Gardens observes a year-round shift toward millennials

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At nurseries in Ozark and Springfield, Mark Wheeler is passionate about plants, produce and trees.

The former Ozark High School principal retired from the education system in 2008, allowing him to put his full attention toward Wheeler Gardens & Florist.

“I’ve always liked growing and gardening,” Wheeler says from his Ozark shop at 601 N. Fourth St. “You’ve got to have a passion for this. You’ve got to like it, because it’s hard work and it’s seven days a week.”

Wheeler says he’s busier now than when he was principal, a job that required plenty of hours between administrative duties, attending ballgames and engaging in meetings and other activities.

“I always tell people: ‘If this becomes work, I’ll quit,” he says.

In Springfield, Wheeler Gardens in the spring moved its retail shop and nursery to 1925 S. Bedford Ave., near Sam’s Club off East Sunshine Street. Wheeler and crew transitioned from the former Springfield site nearby, at 3911. E Sunshine St. There, Getaway Golf and the O’Reilly-Ransin office complex recently have taken its spot.

Right by Sam’s Club, the new location has plenty of drive-by traffic.

“Most of our old customers have found us now,” he says.

In Ozark, Wheeler has leased the property since 1993 from Bass Pro Shops’ owner Johnny Morris, who owns the nearby historic Ozark Mill on the Finley River and the surrounding acreage where speculation abounds about the billionaire’s planned use of the property.

Wheeler is in the same boat as others. He’s never met Morris and has no idea what his plans are for the historic mill.

Morris is a client, too, through Big Cedar Lodge. Another big name is Silver Dollar City, which in the fall, buys mums from Wheeler Gardens, says landscape supervisor Jim Knupp. At SDC, landscape employees start preparing for fall in August and early September.

“We’d be in a world of hurt without him,” Knupp says. “Finding early blooming mums is hard to do.”

For the holidays
At the Ozark nursery, a gift shop features candles, garden flags and other specialty items, with Christmas decorations carefully placed throughout. On a warm winter day, a cat slinks casually through the shop, where garage doors can open to provide an open-air experience. Outside, Christmas trees are priced around $70. In the greenhouse, an employee makes wreaths out of trimmings from the Fraser fir trees, shipped in from Cartner Christmas Tree Farm in Newland, North Carolina.

“They have to grow at least at an altitude of 4,000 feet. Fraser fir, it’s a great Christmas tree,” Wheeler says, noting he typically sells around 450 of the trees each holiday season along with some 400 wreaths.

Cartner Christmas Tree Farm owner David Cartner says independent garden centers and retailers largely in the Midwest and South are the company’s bread and butter.

The company sells about 40,000 Fraser firs a year, and Wheeler Gardens has been a loyal client.

“I’ve worked with him for over a decade,” Cartner says of Wheeler.

The busy season
Christmas items are hot right now at Wheeler Gardens, but the company’s busiest time is in the spring.

Wheeler says his employee count grows to 30 around May, when customers visit in droves to buy perennials, hanging baskets, vegetables and fruit.

Flowers and gifts come into play in the revenue picture, though Wheeler says 85 percent of sales are from the garden center, where seasonal plants, trees, herbs and shrubs also are on display.

In 2016, Wheeler Farms generated $850,000 in revenue, and Wheeler this year is closing in on a 10-15 percent increase.

Contributing to revenue, Wheeler notes his customer base is becoming more populated by the millennial crowd.

“The generation of 25-35 [year olds] is gardening conscious,” he says, pointing to the trend of buying locally produced plants and food.

Wheeler Farms grows 80 percent of its own products at its two nurseries and a farm near Highlandville. Wheeler also rents out what he calls the Venue at the Farm for weddings, as well as its cottage to Airbnb users.

Eight heated greenhouses allow for year-round plant production.

“Primarily, what we grow, we sell,” Wheeler says. “There’s always somebody wanting something.”

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