Garden Rant Interview: Nurseryman John Peter Thompson


Anything exciting happening in horticulture that you can tell us about?

Theme gardens, such as butterfly or fragrance gardens, are
beginning to become mainstream. Also,
environmental or green garden types such as roof top gardens are cutting
edge. Fr
om a big-picture design point of view,
the garden as simply another room of the home to be lived in is exciting. I also note that gardeners are, sometimes
reluctantly, beginning to accept animal life as an integral part of the
gardening experience. So we’re seeing the melding of
gardens and birding and the resultant understanding of the need for an ecosystem
that is not sterile and devoid of life.Trillium_cuneatum_med_1

What frustrations are people in the nursery business experiencing today?

Heh, sheesh, gads. Besides
the normal business issues of operating cost going up and retail pricing being
forced down, we find that our newer customers do not share the culture of growing or
an understanding of basic plant needs. This results in sprinkler systems which run all the time rain or shine,
or the reverse – no water when a plant needs it. Of course this is also an opportunity to reach out and provide
educational services, which would differentiate our business as independents
from the large national chains.

ideas about how garden centers can help to educate gardeners?  And what do you
think of our suggestion that all plants carry both common and Latin names?

First to the name. We try
to use common names along with botanically correct names. Most of the
time this is simple – Acer/Maple. However, some plants have a plethora
of common names and deciding which
one to use becomes an exercise in frustration. On top of this, we have
botanical name changes such as Chrysanthemum to
Dendranthemum and then back again. I
think some Sedums went through a scientific reclassification too. I
think the key is informed staff and great

What do you think of all this press lately about the decline of gardening in

:  First reaction is that
negative publicity reinforces negative, from a garden center perspective, so I am not amused. But
careful reflection notes that there is a trend among our customers for ready-now
gardens, with no-maintenance. Traditional gardeners received a certain pleasure in watching plants
grow and evolve. Now, perhaps because
many do not expect to stay in one home for longer than ten years, if that long,
the “fun” of the process is gone and it is results only that are sought.

[Photo: Trillium cuneatum from the National Arboretum’s Photo Gallery.]


  1. [This comment by Trey of Golden Gecko was lost by Typepad and recovered and reposted by Susan.}

    This is great! I wanted to hear stories about nursery people and how they are dealing with the gardening world in the 21’st century. Checked out their web page and was blown away by the number of seminars they offer. I like the old fashioned feel of the web page, which seems to fit the history and image of the nursery.

    I also just received my new issue of “Nursery Retailer”, which featured an article on another large operation in Lake Bluff, IL. called “Pasquesi Home and Gardens”. It’s a second generation garden center doing over 9.7 million dollars a year. I would gather that “Behnke’s” is somewhat in that same class.

    I enjoy reading about well run garden centers, since I can glean much from the areas they have been successful in. The list of seminars “Behnke’s” offers has given me ideas for my own workshops.

    The only thing about the article in “Nursery Retailer”, and other publications like it, is they tend to focus on second and third generation nurseries that have built up reputations over many years. I learned that at “Pasquesi’s” they grow their annuals and perennials in an 18,000 sq. ft. greenhouse, have an express drive through service, 30,000 sq. ft. outdoor selling area, 2,500 sq. ft. home and garden accent department, 1,500 sq. ft. pet supplies and birding area, have their own private label potting soil, 15,000 sq. ft. of indoor retail area, and 140 parking spots. They even have a “buffet-style ‘Bone Bar’, where” you “can buy gourmet ‘ice cream cones’” for your dog!

    Am I jealous? No. I respect nursery people who have managed to run a garden center for so long. There is so much to glean from their successes and failures. If I lived near these stores I would be happy to have such quality operations nearby me.

    I am just personally bored with hearing how second and third generation garden center owners are coping. I think, since my wife and I are building our garden center from scratch, that the founder’s stories are the most interesting. The story of Albert and Rose Behnke on their web page is compelling. Here is a clip, “Behnke Nurseries faced rough times in the early years. Albert Behnke opened the nursery in 1930. Not only was this during the Depression, but Maryland was also suffering from a prolonged drought. Business was very slow so he and his wife, Rose, took extra jobs to provide for themselves and their growing family.” Now that makes me want to read more! Drought and Depression! Makes me want to find out how they coped.

    I respect John Thompson as a nurseryperson. Running a second or third generation garden center is not easy. I worked at a third generation garden center in San Francisco, and the issues the children and grand children had to deal with are complex and difficult.

    John has done a better job than they, as his store is still open and the one I worked at is closed, due to the children and parents not getting along. I agree with much of what he said and disagree with just a couple of things, not worth mentioning.

    Give me stories to inspire me. Tell me how “so and so” is cutting edge, working below the radar of the big stores and chains, wondering how they will make it through another winter so that they can do it all over again in spring, and going against the grain of conventional thinking, and carving out a niche for themselves.

    Posted by: Trey | July 12, 2006 at 08:54 AM

  2. (I attempted to post this yesterday, but that function was down for maintenance.)

    JPT said: >…there is no de facto correct garden style; to each his or her own. Gardening is a wonderful form of self-expression.< Amen and Preach On! I get a real kick out of people who defy the neighborhood norms and have a frontyard full of squash vines (as a house around the corner from me does) or who plant an apple orchard in their side lot. There is a great story behind every one of those front doors. As opposed to the "grass lawn with azalea foundation planting and perhaps one dogwood in its own stone circle" so popular here - are you intrigued to learn more about the folks that live there? I think not.

  3. Can anyone help me get in touch with JOHN PETER THOMPSON?
    I am trying to reply to his 1999 posting of the BEHNCKE Family Tree in Gross-Flintbeck, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
    I have in my files four BEHNKE-BENCK-BEHNCKE from 1710-1802, all born in the Voorde-Flintbek-Gross-Flintbeck area.
    Please ask him to contact:

    Harro H. Lange in Canada
    [email protected]

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