Before the Beltline expanded from four lanes to six and before American TV became a splashy resident of the neighborhood, Johannsen’s Greenhouses was there.
Opened in 1960 by Chuck Johannsen at 2600 W. Beltline, at Todd Drive, it was one of the few businesses among the farm fields that lined the South Side corridor and it spread 17 acres, backing up to the UW Arboretum.
“The Beltline had gravel shoulders on it,” Karen Johannsen said.
For more than five decades, Johannsen’s has sold plants, flowers and garden accessories and ornaments, but this will be its last season. Johannsen’s plans to close in October.
The garden store and its outbuildings will be torn down and Baxter will use the land to expand the Nissan dealership.
“We would like to have it done by the end of the year,” Baxter said.
A true family business
For Johannsen sisters Karen and Lyn, and their brother, Gary, life will change dramatically from the 12-hour days — 362 or more of them per year — that each has put into the business.
“I started (working there) in eighth grade, in 1972. This is my 41st spring,” said Karen.
“We did everything, from sweeping floors to tagging plants to waiting on customers,” she said. “We didn’t get an allowance; we got a paycheck.”
Gary and Lyn began working at the shop during their high school years. “I have worked every single Memorial Day, except two or three, since I was 15,” said Lyn. This year, “I worked 93 hours (that) week, and Karen worked more than I did,” Lyn said.
Memorial Day weekend is “the last hurrah of spring,” Karen said. Traditionally, mid- to late May is considered a “safe” planting time, when frost is no longer likely, and brings in many shoppers.
Johannsen’s has been so much a family operation, even the pets have come to work with them. At one point, as many as five dogs hung out in the shop’s kennels. Old-timers have recalled Laddie the Wonder Dog, a collie-Lab mix, who lived at the shop. One couple came by every Sunday to bring Laddie a treat, Karen said.
There was also a cage where customers could bring in kittens to give away. One shopper recently told Karen she had fond memories of that. “She told me, ‘I got one of those cats,’ ” Karen said.
Over the years, some of Johannsen’s ways have changed. Lawn fertilizer, stacked to the ceiling, used to occupy the store’s entrance, now filled with wind chimes, fountains and garden statues. Annual plants, like petunias and tomatoes, were seeded right into handmade, wooden flats.
“I would cut them with a paint scraper and then wrap them up in newspaper (to hand to a customer). That was one of my first jobs,” Karen said.
The siblings have run the business since 1992, when their father, Chuck Johannsen, died. Their mother, Joy, worked alongside them and kept the books until two years ago when health problems forced her to retire at age 80. Joy also owned the property.
Karen said the family had no immediate plans to close shop, but then an unsolicited offer came from Baxter last fall. After “30 days of sleepless nights,” the family made what all of them felt was a very difficult, bittersweet decision, she said.
“We just thought, in this economy ... in five years, when we’re ready (to retire) there may not be a viable offer. And Mom’s health care is quite expensive. So we thought we had to take it,” Karen said.
Johannsen’s has seven year-round employees — who have been with the business ranging from 10 to 38 years — as well as seasonal workers. “They are very loyal, really good people. That was probably the hardest part of the whole decision,” Karen said.
Inside the shop, tables are covered with brightly colored geraniums, begonias, asters and impatiens. There are coleus plants in all sizes and variegated colors, as well as plate-sized hibiscus plants.
Johannsen’s is known for some of the unusual plants it grows, such as black and blue salvia, which attracts hummingbirds; verbena bonariensis, native to South America; and rose-like lisianthus, said Karen, who has a degree in horticulture from the University of Florida.
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Out in front, bedding plants line the sidewalk as well as vegetable seedlings and a wide variety of herbs, from stevia to rue, Cuban oregano to Kentucky colonel spearmint.
On a recent afternoon, Barb Wiley of Middleton was filling her cart with red geraniums and examining the information cards on the hosta plants.
“They have the best bedding plants on the West Side of Madison that I know about,” Wiley said. “The way things are laid out, they are easy to find, and they have wonderful help.”
Julie Winding of Madison left carrying a yellow Gerbera daisy plant. A Johannsen’s customer for 15 or 20 years, Winding said she has purchased “lots and lots and lots” of orchids from the garden shop.
“It’s just the ambience. The owners are wonderful. ... For me, they’ve always gone the extra mile. I’m just shocked (the store is closing),” Winding said. “It’s hard to lose these businesses.”
Gary, whose responsibilities include maintaining the shop, four hoop-house greenhouses and the former farmhouse-turned-supply warehouse, said he will miss the “high-speed, hysterical seasonal business” and the store’s customers.
“It’s a very nice industry; 99.9 percent of the people come in here and they’re having fun. Everybody’s happy,” Gary said.
Gary, 59, plans to retire and take more time to go fishing and birdwatching.
Lyn, 56, will also retire and plans to travel, and go bicycling and scuba diving.
Karen, who turns 54 next week and is a popular subject of radio and TV interviews on gardening, is not sure where she will work but is not ready to retire. One thing she won’t do is open her own garden business.
“You never say never, but my brother, sister and I, we’ve worked as a team. I can’t imagine doing this without them,” Karen said.
The siblings all say closing the business will give them more time to spend with their mother and, finally, to give some attention to their own home gardens.
They’re not sure yet who will adopt the shop’s giant gardenia tree or its three “pet” hibiscus plants, said Karen. “They winter at the greenhouse and they spend their summers on our front lawn. They’re ginormous, probably
7 feet tall, with pink, red and yellow flowers,” she said.
Though it’s not the reason Johannsen’s is closing, the industry is changing, Karen said, and “the whole country’s buying habits” have turned to one-stop shopping.
“The independents are going away. I don’t care if you’re selling nails, books, or steaks,” she said. “Our youth has been brought up on Home Depot and the big-box (stores).”
Dealership to expand
According to the city of Madison website, Kayser’s Baxter bought the Johannsen’s property for $1.45 million; it had been assessed at $734,000. The Nissan property, 2510 W. Beltline, is next door but is in the town of Madison.
Baxter said the dealership needs more space. “We’re sandwiched into a postage stamp there and we lease another, roughly, acre from American TV for car display,” he said.
After participating in that agreement for years, the rent rose sharply last year, Baxter said. “Because of that, I went searching for alternatives and came upon the Johannsens.”
Baxter said he will seek a demolition permit from the city and hopes to recycle some of the materials and to find “a good home” for the greenhouse structures.
Baxter and the Mortenson Investment Group own Arbor Gate, the twin six-story buildings across the Beltline at 2501 and 2601 W. Beltline. Built in 2009 for $48 million, they are nearly 100 percent leased, Baxter said, including several restaurants on the first floor and health care operations in many of the offices.
“It’s been a good project and it really, really cleaned up this neighborhood a lot so we’re pleased about that,” he said.
Baxter said he has no plans for an Arbor Gate II at the Johannsen’s site, but didn’t count that out.
“It’s a nice property, so maybe it could be an Arbor Gate some day,” he said.