From growing a bond to planting a career path, the purpose of Down to Earth Garden Center was naturally simple. Benjamin Polzin was 12 years old, and his father suggested starting a lawn mowing business as a way to spend time together outside. So, after school and during weekends, the duo cut locals’ properties in semi-rural Cadott, Wisconsin, where a city billboard boasts you are “half-way between the equator and the North Pole.”
A year after the Polzin father-son team started “playing” outdoors together, momentum picked up and cousin Dominic came on board, too. “We were learning, growing and one thing led to another,” Polzin says.
But more than anything, Polzin really loved plants. He participated in Future Farmers of America and entrepreneurial activities in high school, continuing to grow the business with Dominic and his father. He also thought about all the driving he was doing to acquire plants for customers.
“We decided as a side gig to start growing our own so we’d have plants in stock for landscaping jobs,” Polzin says of the modest plot of perennials he cultivated in 2000 on his family’s farm.
Eventually, Down to Earth was landscaping Monday through Thursday and selling plants out of the farm-based landscape yard on Fridays and weekends.
There are plenty of garden centers that start landscape divisions as a complimentary business – their customers want help putting the right plants in the right place in their yards.
But Polzin’s story is “unusual,” he says. That’s because the thriving destination that today is Eau Claire’s Down to Earth Garden Center came after the landscape maintenance operation had taken off.
Today, the landscape maintenance and design/build operation feeds the garden center and vice versa.
Down to Earth is a garden center on the map in Chippewa County, Wisconsin, as a visitor’s stop and plant lover’s paradise.
“We’ve grown tremendously in size,” Polzin says of the 25,000 perennials the garden center grows annually, with increased capacity or display given a recent expansion.
Down to Earth will grow 25 percent this year and employs roughly 50 people during the busy season.
And, the three original partners are still at the helm steering the company’s success.
“When I was 12, I don’t think I ever could have dreamed what we were doing would turn into this,” Polzin says.
retail business and client base.
Stop, stroll and meditate on the simple. That’s the invitation at the garden center that opened in 2010.
By then, the plant portion of the family business had grown enough critical mass to justify a more robust retail experience than stopping in at the farm for plants. Though, Polzin points out that the Cadott growing farm is still a familiar, loved spot for some customers and is “open by chance or by appointment.”
Of course, running a garden center isn’t all that simple, as Polzin will tell you. Branching out into the original 2.2-acre facility in growing Eau Claire was certainly “a leap of faith,” he says.
But opening a garden center was something Polzin had always wanted to do since Future Farmers of America and high school and planting some perennials on a plot at the family farm. “Plants have always been a passion of mine. I love the plant and people side of the business,” he says.
So when the opportunity came to expand from the growing farm into a full-blown retail center in Eau Claire six years ago, Polzin jumped on it.
He took the lead on managing the garden center side of the business while Dominic focused on landscape operations.
The Eau Claire location extended landscaping opportunities into a growing region of the county with lots of commercial and residential development. “The whole area is exploding with growth,” Polzin says. “Eau Claire is really finding its own, growing the downtown and also in the outskirts.”
So the customer base was there, and while there were garden centers, they were more traditional rows-of-plants retailers vs. the experiential environment Down to Earth wants to provide.
The garden center drew in landscape customers, and for some time, Down to Earth’s overall business mix was about 75 percent landscaping and 25 percent retail. Today, the revenue split is 50/50.
“The daily interactions with new people on the retail side helps guide a lot of landscape business and the garden center is a showroom for us to display plants we can use in customers’ landscapes,” Polzin says of the complimentary business lines.
Landscaping customers can peruse plants and sit down at The Five & Two Café inside Down to Earth Garden Center for a healthy lunch or cup of specialty coffee. They can sip and dream about the potential in their back yards.
“We can have that one-on-one experience with customers as we walk them through the showroom,” Polzin says, adding that getting into the food service business of running a café was new territory.
Creating a garden experience.
Down to Earth Garden Center is in the midst of a significant $1.5-million expansion now, growing from 2 to 6 total acres. “It’s not just a greenhouse,” Polzin says of the center. “It’s a whole experience – the expansion changes everything.”
Dreaming up the next phase of the garden center involved travel to other retailers throughout the country to gather ideas.
“We wanted to have strategic goals in mind, and everything we have done this past winter has been part of our bigger plan,” Polzin says.
“I know that we have landscape customers that only know about us because they stopped here.” Benjamin Polzin, co-founder
That is, to create the ultimate garden center experience that feeds a robust landscaping operation focused on helping people realize their backyard dreams.
“We knew during the last five years that we couldn’t stay with the structure we had. We needed more,” Polzin says.
The Down to Earth team evaluated other garden centers’ parking, displays and amenities, what they sold (and didn’t). Polzin reconfigured the shopping experience, so now there are 2 acres of parking and outdoor selling space with evergreens, shrubs and trees.
The traffic flow inside the garden center has evolved with two checkouts and double the space in that area.
The café continues to be a draw, as does a country store inside the garden center that sells gifts and novelties. Shoppers can pick up garden tools, home décor and even a birthday gift. It’s all about the experience.
The expansion is opening up opportunity for more creativity and differentiation in the market, Polzin says. “We want guests to have fun – and we always greet people with a smile,” he adds.
“We have unique plants they might not find other places, and we merchandise differently by layering displays. It’s not the straight rows of plants you normally see in garden centers and nurseries.”
Polzin can measure the success by the garden center’s traffic and increased inquiries about landscaping services. (In fact, the extra capacity at the garden center is a large part of that 25 percent projected growth this year.)
“A lot of times, customers shop the retail side before we do any landscape install work for them,” he says. “I know that we have landscape customers that only know about us because they stopped here.”
What’s more, the garden center really cements the Down to Earth brand, Polzin says.
“We have a presence. We have a reputation and goes with our name, and people know what to expect when they come here. They trust us.”