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Getting growing

Spread Eagle business preps for garden season

SPREAD EAGLE GARDEN CENTER owner Keri Buffinton stands surrounded by some of the hanging baskets and flowering plants she has started in advance to be ready for Mother’s Day on May 9, perhaps the busiest day of the year for the business. She’ll do at least two more rounds of plantings in the coming weeks to have enough variety in stock for her customers. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

SPREAD EAGLE, Wis. — In the mid-2000s, Keri Buffinton’s husband returned to their home in Spread Eagle with a novel idea.

A trucker, he’d just finished hauling a load of plants. Knowing his wife had a strong interest in growing things — she recently had become a master gardener — Steve Buffinton suggested she try opening a garden center in a recently vacated woodworking and gift shop just off U.S. 2 in Spread Eagle, not far from their home.

“And every day, I’d drive by and think, ‘It could be,'” she said.

From those roots sprang Spread Eagle Garden Center on April 1, 2006, at 4413 N. Lake Road S. in Florence County.

“Fifteen years already — it seems like yesterday,” Buffinton said Friday. “But everybody says when you do what you love, it’s not work.”

The exterior of Spread Eagle Garden Center off U.S. 2 about 2 miles west of the Menominee River bridge in Spread Eagle, Wis. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

While Keri had a long background in retail, she’d never operated a business on her own.

The Buffintons originally were from the area — Keri even initially attended Michigan Technological University to study chemical engineering — but left for other pursuits.

For Keri, it was retail sales. She was operations manager for Marshalls in Omaha, Neb., area until they returned to this region in 1992.

She managed Feldstein Jewelers in Kingsford’s former Birchwood Mall, sold ads for local radio stations and was a sales manager for Orbit Technology in Iron Mountain.

“I loved retail,” she said.

She got seriously into gardening in the early 2000s, joining the Glacial Gardeners — a group in Wisconsin’s Florence and Marinette counties, plus neighboring Dickinson and Iron counties in Michigan — and achieving master gardener status through training offered by Florence County University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension.

That prompted her husband’s nudge toward turning that green passion into a profession.

It wasn’t such a stretch, she said. Her extended family had a history with growing things, from several landscaping cousins to helping out her grandmother.

“I grew up in the dirt, with my grandmother,” she said. “I’d always loved plants, been involved with plants.”

While not in either Iron Mountain or Florence, the location in Spread Eagle proved accessible enough to draw from both, along with Norway, Crystal Falls and Iron River in Michigan, plus Marinette and Florence counties in Wisconsin. Open year-round, almost every week a customer comments they had passed the store for years but never stopped to see what she has to offer, Keri said.

“It’s not like we’re far,” she said, noting the store is only 2 miles west of the Menominee River bridge.

She takes pride in doing all of the hanging baskets and planters at the garden center. It took three weeks, working with part-time staffer Deb Simons and some other Glacial Gardeners, to get the first round started 12 weeks in advance — super-tunias, calibrachoa “superbells,” alyssum — so they’ll be ready for Mother’s Day, the busiest period for the business.

A second round of planting starts this week, with a third round planned in April. They’ll have not just flowering annuals and perennials but heirloom vegetables.

Yet it likely won’t be enough for demand. Her regular customers already have placed orders.

“Everything I grow is gone; it’s sold,” she said, adding, “Last year on Mother’s Day, it was cleaned out.”

They also sell trees and shrubs, starting the season with a sale on bare-root fruit trees. And year-round they stock bird food, feeders, bath basins.

The pandemic did initially have an effect on the business — from early on, they limited the number of customers indoors, provided curbside service and required masks.

“Some people didn’t like it,” she acknowledged, “and would turn around and walk out.”

They also couldn’t do the usual fall classes and workshops she’d conducted in the store due to lack of space. Or the fall flower shows and garden tours they’d attend that provided insights into trends in the industry.

“What’s new and exciting … it’s like fashion,” Keri said.

And they battled supply problems. Trying to stay with American-made products, they ordered pottery from Ohio and red clay planters from Texas — and saw them delayed for months, then have only a fraction delivered.

But that was offset by a rise in seed sales, seed starter kits, and demand for house plants, which went “through the roof,” she said. She has succulents, too, some grown in downstate Michigan.

“It (indoor plants) was a trend that was coming, but when COVID hit … they just wanted something in the house that’s green and pretty,” Keri said.

They used to employ more people when they did landscaping but moved away from that years ago. Yet they still are willing to work with customers on their home plans, recommending plants, shrubs and trees that might fit their concept of what they want on their property.

They have more on site than can be seen from the highway, with greenhouse and trees tucked in back.

“We do a lot with a small amount of people and a small amount of space,” Keri said.

But that might change in the near future. Keri said she’s considering adding two more greenhouses to the three already at the business.

“There’s enough of a demand and if the trend continues … I’m going to have to increase my production,” she said.

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