Northwest Business Magazine

Success Story: Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center

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Al Anderson wanted a better selection of nursery plants. He got just that, and he’s expanded his business to include a wide variety of landscaping needs.

Sean Ducey, garden center manager, and Shelley Isenhart, perennial specialist, have spent years cultivating relationships with familiar customers. (Dustin Waller)

When Al Anderson owned a Barrington landscaping business in 1990, he struggled to find quality plants. Frustrated in his search, he took matters into his own hands. He purchased his own garden and landscape center, Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, 8401 Route 31, Crystal Lake. Four years later, wife Michelle left her job as a medical assistant to join him.

“Quality plants were hard to find,” says Michelle. “You have to find the right growers, and it takes time to grow a quality plant.”

Quality is essential at this garden center, which sells trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, groundcovers and roses, as well as mulch, topsoil and bulk gravel products.

Whispering Hills is more than just gardens. The landscaping service helps customers with spring and fall cleanup, especially trimming, weeding and edging. At the garden center, stone materials are sourced from across the country, with selections of outcropping, bluestone, steppers and flagstone. The greenhouse includes design ideas for displaying fountains, statuary and outdoor décor, while the gift shop sells garden tools, art and books.

The business employs 30 staff members. Some, like Sean Ducey, garden center manager, and Shelley Isenhart, perennial specialist, have developed close ties with many of the center’s longtime customers. “They have a following,” says Michelle. “They take the time to know our customers on a personal level and get beyond just trying to sell them a plant.”

“We take an interest in getting to know them and their yards,” adds Ducey. “It makes the whole process run so much more smooth. We enjoy the customers. I recently talked to a woman who called to let me know that her rhododendron plant was in full bloom, and that she was the envy of the neighborhood. It’s fun to hear their excitement.”

Excellent customer service sets good garden centers apart from the competition, and it’s something Michelle and Al emphasize daily with their team. “We take the time to answer questions, walk customers around, and show them the plant material, because we really do care,” says Michelle. “We don’t want to just sell a plant. We want a happy customer.”

Karen Kucharski of Lakewood is one such satisfied customer. “They were, by far, the most reasonable and timely in getting back to us,” she says. “Al and his staff were really nice and easy to work with. I probably changed my mind at least 20 times during our project, but Al took it all in stride. He far exceeded our expectations, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them.”

Gardeners love perennials, and the garden center is filled with hundreds of varieties of these winter-hardy plants.

Although the landscaping industry has been hit hard by the recession, Whispering Hills has stayed the course, finding new ways to increase efficiency. “This year has seen multiple challenges – the sluggish economy, high gas prices and the inclement spring weather,” says Michelle. “Every year, we have to make concessions. We’re a lean and mean operation. We used to do hand watering, and now we’ve added drip irrigation to cut down on the labor time. We constantly evaluate what can be done better to improve the services and products that we offer.”

Over the past 20 years, the biggest change has been the variety of plants, especially perennials. These hardy plants grow and bloom over the spring and summer, die back in the autumn and winter, then return in the spring.

“When we started with perennials, we had five to 10 varieties, and now we literally have hundreds,” says Michelle. “People are getting away from annuals and going with perennials. They’re lower maintenance, and they keep coming back every year.”

Hydrangeas, long popular for their large flower heads, are making a big comeback. “They’re so versatile,” says Ducey. “You can go sun or you can go shade with them, and they are drought-resistant. You get a huge amount of flowering time with them. When other plants are done flowerings, hydrangeas continue to bloom. They have spectacular fall colors and will bloom all the way until the first heavy frost.”

For some homeowners, the key to a great outdoor experience means more than planting a tree or shrub. Whispering Hills installs complete outdoor living rooms, from patios and walkways to fireplaces, kitchens, bars and more. Imagine a room with no walls.

“Many people want to have the same conveniences they have inside, if not more,” says Michelle. “It’s the biggest trend we’ve seen in the last five years. Outdoor living increases the size and possibilities for entertaining and relaxing with family and friends.”

Last year, Kucharski hired Whispering Hills to build a backyard escape, complete with patio, fireplace, grill area, fountain and landscaping. “It turned out absolutely fabulous,” she says. “For the first two years we lived here, we had no backyard space and couldn’t really entertain or eat outside. Not now. During a recent power outage, we went to the backyard and lit a fire, even though it was hot outside. It’s been great.”

Sure, it’s costly to transform your green space, but Michelle says landscaping can increase a home’s value by as much as 10 percent. “It’s good to start with a plan that makes sense,” she says. “You may not be able to afford it all at once, but a cohesive plan allows you to complete the work in phases. A plan helps to ensure that you do it right the first time.”

Regardless of the project, Ducey offers new customers simple advice for getting started. “Buy a couple of magazines to get some ideas,” he says. “Pay attention to your site – are you getting sun or shade? Take some pictures and bring them in. That will help us to determine the scope of your project.”

Most of Whispering Hills’ customers live nearby, in Cary, Crystal Lake, Lake in the Hills and Algonquin.

Word-of-mouth helps to draw new business, as do social media, including Facebook. Whispering Hills hosts free educational seminars, usually in the spring, and offers discounts to area garden clubs.

“We have customers who become hooked on plants,” says Ducey. “They come back weekly or monthly, because they can’t wait to see what’s new. For some, it’s truly a hobby. They love gardening and spending time in their yards.” ❚

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