It’s easy to take a trusted friend for granted — until you know they are going away for good.

After 31 years of helping customers select plants, shrubs and trees, Wischmeier Nursery, Garden Center and Gift Shop, 240 Jonesville Road, will close permanently sometime in early July.

Immediately after the announcement was made earlier this month, customers began flocking to the 6,990 square-foot facility on the north side of Garden City, said 17-year employee Chad Scott.

While it’s easy to assume liquidation discounts were a big incentive, similar savings offered during past sales have attracted only about 50 people during a weekend, according to founder John Wischmeier Sr.

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In contrast, about 10 times that number of customers have shown up during the past two weekends, he said.

“I couldn’t believe the response.” John Wischmeier said. “And every other person is telling us how much they are going to miss us. It makes you think, ‘Hey, where have you guys been?’”

While some customers are worried about losing the business’ unique specialty plants, others said they’ll feel lost without the staff’s expertise, Scott said. He’s one of seven employees who will lose a job when the business closes.

But what seems to bother people the most is a realization they are losing a friend who cares enough about their needs to tell the truth — even if it costs them a big sale, Scott said.

When enough details are obtained to determine a customer’s request won’t work satisfactorily, the staff is instructed to inform the customer immediately, Scott said.

That level of honesty and concern over profit has inspired loyalty that John Wischmeier Sr., 74, finds both surprising and gratifying while approaching retirement, said his son, Jerry Wischmeier.

Not an easy decision

The decision to close was bittersweet and not easy to make, Jerry Wischmeier said. He’s worked alongside his dad since he was 15 years old.He recalled when his father would finish his shift at Reliance Electric, he would pick up Jerry and his brother, John Jr., from high school and take them to perform landscaping work until either darkness or exhaustion made them quit.

One year after exclusively offering landscaping services, John Wischmeier Sr. brought in a house trailer at the current location that served as a makeshift store that sold trees, shrubs and flowers.

The two-story rustic cedar wood main building was built in 1989, followed by the addition of a one-story north wing about 10 years later.

As the first Garden City establishment south of downtown Columbus on Jonesville Road, Wischmeier long has been a visual landmark for motorists.

It also has become an unofficial historic landmark as well, thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Jerry Wischmeier said.

“Whenever NOAA talks about floods, our name will always be on record because they’ve stated so often that State Road 11 is impassable in front of our nursery,” Jerry Wischmeier said.

Although the building was placed more than 6 feet above the highway, the flood of 2008 made it impossible for any customers to get to the business for several days, he remembered.

“So many records were broken, so we didn’t know what we were going to eventually walk into,” Wischmeier said. “Our only visuals were what we saw on TV.”

When the East Fork White River finally receded, the father and son used the nearby railroad tracks to discover the water level had stopped less than a foot from getting inside their main building, he said.

But the business soon took another hit from the recession that began later that year — something the business never fully recovered from, Scott said.

“When I first started working here (in 1999), we had four landscaping crews going out,” Scott said. Today, only three employees work in landscaping, Jerry Wischmeier said.

Pursuing other interests

After spending more than half his life working with his father’s business, Jerry Wischmeier, now 46, wants to pursue other interests while still young enough to do it, he said. The property, which is located on nearly 5 acres, is now listed for sale with a real estate agent.While the family held out hope that one of the founder’s grandchildren might want to take over the business, all now have moved on to pursue other careers, Jerry Wischmeier said.

“This is a lot harder work than most people realize,” Jerry Wischmeier said.

Another challenge has been keeping the year-round business open during the extremely slow months of July, August, January and February, he said.

But their biggest problem is no different from the one that has plagued independent retailers for decades — pricing.

Big national box stores and online retailers either have the financial resources to buy huge amounts or increase profit levels by maintaining a much lower overhead.

While Wischmeier tried to level the playing field by becoming part of a buying group, discounts were only available for trees and shrubbery — not for flowers or perennial plants, Jerry Wischmeier said.

With a strategy of hiring knowledgeable employees, providing hard-to-find specialty plants and guaranteeing customer satisfaction, Wischmeier stayed open more than twice as long as the average U.S. lawn and garden centers, according to industry publications.

Although the strategy was intentional, the two co-owners seem surprised at how important the friendships they’ve developed over 31 years have been to their patrons — and vice versa.

“Many came in every month just to relax, visit or ask if we can have lunch,” John Wischmeier Sr. said “That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”

“We all loved seeing their smiling and familiar faces walk through the doors each day,” said his son.

Perhaps Scott summed it up best when he said that whether you are an employee or customer, the Wischmeier family always make you feel like you are one of them.

“It’s been a nice family here,” Scott said.

Need advice?

Customers of Wischmeier Nursery and Gift Shop seeking new sources of expert advice are reminded Purdue Cooperative Extension – Bartholomew County receives about 1,000 questions a year in the Agriculture and Natural Resources subject area.

The top 10 categories are:

  • Trees
  • Insect identification and control in crops, gardens, and homes
  • Landscaping
  • Weed identification and control in gardens and crops
  • Home fruit and nut production
  • Vegetable gardening
  • Wildlife damage control
  • Crop and garden soils
  • Lawns
  • Plant disease identification and control

Several educational resources from throughout the state and region are available through the extension office, located at 965 Repp Drive.

Information: 812-379-1665 or extension.purdue.edu/bartholomew

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.