Paulino Gardens’ closure this summer was a sign of the times in Denver’s shifting garden center industry


With fall closing in and spring planting an entire snowy season away, the full effect of the losses Denver area garden lovers endured this summer won’t be felt for months. But some are already mourning.

Paulino Gardens, the venerable garden center and nursery that operated just north of Denver in Adams County for 62 years closed for good on July 28. Its more than six acres of greenhouse and outdoor space is slated to be plowed over to make way for warehouses, the result of the Paulino family’s $12.2 million sale of the property to industrial developer Prologis.

“I was devastated when I heard they were closing and I feel that Denver has lost a beloved treasure,” life-long customer Michele Shank told The Denver Post in a Facebook message this week. “There is nothing more life-affirming than seeing all of the beautiful and sometimes unusual plants at Paulino’s.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver PostIrina Gazzo shops for plants at City Floral Garden Center on Sept. 4, 2019 in Denver.

That closure was followed two weeks later by Groundcovers Greenhouse & Garden Center shutting down after four decades at 4301 E. Iliff Ave. in Denver. Unlike its Adam County cousin, the Groundcovers space will remain green. The city of Denver plans to turn it into a park after buying it for $5.1 million.

Despite those notable departures, the garden center industry is not drying up in Denver. In fact, business is thriving like a succulent in an east-facing window, operators say. It’s external factors — boomtime land values, demand for more industrial space close to population centers and competition from hemp and cannabis growers — that are reshaping the verdant business.

“With all of the apartments and townhomes going in around us, we were at our most profitable ever,” Keri Luster, daughter of Groundcovers’ founder and owner Gary Luster, said of business prior to the sale to the city. But her dad is in his 70s and Denver came calling with a what the two agreed was a fair price.

“It was a good offer,” she said, “and how likely were we to get another good offer like that for a good cause, a park?”

According to commercial real estate firm CoStar, the Denver region is home to 26 garden centers today. In 2009, there were 28 garden centers buildings in the 7-country metro area. The numbers do not account for tree nurseries or big-box retailers like Walmart or Home Depot that dedicate some of their space to gardening goods.

Jim Lee, a retail broker with CBRE’s Denver office, noted that garden centers are insulated from online competition in a way few industries are. Touching, seeing and smelling remain essential parts of the buying experience. But centers also usually demand a lot of space, particularly if the business has a nursery component. That can mean vulnerability for renters and opportunity for owners.

“At some point, garden center property owners can make more money selling their property than operating it as a retail shop,” Lee said in an emailed statement.

It’s not just the retail garden centers that are taking advantage of the opportunities created by a hot industrial real estate market. Later this year, Welby Gardens will close down its 10-acre greenhouse operation at 2761 E. 74th Ave. in Adams County and move its headquarters to its existing Arvada location. The greenhouses are part of a larger property that is being acquired for warehouse space, according to members of the Gerace family, which has owned, cultivated and lived on the land for 75 years. The family is not disclosing the sale price.

Mandy Gerace is a third-generation member of the family. She noted the Welby area has been an Italian-American farming community for over a century, but its central, highway-centric location has made it a hotspot for industrial development. Nearby Center Greenhouse also sold in the last year.

“We are right in the middle of two Amazon fulfillment centers,” she said. “There is so much need for warehouse space and this particular location is just so central.”

Welby Gardens, the parent company behind the Hardy Boy brand of plants and the Hardystarts brand of plant starts, mainly serves commercial clients, specifically landscapers and retail garden centers. Closing its 74th Avenue facility cuts Welby’s growing space in half. It also means the company will no longer have a walk-in wholesale store.

Between its Arvada property and another greenhouse facility it operates on North Washington Street, Gerace expects the company will still be able to produce about 80 percent as much product as when it had all three properties growing. That will be achieved in part by focusing on customer favorites and doing away with time- and space-intensive products like patio pots.

“Landscapers and independent garden centers are still important for us. That will be the focus,” Gerace said.

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At least one major gardeners’ heaven in Denver is not planning on going anywhere. City Floral Garden Center, operating at 1440 Kearney St. since opening as a cut-flower business in 1911, is preparing for what it expects to be am extra busy 2020 season.

“We’re planning on adding staff, parking and registers,” co-owner Candace Wickstrom said. “We are Denver’s destination garden center. We want to be available to meet people’s needs.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver PostPotted sunflowers are on display and for sale at City Floral Garden Center on Sept. 4, 2019 in Denver. Local gardening stores in the metro area have either closed or been forced to move because of the increase in property values. Instead of the normal condos or apartments, developers are using the land for industrial uses. City Floral Garden Center is still a popular gardening center in the middle of Denver. The garden center was founded by the Lammermann family in 1911 and is the oldest remaining greenhouse in Denver.

Wickstrom, who bought the business 12 years ago, said its hard to measure success at a garden center in the slow fall season but City Floral believes it has seen an uptick in traffic since Groundcovers and Paulino Gardens closed.

Wickstrom said it’s sad to see others garden centers close and wholesalers like Welby Gardens, of which City Floral is a client, shrink. But because City Floral has its own nursery and a secondary growing facility in Golden, it has been largely insulated from disruption.

While real estate developers have sniffed around, Wickstrom said she hopes the City Floral will be a fixture in east Denver for another century.

General manager Trela Phelps, with City Floral for 30 years, said this real estate cycle isn’t the first time the gardening industry has been shaken up and reformed. She noted the Englewood was home to some prominent greenhouses before the Cinderella City Mall and Swedish Hospital were built in their places.

“We really love the industry. We’re after the next fresh and cool things,” Phelps said. “We listen to people if they want something funky and we give it a shot.”

Irina Gazzo browsed the houseplant selection at City Floral Wednesday on the lookout for a gift for a friend. The 29-year-old Capitol Hill resident has been coming to the garden center for flowers and veggies for her the small garden she keeps on her balcony for the last two years.

“Gardening makes you appreciate your food. It’s like, ‘Wow it took this long to grow this?'” Gazzo said. “I think it’s good for everyone to do. It’s rewarding.”

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