“It basically started out as a hobby,” says Bennie Ahrens, who runs Bennie’s Gardens. “My husband Ernie and I were both just really into doing our yard work, and it just kind of escalated from there.”
“I liked working with the flowers, and he liked working with the trees, and so when he came across a greenhouse he brought it home, and set it up.”
That was 20 years ago and Bennie’s Gardens has been satisfying customers ever since.
Bennie’s Garden’s is located off Bishop Road in Chehalis. The seasonal aroma of flowers and shrubs greets you as you step onto the gravel parking lot. The greenhouse and surrounding space is full of plants for sale. Surrounded by fields and farmland, it is a beautiful place to buy plants.
But in the beginning, what Bennie and her husband discovered was that people simply loved being able to buy annuals for their yards and trees from local experts who knew how to work the soil, and how different plants would respond in different areas.
“At the time I worked at Les Schwab,” she says, “and we were selling plants out of our start-up greenhouse at our home with no road visibility at all. But people were coming in. After about three years of working part-time at our business, and full-time on weekends, I left my job there to be full-time doing the nursery here at the house.”
“Once we moved the nursery from our home to Bishop Road, we were really able to grow,” Bennie adds. “We seem to expand a little bit every year. When we moved to the open piece of farm land, we cleared it and set up the greenhouse, office, parking lot. Everything has just expanded from there.”
“A lot of our customers have been people coming to us since we started 20 years ago,” Bennie says, “but we also see new people all the time, including a lot of young people new to the area. Most of them figure out really quick that the soil has a lot of clay, and you can’t just plant straight into the hard clay. We encourage people to always amend the soil here, and provide tips on how to do that.”
In addition to her husband, who helps out with the nursery when not at his management job, Bennie’s Gardens has one full-time season employee, Tena Allegre. Tena has worked for the gardens for 14 years and there are also three part-time seasonal employees.
One of her employees, Kathy Champ, started out as a customer. “I’d come down all the time,” she says. “I bought a lot of plants and we’d talk a lot, and one day Bennie said, ‘You don’t want to work in your spare time, help me out here and there, do you?’
I’ve been doing that now for over ten years,” Kathy says, laughing.
This time of year, watering, cleaning and transplanting takes up most of their time, Kathy says. “We have growing greenhouses as well, not just the greenhouse for the customers,” she says. “I spend a lot of time taking care of our babies up there.”
Bennie’s Gardens is known not only for trees, shrubs and flowers, but also as the place to stock up on tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and many other kinds of vegetables.
Berries from Bennie’s Gardens are popular items. Customers purchase strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, and a lot of customers come looking for herbs as well, Kathy says, including rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil.
“It’s just a lot of variety,” Kathy says. “Bennie and I both love to can and make salsas. We love sharing recipes with one another.
Bennie’s Gardens is open from the first week of February through the end of October as well as during the Christmas season.
Bennie notes that she works on-site, seven days a week. The busiest times for the business are Mother’s Day, high school graduations and the Fourth of July.
“It’s a great business, but you don’t get that 97-degree-day off,” Kathy says. “You’re working double time so that the plants don’t die. The plants don’t care that it’s the Fourth of July.”
“I think just from my experience as a customer in years past that we have the biggest selection and biggest variety in the area at the best prices,” Kathy says. “And it’s not just about walking into a store and seeing row after row of plants. Bennie is very artistic and takes the time to decorate where the customers spend their time. When you’re a customer here, you feel like you’re waltzing through a garden.”
People are always surprised by how many different types of plants Bennie’s Gardens has, Kathy explains. “I have so many friends that think this was going to be more like an outdoor warehouse, and then they come and see all the different plants that are here, and how well arranged they are, and how healthy they are. We make it our mission to make sure everything is top notch for the customers, and do our best to have a nice variety so that people can find what they’re looking for.”
Some customers come for vegetables, Kathy says, but many come in for shrubs for their property, or hanging baskets or wind barriers.
Working with plants and the soil is a joy, Bennie says. “The plants don’t let you take a break,” she says. “It’s hard work — but it’s great work. Working with plants keeps both your mind and your hands busy. Gardening becomes a passion.”
1870 Bishop Road