BY AMANDA N. WEGNER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA URBAN
If you garden, you know Pesche’s — Pesche’s Greenhouse, Floral Shop and Gift Barn has been a destination for Lake Geneva residents for over 50 years. But the Pesche family’s love for gardening goes back even further than that, stretching over several generations — three in Wisconsin and even more in the greater Chicago area, all the way to the country of Luxembourg. “It’s in our blood,” says fourth-generation co-owner Nick Pesche.
Pesche’s Greenhouse offers Lake Geneva’s largest selection of annuals and perennials, with more than 20 greenhouses across 10 acres on Highway 50, just west of downtown Lake Geneva.
Open year-round, the full-service garden center transforms into a Christmas wonderland during the winter months. They also offer a floral shop and a popular gift shop with a robust selection of everything from seasonal tea towels to decorative pots to creative yard art. The unique mix of plants, flowers, gifts, and yard and garden art draws fans from throughout the Midwest.
THROUGH THE GENERATIONS
Nick Pesche’s father, Robert, grew up managing the flower and garden side of the business, the third generation of the family to take up greenhouse work. “Our family started a garden center in the greater Chicago area,” Nick explains, noting that it was his great-grandfather who opened that original location, which included a “gift shop, flower shop, liquor store, grocery, butcher … it was a little of everything.”
But as the story goes, there was tension over which family member would inherit the Chicago establishment. So instead of taking over the family business in Illinois, Nick says his grandfather, Fred Pesche, moved to the Lake Geneva area and opened Pesche’s Greenhouse with his brother in 1970. Fred Pesche then sold the business to Nick’s parents, Robert and Mary Pesche, in 1984.
In fact, the Pesche family’s connections to the greenhouse industry extend well beyond the original Chicagoland business. Originally hailing from the small European country of Luxembourg, the Pesche family was well-known there for its greenhouse expertise, and continued to dominate the field after immigrating to America. In fact, a 2010 issue of Lawn & Landscape Magazine chronicled a visit the Luxembourg royal family made to Wisconsin in 2009 to celebrate the opening of the Luxembourg American Cultural Center, proclaiming the Pesche family one of “the most prominent Luxembourg-American green- house families.”
When Nick’s grandfather founded Pesche’s Greenhouse in Lake Geneva in 1970, the business was limited strictly to greenhouse growing and focused primarily on selling to the wholesale market. When Nick’s father, Robert, purchased the business, he drew on his own experiences and his degree in horticulture from the University of Illinois to turn Pesche’s into a full-service garden center, and also added a floral shop.
The gift shop portion of Pesche’s was brought to life around the same time by Patty Kuper, a longtime employee (now retired), who loved plants and stopped by the greenhouse one day to ask Fred Pesche for a job. “He wasn’t really hiring, but he loved the fact that [my mom] sought him out,” says Amy Sanders, Kuper’s daughter and current sales manager at Pesche’s. “Nick’s grandparents love that story because they loved [her] initiative … and because it worked out so well.”
ACRES OF PLANTS AND FLOWERS
Officially known today as Pesche’s Greenhouse, Floral Shop and Gift Barn, the beloved local institution offers about 50,000 square feet of greenhouse space, approximately 10,000 square feet of retail, gift and floral space, as well as a few acres of outdoor retail space. The business is well-known for its hanging baskets, which Nick says are “gorgeous yet reasonably priced.” He adds that they sell about 4,000 10-inch hanging baskets each year.
People also make Pesche’s their destination for flats of annuals. “They are hard to find at the box stores,” says Nick, who has a degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Some of the landscapers and bigger homeowners want to fill in an area with a flat of flowers.”
Nick and his staff grow most of their own annuals onsite, including the hanging baskets, flats and four- and six-inch pots. “I think one of our advantages is that because we grow our own, we have a lot more variety than a lot of garden centers and certainly the box stores,” says Nick. “When I buy from a wholesaler, they don’t have the variety we do because it’s too hard; they have to carry the bread- and-butter stuff because they sell to 1,000 different places, where I can offer variety and more specialty plants.”
Nick says that May is the peak month at Pesche’s, and he and Sanders work hard to offer products and plants that people will love, while continuously refreshing their offerings. For instance, Nick says they’ve seen a trend of people investing more time and money into their yards and gardens over the past two years because of the pandemic, which makes people want to stay close to home. “Garden art and garden gifts, which were always very popular, became even more popular since people were stuck at home, and they wanted their yard to be their retreat, their refuge,” says Sanders.
“We have a terrific gift selection, a terrific plant selection,” says Nick. “And we try to keep our prices as fair as possible.”
GROWING A ‘HAPPY PLACE’
For some, a visit to Pesche’s brings a dose of plant-induced nirvana. “I hear on a daily basis that ‘This is my happy place,’ that people come here to feel good,” says Sanders, who worked for Pesche’s alongside her mother when she was younger and joined the staff full-time about 10 years ago.
For others, it’s just a fun place to stop. “We try to make it a bit whimsical and fun,” says Nick. “It’s not a box store, it’s not row after row of certain plants, certain pots. We don’t have a pottery section, per sé, they’re all just scattered. It keeps you wandering around, checking everything out. I feel like we have a pretty cool place.”
In fact, Pesche’s was “cool” enough to draw Nick back into the family business. “I did other things for a while, but then I realized I need to go back and work for the family business,” he says. “There are a lot of independent garden centers — we’re not unique in that — but we have a lot to offer, and it’s a special place for many people.”
Today, while Nick handles much of the day-to-day operations, his dad, Robert, continues to stay engaged in the business. And one day, Nick hopes his children will follow in their footsteps and take the business into a fifth generation. “I hope it continues as a family business. I have two little boys, so they are [a long way from taking over], but I’ll make the 8-year-old start working soon, just like my parents made me work. He can set up a little juice stand,” Nick says with a chuckle.
“We’re a family business, and everyone here works hard and tries hard to make everyone happy,” Sanders explains. “It’s really a wonderful place to work.”
Brighten Up Your Yard or Garden
For spring and summer planting, Nick Pesche and Amy Sanders of Pesche’s Greenhouse, Floral Shop and Gift Barn offer some of their personal favorites and customer trends:
Pulmonaria: Also called Lungworts, this herbaceous perennial is a good grower and bloomer and easy to grow, says Sanders. It’s popular for its interesting foliage with spotted leaves, and does well in part sun or full shade.
Hellebores: Popular the last few seasons, this perennial is an early bloomer and will hold its flowers for months. It’s a bit pricey, but it retains its color well over the winter, notes Sanders.
Lantana: A member of the verbena family, colorful lantanas are considered an annual here in the north. Lantanas are also a sun-loving plant and are particularly drought-tolerant, making for low maintenance.
Angelonia: Sometimes called summer snapdragons for their similarity to the summer favorite, Angelonia grows tall (about 18 inches), produces a nice fragrance and provides a lot of color variation, says Nick. He adds Angelonia prefers hot weather, is drought-tolerant, and is a good candidate for a container planting as it is “pretty forgiving.”
Euphorbia: Also known as spurge, Pesche’s offers many white varieties of this critter-proof perennial to give your garden and landscape a chic vibe.
Pollinators: Pollinators have been particularly popular the past few years as people seek ways to support the birds and bees. Pesche’s offers many options; agastache and echinacea are just two options.
Lavender: Lavender, says Sanders, has had a “super surge” in popularity in recent years, but cautions that “it’s not the easiest plant to grow for Midwesterners.” Pesche’s offers lavender available in many varieties and sizes, from starters to “giant ones for instant gratification.”
Succulents: Requiring little work and maintenance, succulents — indoors and out — remain popular. “Succulents keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Nick. If the term “succulent” has you thinking cactus or “something that bites,” think again. Jades, sedums, agaves and aloes all fall into the succulent category. “There are so many different colors, textures and varieties, and you don’t have to do anything, except [give them some] light and very occasionally water,” Nick explains. “These are all things that are great in a container.”