Originally published in Business Digest, May 1997

Grand Isle's Fastest Growing Business

by Kathryn Trudell

Dennis Bruckel has an affinity for green, growing things — trees, shrubs, plants — in particular the unusual, the rare, the exotic. He is a man of many words when the subject is horticulture, a facet of his personality he jokes about as he speaks with intensity of the nursery business he has nurtured for 25 years. Latin terminology sprinkles his conversation. It is second nature. “I love to talk about this subject,” he laughs. “I love to help people solve complex horticultural problems, but I’m not good with routine questions. I expound in 500 words or more, when people expect answers in five words or less.”

Bruckel’s evident passion for horticulture is reflected in the symmetry of the layout and design of the Grand Isle Nursery. The business, at 50 Ferry Road in South Hero, occupies 20 acres of farm land with a distant view of the mountains and Lake Champlain. It is open from spring through autumn. Bruckel is owner and president.

“We are in the beauty business,” he explains. “If we can’t make this place look nice, then we can’t inspire you to want to make your place look nice. We have laid our place out in a linear pattern like a Christmas tree farm, and tried to maintain a pleasing view from the highway. Our plantings are done in ways that help control erosion. We are trying to be good stewards of the land.”

That stewardship also includes use of both the overhead spray and the innovative trickle irrigation system for outdoor plants, trees, and shrubs. Bruckel’s nursery was one of the first in the state to use trickle irrigation. The water then recycles through gravel and ditches back to one of two ponds on the property for reuse.

[photo] Dennis Bruckel's interest in horticulture is inherited. His father and grandfathers were horticultural hobbyists. But Bruckel has made it his life work, teaching and doing research at UVM and as owner of Grand Isle Nursery. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Bruckel’s interest in plants is inherited. He was born in Rochester, N.Y. His father, an appliance salesman, ran a five-acre hobby farm where Bruckel was raised. His two grandfathers were amateur horticulturists. “I became very interested in fruit varieties and growing ornamental plants when I was young,” Bruckel recalls. “By the time I was in high school, I had definitely decided what I wanted to do with my life. I studied four years of Latin in high school, which helped tremendously with botanical names and terminology. The scientific names of plants are almost all Latin.” He pauses, a humorous glint in his eye. “The name itself is part of the plant’s description if you know Latin. Otherwise, it’s all Greek!”

After high school, Bruckel set out on a quest for horticultural knowledge that started at Alfred Ag Tech, a two-year college in New York, where he received an associate’s degree in ornamental horticulture. His course work included landscape design, botany, greenhouse management, plant identification and characteristics, pesticide use, and entomology.

Married and the father of a young daughter by this time, Brucknel continued on to Cornell where he received a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 1966. That year he moved his family to Vermont so that he could pursue a master’s at UVM.

In 1970 when he completed his master’s in horticulture, he began a Ph.D. program in botany at UVM under the direction of Hubert Vogelmann, concentrating on ecological studies. “I had to hike up and down Camels Hump every week all year-round for several years to harvest twig samples and analyze degrees of winter hardiness,” he recalls.

From 1966 until 1980 he was a member of the faculty and research staff at UVM. His duties included management of the UVM greenhouses and the Horticulture Research Farm on Shelburne Road, and teaching courses to undergraduates. As his teaching responsibilities grew, the workload forced Bruckel to drop his management of the greenhouses and research center. “I was becoming more of an academician and decided that was not the direction for me, so I resigned from the Ph.D. program,” he explains. “I knew I wanted to be the manager of a horticulture research farm or own a farm of my own.”

In 1972 Bruckel purchased the 20-acre Blow property on Ferry Road — the location of his nursery. It had been a small, part-time dairy farm. For four years he and his wife, Mary, operated their business on a part-time avocational basis while he continued to work at UVM and Mary worked for a construction firm.

“Starting in 1973 we ran a small retail store in the barn,” he recalls. “We grew hardy mums in the ground. In the fall we’d dig them up, pot them after work in the evenings and mornings, load them in a trailer, and drive them to places like the old Martin’s supermarkets in town, or to garden centers, and wholesale them on a part-time basis. Up here in the islands, if no one was home we’d put rows of flowers out in pots, display a sign, and put out a coffee can so customers could pay us. We’d ask for $2 on the honor system. I’ve always been interested in hardy chrysanthemums. That is what my master’s thesis was about: the winter hardiness of garden mums.

“We are a nursery that has become known as a place that grows much of what it sells,” Bruckel continues. “We have always prided ourselves on being innovators.” In the 1970s the Grand Isle Nursery was one of only a few nurseries in Vermont growing hardy mums. Since, Bruckel says, hardy mums have become a large horticultural crop in Vermont. Bruckel’s nursery grows about 20,000 per year.

“As business grew, we started adding greenhouses, an average of one every other year. We now have seven. Our retail presence really began in 1976 with the construction of this store on the property,” Bruckel explains. “By 1980 we had both left our former places of employment to devote ourselves to growing this business full-time. Unfortunately, it took a toll on our marriage, and Mary and I separated in 1981. I met Esther in 1985. We have been married for 10 years.”

In the mid 1970s, Bruckel began to grow apple trees to sell to homeowners — soon grafting 80 to 100 varieties a year. Lyman Calahan from UVM helped Bruckel locate grafting material for many old-fashioned apple varieties that the nursery sold in the retail store and through the mail.

In the late 1970s, Bruckel became interested in a shrub called Potentilla or Buttercup Shrub, which blooms all summer. Finding it to be an easily propagated plant, he grew 5,000 per year for both wholesale and retail sales around the state. “We were supplying wholesale to nurseries in Manchester, Rutland, Brattleboro, etc., as well as selling hundreds at retail to home- owners,” he explains. “Our retail presence grew very slowly over the years until 1990, but we have had rapid growth since then.”

Bruckel estimates the business has gone from 80 percent wholesale/20 percent retail sales in the early years to 90 percent retail/10 percent wholesale in the 1990s.

In 1983, Bruckel became interested in a semi-evergreen, variegated flowering shrub called Daphne x Burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ that was little known and difficult to propagate. The fragrant flowers are in full bloom in Vermont around Mother’s Day. Rebloom occurs in July and August. “I am happily married to Esther,” Bruckel jokes, “but I have a long standing love affair with Daphne ‘Carol Mackie.’ We grow 30,000 to 40,000 a year and the demand usually outstrips the supply. Over a period of time, we have become specialists in it.”

Since the plant is somewhat rare and difficult to grow, Bruckel’s expertise in propagating it has earned him state and national recognition, with articles featured in The Burlington Free Press and American Nurseryman magazine. In 1996, he received the Vermont Association of Professional Horticulturists statewide achievement award for his outstanding personal contribution to the industry in Vermont.

Charlie Proutt, owner of Horsford Gardens and Nursery in Charlotte, is a former student of Bruckel’s. “Dennis has a number of students around the state,” he says. “Many in business have benefited from his enthusiasm for horticulture and willingness to share his knowledge. He is a nurseryman, businessman, teacher, researcher, and mentor — a combination of qualities not commonly found in one person. Many horticulturists have succeeded in one area, but Dennis has excelled in them all. His nursery set in motion the huge chrysanthemum industry we have in Vermont today. When Dennis introduces a new favorite, few local landscapes will be planted without it. He is always observing the plant kingdom, and bending a few ears on the subject along the way!”

Bruckel speaks candidly about his business philosophy. “We have always regarded ourselves as innovators. We have positioned ourselves in the retail and wholesale market as a place to buy relatively unusual, northern grown, hardy trees and shrubs that are hard to find someplace else. That also helps us keep a degree of control over pricing. I’ve never really had the desire to grow large amounts of what everybody else is growing. We’d rather be in the position of growing unusual kinds of plants and being able to set the price ourselves.”

The Bruckels estimate they have 790 varieties of trees, shrubs, and perennials in stock, plus greenhouse bedding plants, annual flowers, and vegetables. In addition, the retail store sells fertilizer, soil, pots, seeds, insecticides, sprayers, and some statuary. “If you need it for a garden we have it or can get it within a few days in most cases,” Esther says.

Esther Towle was born in Morrisville, graduated from Peoples Academy in 1966, and attended UVM for two years. She began working at the Merchants Bank in 1973 and was managing the department of corporate accounting when she met Bruckel. She left banking to work with her husband in the nursery business and is treasurer of the corporation.

“Don’t focus on me,” she laughs. “This business is Dennis’ baby. I’m happy to do anything. I weed, I fertilize, I transplant, I do the books, I work in the store. I love variety and working outdoors. Dennis and I are jack-of-all-trades around here. We have to be. Whatever needs to be done, we do.”

Bruckel is quick to give credit to his daughter. “Tammy has been very active in Grand Isle Nursery for many years — growing up here, working in the greenhouses, managing our landscaping division, being visible at the Burlington Flower Show. For several years I served as one of two panel experts on the Backyard Garden program on Channel 57 in New York. Now I have retired from the show, and Tammy has taken my place. In our absence for the past several years, while Esther and I were trying out semi-retirement, she has been general manager here. This spring she and her mother purchased their own business, Joyce’s Flowers, in South Hero. No mention of Grand Isle Nursery would be complete without her.”

The Bruckels have a small cadre of loyal employees. Naomi King has been with them for seven years. She is a greenhouse manager and grower, and works in the retail store. Gwen Adams works in the nursery and field operations and has been with the business for five years. Steve Spier, a long-term, part-time employee, is their yard salesman, container grower, and carpenter. He made many of the improvements to the retail store.

“I’ve always been interested in plants,” says King. “I love working in the greenhouses in the spring. One of the main reasons I chose this job was because I wanted to work for someone who knew what he was doing. I have learned an incredible amount from Dennis.”

John Padua, owner and manager of Cobble Creek Nursery in Monkton, is also a former student of Bruckel’s who remembers him as an excellent teacher. “He was a mentor to me and many other students who now run their own nurseries or landscape businesses. He had a real knack for combining his practical experience in the field with academics to make his courses more interesting to students. He is well respected as a nurseryman and businessman among Vermont’s nursery professionals.”

Bruckel says he is quite content to leave the management of the front office and store to Esther, whom he describes as having an uncanny ability in systems analysis, efficiency, and human relations. “From a business perspective, she has added tremendously to the efficiency of the operation. She can judge the best way to approach a task — she’s very proficient at time- study and managing details,” he notes. “She always figures out a way to do something better and faster. I’m most content working with the products — the trees and shrubs. I’m a professional farmer.”

Bruckel was active for many years in community service and professional organizations. He has served on the boards of the Grand Isle County Chamber of Commerce, Farm Bureau, Extension System, County Soil Conservation District, and has been a member of various UVM committees. He was the coordinator of the New England Greenhouse Conference, and a board member and president of the Vermont Plantsman’s Association, now the Vermont Association of Professional Horticulturists. He has also been a member of several regional and national trade organizations.

He raised and trained Labrador retrievers in the 1980s. He and his tennis partner were Florida State Senior Olympics men’s doubles champions in their age category. “When it comes to tennis, I’m a driven man,” he says.

The Bruckels step outside into the chilly spring morning. Their footsteps crunch across the gravel of the parking lot. Bruckel sweeps his arm toward the horizon, indicating the expanse of fields and buildings that comprise his business. “Most people think of dairy farming when you say the word farm in Vermont, but there are many different types of farms. A good farmer is someone who is a good steward of the land. One of my favorite sayings is by Confucius — The best fertilizer for the land is the footsteps of the owner.”

On the land that he loves, Bruckel’s footsteps are everywhere.