The 29-year history of Total Environments Garden Center mirrors the life cycle of a plant: beginning with the seed of an idea, nurturing a growing business, enjoying maturation and preparing for the eventual fade and fall of the blossoms.
While plant life cycles typically reoccur naturally, this is the last growing season for the Goldenhersh family business. After expanding to a business with 15 employees and taking over adjoining property, Total Environments could not survive the recent spread of mega-store competitors, its founder’s death and, finally, the recession.
On June 29, the landmark garden center property, 804 Old Highway 63 North, will be sold at auction. Owner Liz Goldenhersh has scheduled a second auction for late July, when she will sell remaining equipment and inventory.
As a city kid growing up in south St. Louis, Goldenhersh never dreamed she would eventually own and operate a garden center. However, Goldenhersh developed an early fondness for plants and outdoor activities, as she lived within walking distance of the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
“I’d cut through them every day when I walked to school,” Goldenhersh said.
Admission to the Botanical Gardens was free when she was growing up, and Goldenhersh recalls spending many afternoons taking nature classes there.
“All through grade school, I’d take classes on tree and plant identification, nature crafts (and) butterfly collecting,” she said.
Despite her early interest in plants and gardening, Goldenhersh decided to study recreation therapy at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she met her future husband, Don Goldenhersh.
His love for plants and gardening prompted him to open Total Environments in 1980, bringing Liz Goldenhersh back to the world of nurseries, greenhouses and gardening.
Goldenhersh was working as the director of recreation for a psychiatric facility when her husband opened the business. It soon became apparent that he needed his wife’s full-time help in running the flourishing garden center. So she quit her other job and started working full time at the garden center around 1985.
Primarily responsible for bookkeeping and clerical duties, Goldenhersh also worked with the nursery stock, managed inventory and assisted customers.
Still, Goldenhersh acknowledges that the business was always her husband’s passion more than hers.
During the height of their business, Total Environments had as many as 15 employees. Then in 2006, Don Goldenhersh died after a struggle with cancer. Liz Goldenhersh found herself the sole owner of a business faced with declining sales and an increasing number of competitors.
The biggest hit to Total Environments, Goldenhersh said, has been the influx of big box stores and supermarkets selling bedding plants, shrubbery and flowers.
Long-time friend and former employee, Marsha Bower, a landscape gardener at the University, agrees with Goldenhersh’s assessment of the Columbia market. “Gerbes, Westlakes and Wal-Mart all began carrying cheaper-to-buy plant material. Many people are used to doing one-stop shopping and don’t seem to want to take the time to see what some of the smaller businesses have to offer,” Bower says.
Bower was one of the first employees to be hired at Total Environments in 1980. “I love Total Environments and am very sorry to see it go away. The business was opened at a time when horticulture was booming and TE offered what gardeners were looking for,” Bower says.
Goldenhersh said that other small, family-owned garden centers, such as Lakewood Lawn and Garden and Superior Garden Center, did not cut into her profits. “We actually make referrals back and forth between ourselves,” she said. “One of my former employees now works at Superior.”
Lowe’s, Home Depot and Menards had a far greater impact. The effect of the increased competition was compounded with a declining economy. “The recession for garden centers really started in 2007,” Goldenhersh said.
That same year, a year after Don’s death, Goldenhersh dropped the nursery stock inventory and focused on selling mulch, decorative rock and landscape materials. Still, declining sales and increased workload led Goldenhersh to decide to close the business. “It’s an incredible amount of work and without Donnie, my work doubled,” she said.
Goldenhersh was having no luck with selling the business through traditional real estate marketing, so a friend suggested she hold an auction. “It took about one conversation for me to see that an auction was the way to go,” Goldenhersh said. “I didn’t want to walk away from the business without selling the property.”
Goldenhersh is optimistic that the nearly three acres of prime real estate will find a buyer. The acreage is just up Old Highway 63 from the Landmark Hospital, which was rezoned from residential to commercial, and it is actually five parcels that will be sold as one unit. The location gets high traffic, has frontage on three roads and is zoned for mixed commercial use. The property is also home to a barn built in 1928 that was designated a Most Notable Property in 2009.
“I think this would be a great spot for a hotel, a restaurant, a brewery,” Goldenhersh said. “There’s easy access out front, but when you walk to the back, there’s shade and privacy.”
In addition to Goldenhersh, Total Environments has two other employees, David Vance and Paul Lowry. Vance has been gearing up for a new career after the closing, taking EMT and paramedic classes. Lowry already does landscaping and outdoor adventure guiding on the side.
Some of Goldenhersh’s long-time customers aren’t as upbeat about the impending sale. Michael Tarka, a local landscaper and tree-trimmer, has been doing business with Total Environments for 16 years. “I’m glad that Liz has gotten to the point where she can move on, but closing down will definitely leave a hole,” Tarka said. “I haven’t figured out yet where I’m going to go now.”
For Goldenhersh, the future is full of promise. “First, I’m going to have Paul come and do some landscape work at my house. That could take months,” she said with a laugh.
Goldenhersh is also planning to open an eBay store to sell the 30-year compilation of her husband’s collectibles, including antique toys, circus memorabilia, books, papers, games and magic tricks.
“Actually, I’m excited about what I have to look forward to,” she said. “We’re all really excited about what’s going to happen next.”