The displays inside the new greenhouse showroom of an interior landscape design company in suburban Detroit feel more like a botanical garden than a nursery. But at Planterra's new home in West Bloomfield, nearly everything is for sale.
The company aims to mix shopping with the experience of visiting indoor gardens, and by hosting luncheons, weddings and art exhibitions it's on the leading edge of a retailing trend that is turning garden centers into destinations.
"When you walk in here, it doesn't feel like you're in a grocery store or a drug store or a warehouse," said Shane Pliska, Planterra's president. "Most nurseries ... it smells like fertilizer when you walk in the door. When you walk in here you don't smell fertilizer. In fact, you walk in here and you're greeted by the sounds of water and typically the freshness of whatever we have in season."
Starting this week, Planterra's conservatory hosts the inaugural "Botanical Glass Salon and Exhibition," which mixes exotic plant displays with glass creations from the Detroit-based Furnace Design Studio. Aimed at offering inspiration for indoor and outdoor landscape design, it's another way for the family-owned company to get potential shoppers in the door.
Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association, said garden centers in Europe have worked for many years to become more than just places to shop, and U.S. retailers are catching on. Efforts have included adding attractions such as a coffee bar or cafe, or arranging plants to suggest how people might display them inside or outside their homes.
"It gives them great ideas," Butterfield said. "It also puts things in context _ what plants go well together, in a way. ... You just don't buy one plant."
As home improvement giants like Home Depot and Lowe's have expanded their nursery departments over the past decade, smaller nurseries and independent sellers have been trying to stand apart. And while annual flower shows or botanical garden plant sales pop up around the country ahead of the spring planting season, Planterra's conservatory will be open to shoppers year-round.
Larry Pliska started Planterra in 1973, and it's grown into a national interior landscape design, installation and maintenance business. He's the company's chairman, his wife, Carol, is CEO, and their son, Shane, is president. Supplying and caring for plants at hotels, casinos, shopping malls and other commercial clients remains their main work, but last fall's opening of the new conservatory marked the company's transformation into a retailer.
Planterra's old greenhouses dated back to the 1930s, when they were used by a farmer to grow flowers. They weren't designed for tropical plants and, with low headroom and exposed heating pipes, weren't too welcoming. Plant collectors would make appointments to visit, but the buildings generally weren't open to shoppers. That changed with the two-year, nearly $4 million project to build Planterra's new 23,000-square-foot home.
At a time of freezing temperatures and snow in Michigan, it's a pleasant 76 degrees inside the showroom. A fountain and large stone archway greet people as they walk inside, and the cash registers are tucked away to one side. Tiger, a 4-year old cat who used to chase chipmunks from the old greenhouses, wanders through the displays of flowering plants and pottery.
"This is beautiful here. I love it," said Louise Westcott, 51, of Lake Orion, who was shopping with her husband recently for plants for their living room.
Richard Reilly is president of Cincinnati-based Rough Brothers Inc., a major manufacturer of greenhouses, garden centers and conservatories. He said some garden retailers that he works with, especially independent ones, are looking to enhance the experience for customers.
"That quite often involves botanical displays, or a cafe-type setting," Reilly said. "Not just selling plants, fertilizer and dirt."
Planterra's greenhouse structure, imported from Belgium, is designed to collect rainwater from the roof and run it through support columns into a 16,000-gallon cistern for watering plants. An automated weather station helps keep the building at the proper temperature.
The rear of the building includes offices, space for caterers to set up and even a private room where a bride could freshen up before greeting wedding guests.
In addition to plants and pots, there are two living walls that show how Planterra's vertical plantings can be done. And there are some reminders of Planterra's roots, including staghorn ferns that Larry Pliska has grown for three decades.
"I started the business as a plant lover," Larry Pliska said.
Botanical Glass Salon and Exhibition: http://www.botanicalglass.org
National Gardening Association: http://assoc.garden.org