Eastport’s Pine Hill Nursery keeps growing and growing

EASTPORT – It’s a real stretch to think about flowers and gardens in northern Michigan in the middle of April. But at Pine Hill Nursery & Landscaping, greenhouses are already a sea of plants and staff preparing for the mid-May crush of customers.

Ralph and Sandy Naples, and co-owner Jeanine Rubert, have been working steadily through the winter months on their product lines and services. For their loyal clientele, each year has brought something new to look forward to.

Pine Hill Nursery is a success story based on controlled, steady growth and a love of the business. The story of how the Naples got into the nursery business is a classic study of following your heart. They bought the virtually dormant nursery, just south of Eastport, in 1979.

“We were both teachers who wanted to return to Northern Michigan to live,” Sandy said. “But back in the late 1970s there were no teaching jobs. We always knew we wanted to start a business, but not necessarily a nursery. I guess another key factor was that we always had a talent for growing things. When the old Pine Hill Nursery became available in 1979, we decided to give it a try.”

Prior to the Naples purchasing Pine Hill, it was a ‘dig your own’ type of nursery. They continued that policy with items such as daylilies, dahlia bulbs and irises. Their first expansion was a greenhouse attached to the house. That first year, they produced 100 flats of flowers. Much to their surprise, everything sold. It was a tentative first step.

“Ralph joined the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association and went to the shows to learn about the business. He also developed a number of helpful contacts,” Sandy said. “Our next expansion started with a small number of shade trees and fruit trees to test the market. Once again everything sold!”

The next innovative step in those early days was presenting plants in garden settings. People could visualize the setting and pick the items they wanted. This stock came from another ‘dig your own’ nursery in Kalkaska owned by Bill Hartje. Sandy acknowledges that Bill was a great mentor and taught them a lot about the business. Several years later, perennials started to become popular. Coupled with the increase in demand for annuals, it was time to expand the number of greenhouses. That phase of expansion continued and there are now seven greenhouses.

Pine Hill has a large selection of perennials, annuals, trees, shrubs and landscaping products. They have turned the property into a showcase for the landscaping business. Through the years they have added a multi-level rock pond, brick paved walkways that wind through the various garden displays, and the hit of the facility: an operational miniature railroad garden.

Ralph and Sandy continue to live in the house that was on the property when they purchased it. The house once served as the main office. There is now a separate office for management staff and three landscape designers. This latest building expansion includes a gift shop with a wide selection of garden and home decorating items.

Another key ingredient to their success is the outstanding staff. Several of the staff members have been with Pine Hill 14 years and one nearly 16 years. Sandy estimates they currently have 40-50 employees. This varies due to the number of seasonal college and high school students they employ.

“I look for people who take pride and are personable. Some people join the staff just because they love gardening and wish to work on a part-time basis. Retirees are great candidates. They love it because plants don’t create stress.”

Sandy, Ralph and Jeanine have learned that the nursery and landscaping business is a year-round enterprise. Sandy smiles when asked what she does in the winter.

“People have the impression we just go on an extended vacation. But there are trade shows, planning and ordering of stock, facility maintenance, and the constant assessment of ways to reorganize to make the business more efficient.”

Residents of western Antrim County have come to appreciate the fine products and services provided by Pine Hill. They also enjoy the family atmosphere and innovative ideas Ralph, Sandy and Jeanine come up with year after year.