In Marketplace

Ann Coppersmith and Franz Weding inside one of Weber's Greenhouses.

In Marketplace

Bruce Weber built the business on collard greens.

In Marketplace

Flowering plants are the greenhouses mainstay items.

In Marketplace

Weber's Greenhouses sits on an acre of land off Green Bay Avenue.

Weber's Greenhouses grow community, greenery

Franz Weding, Ann Coppersmith and her husband, Dan, operate Weber's Greenhouses, 4215 N. Green Bay Ave. and 9802 W. Capitol Dr. The three partners are growing some big plans for Milwaukee.

Weber's offers a full array of annuals, perennials, flowering plants and vegetable staples, such as Georgia collards, mustard greens, seven-top and purple-top turnips, big boy tomatoes, corn, okra, purple whole peas and crowder peas, in addition to all the bean varieties you can imagine.

Weber's also has everything else, from brussels sprouts, herbs and peppers to seeds, sod and gardening equipment.

Weber's Greenhouses began in 1931 as Weber's Flowers about 20 blocks south of its current location. Frank Weber and later his son, Austin, were retailers, buying flowers from growers and reselling them in the city. They moved Weber's to Green Bay Avenue in the early '50s, expanding the business in the late '70s to become the garden center it is today.

"Austin's son, Bruce Weber, built the business around soul food," says Weding. "He grew up in this neighborhood when it was predominately German, stayed and changed with the neighborhood when it became mostly African American."

Bruce closed the garden center in 2007 after his mother, Josephine, died. Weding and the Coppersmiths reopened Weber's a couple years later and have since been rebuilding the business.

"Bruce used to sell 25,000 big boy tomato plants a season and we're at about 15,000; we haven't reached Bruce's numbers, yet," says Weding.

The three partners focus on vegetables, although people's love for flowering plants is what keeps them in business. They were able to expand recently to operate the former Capitol Drive Nursery Garden, another longtime family-owned greenhouse that owner Dorothy Byrd donated to Teen Challenge of Wisconsin.

Weding's and the Coppersmiths' big plans include developing agricultural sites in the city. Weding has his eye on the old Rank and Son Buick dealership property across Green Bay Avenue, where he'd like to put more greenhouses and also do aquaponics.

Target corporation was rumored to be putting a retail behemoth on the site, but those plans have not materialized.

Weding would ultimately like to build an "urban feed store," if not on the Rank and Son property then elsewhere in the city, and is developing a network of urban growers who would eventually link all the old family-owned garden centers, like Weber's and Byrd's greenhouse, almost all of which have gone out of business.

"It's $100,000 to $200,000 just to get into this business and it's impossible to attract many investors. You have to be an owner-operator to keep going," says Weding, who moved to Milwaukee from Oregon a few years ago with the dream of starting a native perennials nursery and was amazed by the opportunity he saw here.

Weding started by re-opening the Westside Garden Center on Vliet Street with his own cash and a lot of credit cards. This is where he met Ann Coppersmith, who wanted to learn more about plants and gardens and began to volunteer at Weding's greenhouse.

"The joke between us is that Ann always wanted to have a garden and a house – they live in a condo – but Dan thought she meant she wanted a garden center," says Weding.

Ann and Dan invested in Weding's business and they expanded to the Weber property, which is about an acre, much larger than the Westside Garden location.

"Franz is a really good grower; he's so passionate about it," says Ann.

They also sell Wisconsin-grown Christmas trees and wreaths; Ann and Weding make all the wreaths themselves.

"Christmas is when we seed and get things going," says Weding.

Everything sold at Weber's is grown onsite. Once the plants are started in winter, Weding and Ann begin working 15-16 hour days that last through the beginning of southeast Wisconsin's growing season.

"It's an intense run, like a 60-day plant sale. Sell, sell, sell and then everyone goes to Summerfest," says Weding.

Dan is more a silent partner in the endeavor, a computer programmer and avid trout fisherman who is currently making a video featuring over 50 Wisconsin trout streams.

Weber's community partners stretch across the city and outside it, to include Bohdan Nedilsky of New Horizons, a public charter located inside Shorewood High School. New Horizons is an alternative school offering "education without boundaries" and sends eight high schoolers each week to work and learn at Weber's.

Weding and Nedilsky are part of the Smart City Nexus, a group of education and non-profit leaders that also includes folks from Walnut Way, Fondy Market and Alice's Garden. They are holding a meet and greet on Friday, June 22, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m at the Riverwest Public House Cooperative, 815 E. Locust St.

"All kinds of groups come here for plants, churches, non-profits, etc. I see a lot of rallying around plants," says Weber, whose talent for growing things is linked to growing community in Milwaukee.

Weding's community rallying includes teaching soil classes at the Guest House, 1216 N. 13th St., and working with a veterans group to build "intention gardens" in veterans' yards, linking vets with gardener-mentors.

Weding and his partners gave $1,000 to Milwaukee Urban Gardens for its "MUG Bucks" program, which exchanges people's donated time at community gardens for plants.

Weding and a local botanist have also started a native perennial landscaping company. The two certified native seeds collectors gather seeds throughout the Kettle Moraine State Forests and are working with the Urban Ecology Center to re-plant a stretch of the Milwaukee River just below its Eastside location.

They currently have 80 varieties of locally sourced native perennials.

Weding says the greenhouse business can be rough, but he's happy. "It's an aggressive business to grow beautiful flowers anyway," he says.


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