Feb 09, 2024 12:23 AM

52 FACES: Ritter retires from garden center – but not gardening

Posted Feb 09, 2024 12:23 AM
Photo by John Lovretta
Photo by John Lovretta

By William Smith

When Ralph and Pauline Ritter started Ritter’s Garden Center in 1969, their son Steve Ritter was just a child. But once school let out, he practically lived in that garden center. It was his job. It was his hobby.

“My folks actually moved to Fort Madison when I was in seventh grade, back in 1969. They bought a feed store there and transformed it into a garden center. My dad did commercial landscaping,” Steve Ritter said.

It was a boom time for garden centers and landscaping businesses, and Ritters Garden Center eventually grew into three locations – including West Burlington.

Ritter’s hobby of hanging out at the garden center looked like it would become his destiny. And he did everything he could to fight against it. So he tried to become an engineer.

“I went off to college to be an engineer, and as I got into that, I really didn’t care for that as much. I said, ‘God, there’s got to be an easier way to make a living than this,’’’ Steve said.

That led to a revelation. Steven married his high school sweetheart Lynn halfway through college and moved back to Fort Madison to work with his father.

“By 1981, we were doing an awful lot of work in Burlington. And so at my father’s suggestion, we decided to open a garden center here,” Steve Ritter said.

Located near Walmart, the garden center was located on the edge of town. But Walmart wasn’t there in 1981, and neither was much of anything else. The town was growing quickly, though.

“The buildings started popping up around us,” Ritter said.

Lynn was pregnant with their youngest son at the time. He’s now one of the store managers, while Steve just entered semi-retirement at the start of the year.

“It’s a little bit tougher than it was with all the competitors to compete with. There wasn’t a Walmart. There wasn’t a Lowe’s. There wasn’t a Menards at that time,” Ritter said.

That has changed the business dramatically, Ritter said.

“When we opened, we were a garden center that did landscaping. I would look at us now as we’re a landscape company that has a garden center. Landscaping is the biggest revenue generator, and the garden center helps feed that business,” Ritter said.

Ritter’s two sons – Chris and Ryan Ritter – run the business now. Steve has been around to help with the transition, but he’s winding everything down. He just recorded the final episode of his weekly, Saturday morning gardening radio show that ran for years on KBUR.

“My two sons have very complementary skill sets,” Ritter said. “I have one who’s an excellent designer (Chris Ritter) and so he does all the design and sales. My other one (Ryan Ritter) is a little bit more of a problem solver and probably follows along my strengths. He’s the one who runs all the landscape crews. The two of them work really well together, which makes me one lucky fellow to have two sons that actually work together and still like each other,” Steve Ritter said.

Steve made sure they were qualified through a trial by fire – so to speak. He wanted each of them to work at another landscaping company for at least two years so they could figure things out on their own, without the advantage of being the boss’s son.

So they did. Steve wasn’t sure if they would come back to Ritter’s, and he didn’t pressure them. If they found something they loved doing elsewhere, he would have been just as happy.

But what the Ritter boys loved was already at home. They did as their father asked, and returned with more confidence and a plethora of ideas to work in the family garden center.

“I think it was real important for both of them,” Steve Ritter said.

For years, Ritters Garden Center sold flowers for Valentine’s Day. That market has been gobbled up largely by retail and grocery stores, leaving the rest to dedicated florists. Ritters no longer has flowers, focusing entirely on landscaping and gardening.

Bedding plants are the hot trend in gardening right now. A bedding plant is a flowering plant that provides a few months’ worth of color and can be planted in a flower bed, a border, or even a container/hanging basket.

“The bedding plants just keep growing, and that’s kind of a fun thing. As I’ve gotten older, that’s kind of what I’ve evolved into, is the greenhouse sort of work,” Ritter said.

Now that he’s retired, Ritter will finally get to do what he never had time for before — taking care of his plants. Decades of gardening for other people hasn’t stifled Ritter’s passion for the hobby, and now he can do it for fun.

“I’ve turned all the landscaping over to my sons. It’s more of a construction company than it is a plant company,” Ritter said.

Ritter is excited to see where the future of the business goes under the direction of his two sons. He doesn’t plan on interfering, nor does he have any desire to.

“Their strength is obviously the landscaping part of it. But at one time, that was all that I wanted to do as well. Now they’re being exposed to the garden center part, and we’ll just see which direction they go,” Ritter said.

Ritter believes his sons will have the direction of the store set within the next three to five years. The business is one of Ritter’s children, and much like his flesh and blood, he would like to see it grow beyond his vision.

“They have to make the company what they want to do, not what their mother and I wanted to do,” Ritter said.