- Jordan Swarm
Former Customers and Employees React to the First Spring Without Behnke’s
Vincent McDonald had been visiting Behnke Nurseries since he was a child in search of
the perfect tomato plant. But for the first time in 60 years, the nursery won’t be open to welcome
him in the spring.
Behnke Nurseries permanently closed in June of 2019 after 89 years at its original location in Beltsville, MD. The nursery served as a center of community for both employees of the store and customers who visited year after year.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in for a lot of people. They’ll pick up their shovel in the
spring and they’re not going to have a place to go to,” said McDonald.
Albert Behnke immigrated to the United States from Germany and opened Behnke
Nurseries in 1931. He ran the nursery with the help of his wife Rose, whom he met a year after
opening, and they passed it down through their children, according to their granddaughter
Stephanie Fleming. Fleming served as vice president of the company before it closed and was
the one who ultimately had to make the decision.
“By 2012, the third generation of the Behnke family was at the helm but ready to retire.
For the first time in 80 years, there was no family member to take over,” said Bristow.
The decision wasn’t easy. Fleming and other family members discussed it for years
before deciding that it was finally time to let go of the nursery. The structures within the property
had amassed too much damage to be repaired, and replacing them would cost millions of dollars.
The family made the decision and told all of their staff about two and a half years before actually
closing, according to Fleming.
“We let them know what was going on every step of the way. Last January when we
knew it was going to be our last spring they knew right then. They all stayed, nobody left; they
stayed till the last minute,” said Fleming.
Bristow was one of the people who stayed, but for him, Behnke Nurseries truly was
home. Bristow began working at Behnke’s in the summer of 1979 at the age of 17 as a way to
save up for a motorcycle. What started as a summer job became a career. In 1996, he moved with
his wife and children into a little brick house built by Albert Behnke on the property. He served as a 24-hour caretaker of the property and later ran Behnke’s website when the company started to go digital, according to Bristow. For him, it was a family thing.
“Both of my children graduated from the same high school that both my wife, my father, and I attended. Both of my kids worked part-time at the nursery as well as my father who made
deliveries for our florist shop,” said Bristow.
Bristow and his wife stayed in the little brick house until almost a month after the last
customer visited. He still works for Behnke Nurseries alongside Stephanie Fleming running the website, which they plan to keep going. Former customers can read blog posts about gardening and even order garden decor and gifts.
“I find it hard to go back to the property now and walk through the remains of what used
to literally be my home. I remind myself of all the friends I have made over the years, the time I
got to spend with my wife and children in the little brick house, all the memories that go along
with 40 years of friendships,” said Bristow
The closing of Behnke Nurseries didn’t mean a real goodbye between many staff and
loyal customers. They’re a family, related or not, and according to Fleming they’ve continued to
keep each other close.
“Everybody says, ‘Well reunions are once a year,’ but we have them once a month,” said
Many former employees found jobs at other garden centers in the area, such as Meadows
Farm Nurseries and Landscape in Burtonsville, MD. When the announcement that Behnke’s would be closing dropped, they received an outpouring of support from other nurseries, many offering up jobs to former employees. A lot were hired but allowed to stay until Behnke Nurseries shut its doors, something that is extremely rare because spring is the biggest
season for gardening, according to Fleming.
“Our industry is one of the most wonderful industries in the world. Independent garden
centers stick together,” said Fleming
While the nursery is gone and the land will soon be unrecognizable, memories of
Behnke’s still remain strong in many people’s minds, including longtime customer McDonald.
He still remembers the swans that chased him and other customers as a kid, and the
nightmares they brought on. He remembers the first time he went to Behnke Nurseries not as a child looking for a tomato plant but as an adult with a home looking for plants for his garden. He also recalls the three performances he had on the grounds with his band during their chili cookoff. The loss of Behnke’s is nothing short of devastating, according to McDonald.
The property will soon undergo demolition to begin breaking ground for the new
development the family will be putting on the land according to Bristow.
“I wonder if I had the chance to do it all over again, would I?” Bristow said. “Hell yes.”