By Marie Bradby
An avid gardener, Cheryl Susemichel would make a nearly two-hour drive to the old Smith & Hawken garden store in Cincinnati to buy tools she craved. She traveled 200 miles roundtrip to buy professional pruners, a European hoe, and authentic waterproof Wellies.
“Those are three things a gardener has to have,” Cheryl says. “If you don’t have the right tool when you go out in your yard, it’s frustrating.”
As she was traveling, she thought, “We need something like this in Louisville.” The idea stuck, and in 1996, Cheryl found herself on the other side of the retail counter.
“When I started the Secret Garden, there was no place in Louisville where you could buy high-quality tools,” she says. “There weren’t many pieces of art to decorate your yard with, other than some little trinkets.”
She already had business experience. “I had been in sales, but gardening was my passion,” says Cheryl, who owned a business forms company where she sold such items as computer checks, computer paper, invoices, and receipts. But her heart was in her yard — her shade garden, her ferns, her roses, her raised organic vegetable beds.
|Cheryl stays on top of her customer’s needs and constantly looks for ways of increasing the business’ visibility.|
Cheryl started the Secret Garden in Crestwood and has moved four times as her business has grown. In February, she moved to Middletown and is now located in the Eastgate Shopping Center. “Every time I moved, it’s been to a larger place,” she says. “This time, I nearly doubled the size I had at Westport Village from 2,500 square feet to 5,000.”
|These are a few of Cheryl’s most popular yard items. (L-R) Painted Peace art poles made by Studio-M. The poles are weather-resistant; benches and outdoor pillows; the Art Planters also made by Studio-M are weather-resistant.|
The shop offers not only gardening tools and container pots, but indoor and outdoor home decor as well as gifts and garden plants. Cheryl bought one of the old Thienman greenhouses and plans to offer locally grown plants next year. “I’m going to try to grow things that you don’t see in Louisville,” she says. “I want to test things. How does it look in Louisville? I love hydrangeas. I want to grow those that you can’t find here. I want to say to my customers, ‘Guess what I’ve got!’”
|After purchasing their gardening supplies, customers also have the convenience of shopping for clothes at Magnolia and Fig — a boutique owned by Cheryl’s two daughters. You can enter the store from inside The Secret Garden.|
A thousand square feet of the new space is devoted to 28-year-old daughter Stephanie Susemichel’s new clothing and accessories boutique, Magnolia and Fig. “She’s wanted to have her own store since she was a teenager,” Cheryl says. Cheryl’s 26-year-old daughter Emily also helps out by keeping the books, managing the website, and working in the store.
“The Secret Garden is the mothership,” Cheryl says. “Someday when I’m ready to retire, they will have an opportunity, if they so desire, to buy the shop from me. Life is too short to do a job you hate. You need a job that you enjoy every day.”
|(L-R) These are a few more items from Cheryl’s store: Tula hats to protect you from the sun; garden tags; metal outdoor wall art made in Cary, North Carolina.|
Cheryl’s keys to staying in business for 20 years:
- Do constant research for products, otherwise, you won’t survive. I scoured magazines, especially Southern Living, to get ideas on what to buy to stock the store. I also quickly learned what to offer from customers. They would say: ‘Do you have buckets to gather clippings in that you can sit on?’ Customers helped me through the early years by asking for what they were looking for.
- Stay ahead of the competition. I stock things that are exclusive to me. If big box stores start carrying what you have, let it go.
- Be patient in economic downturns. I try to come up with ideas to keep people coming in here. We teach classes. It doesn’t cost a lot of money. It helps my customers decorate their homes and take care of their gardens. During times like the recession of 2008, you don’t pay yourself at all. You just have to say, ‘This is a tough time right now, and I’m going to get through it.’
- It’s important to pay your bills. Pay your vendors and keep your credit good. When you call up that vendor to order, you will get your product.
- Cut back in tough months when bigger bills come in. I know people who haven’t made it because they got in way over their heads. They didn’t pay attention to what they were spending money on.
- Hire the right people. The wrong person in your store can totally ruin your business. Be willing to let go of the wrong ones. Never hire your friends.
- Your work is NEVER done! Eight-hour days don’t exist for a shop owner.
- Make God your CEO.
|Cheryl sells natural and organic items. (L-R) Amazon Lights made from essential oils; organic garden and outdoor items which include bug repellents and fertilizers.|
Homemade Hummingbird Nectar
Use 4 parts warm water to 1 part sugar. Stir until dissolved. Do not add red dye. Refrigerate the extra.
Organic Weed Killer
1 gallon white vinegar
1/2 cup salt (regular table salt)
1/2 cup Dawn liquid dish soap
Mix well and put into a sprayer. This will kill whatever you spray, so be careful not to get it on plants that aren’t weeds.
Will you be planting anything this summer? What will it be?