Tucked down a hill off Cromwell Bridge Road in Parkville lies Wicklein’s Water Gardens, a family-owned and -operated business since 1954. And like the plants that grow there, the business sprouted naturally.
“My grandfather started it; it was more of a hobby to him back in the ’50s and early ’60s,” said Erik Wicklein, the current owner, who has worked there since he was about 14. “He was a painting contractor, and then he started opening up on Saturdays. People would see the plants from the road and want to stop in and get a water lily or something.”
The property has been in the family since the 1950s, said Walter Wicklein III, Erik’s father. Walter retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1982, and after living in at least five different states, he settled back in Maryland, where he and his father, Walter Wicklein Jr., decided to make Wicklein’s a full-time business.
These days the business primarily sells native plants indigenous to the area, a shift from its previous focus on water gardens, which are, quite literally, plants growing in a water environment. The business began to expand into native plants in the mid-2000s, Erik Wicklein said, adding that customer desire for the plants has “increased dramatically” over the past five years.
“Native plants are a lot tougher, they’re more disease-resistant, more resistant to insects,” he said. “A lot of the non-natives, if they get out into the environment, they can be very invasive and take over and basically just kill all the native plants.”
In the early 2000s, there was a decrease in interest in water gardening per normal horticulture cycles, when species of plants fall in and out of favor among gardeners, said Walter Wicklein III. Erik made a “smart move” when he “took it over and moved it in the direction of wetland and native plants,” his father said. “Erik has taken it to another level that I didn’t even imagine.”
Erik Wicklein said there’s not one particular plant that is most popular, but eight to 10 seem to be purchased most frequently, including the peltandra virginica, which is a water plant, asclepias incarnata, a type of milkweed, and varieties of the carex species, which can be grown wet or dry depending on the type.
The 15-greenhouse, 10-employee business has expanded from the initial drop-in customers to include commercial interests — landscapers doing restoration work, botanical gardens and even schools undertaking classroom and field projects. The business has evolved over time from primarily retail, to retail and landscaping, to wholesale, Erik Wicklein said. He likely deals with 10 to 20 customers per day, depending on the day of the week, he said.
One of the attractive features of Wicklein’s plants is that they can have a positive environmental impact. As an example, the pontederia cordata, a purple flower that can be used for water bank stabilization and to control nutrient runoff, essentially filters the water before it gets to the Chesapeake Bay. A recent bay report card for 2017 issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science showed marked improvement from 2016 in the overall score for nitrogen and aquatic grasses, among other indicators.
Wicklein’s type of business isn’t especially uncommon, Erik Wicklein admitted, adding there are “quite a few native nurseries up and down the East Coast.”
“We’re spread out enough that we overlap with our customers, obviously,” he said. “Most of the competition, we’ve known each other for years.”
Still, for Caitlin Graff, 32, a greenhouse manager who has worked at Wicklein’s for about five years, her employer fills an important niche. What stood out to her was its focus on native plants and the role they can play in bay conservation. She also likes smaller projects, such as working with The Harbour School’s Baltimore campus to connect kids with special needs to the business as part of their work study program.
“It’s not only like this big environmental thing, but also a smaller community group that we get to work with,” Graff said.
She added that Wicklein’s employees cherish the business’ “team feel” and that they get to “do so much.”
“A lot of us have been here so long it’s like a family,” she said. “And we’re all sweating it out together.”
Justin Zeis, the project administrator at East Coast Green, a landscape subcontractor in Pennsylvania, is one of Wicklein’s customers. His company primarily buys native plugs to place in ponds for aesthetic reasons, as well as filtration.
“[Erik] is our primary source for that type of material,” Zeis said. “His material is of great quality. We have very little turnover in terms of plugs dying on us or anything like that. He provides good material and good service as well.”
Patrick Wicklein, one of Erik’s three children, studies freshwater fish conservation at Virginia Tech and works at Wicklein’s when he’s home. He handles orders, as well as potting, weeding and watering plants. He said he probably won’t continue in the business, but Erik said that could change. Wicklein’s Water Gardens does, after all, have family tradition going for it.
“It’s pretty cool to be working somewhere that my great-grandfather started,” Patrick Wicklein said.