WEST CAPE MAY - Judi Bernard and Cindy Franklin worked side by side for years with complementary landscaping and garden center businesses.
Franklin, of Middle Township, started her garden center in 2001. Bernard, of Cape May Point, ran a landscaping business for more than 20 years.
Bernard bought plants from Franklin, who, in exchange, referred landscaping and mowing jobs back to Bernard.
In 2005 they decided to join businesses with Cape Island Home & Gardens in West Cape May.
"We have a lot of avid gardeners here. I just did a talk for the Cape May Garden Club," Bernard said. "And practically everyone there has bought plants here."
The serene setting at Cape Island does not come by accident. Bernard and Franklin work hard each winter to create a pleasing environment for customers at the acre-large garden center. By early summer, the center will be one meticulously sculpted garden full of take-home potential for Cape May County's landscapers and homeowners alike.
Bernard said they even play classical music because the plants seem to respond well to it.
The best way to illustrate how people might make creative use of the center's many shrubs, flowers and decorations is to show them, Franklin said.
"We have a certain niche. We try to carry more native species," Franklin said.
To that end, they offer more than 175 native plantings for people's gardens or flower beds among the "10,123 plants" they advertise on their sandwich board that sits on Broadway. Most of the garden center's plants are grown in nearby Cumberland County.
Store mascots Maggie and Piper add to the garden center's welcoming atmosphere.
The business gets a lot of birders and butterfly fans who want to attract backyard wildlife, she said. She and Bernard are into birding as well and often stop what they are doing to admire a passing eagle or cooper's hawk.
Landscaping and lawn maintenance is a growing industry in Cape May County. As its population gets older, fewer people are either interested in or able to maintain their yards themselves, Bernard said.
Landscaping is a male-dominated business, Bernard said.
"But I don't find any problems with anyone. I'm on the Bobcat as much as anyone. I just moved a ton of stone this morning," she said. "You have to treat your people with respect or you won't be respected."
Cape Island partnered this year with Dellas Agency in Cape May to landscape and maintain its rental properties.
"Our landscaping business is increasing at about 5 percent per year," she said. "We get new contracts every year."
The long winter has cut into the garden center's pre-season work. In keeping with tradition, the shop opened on March 20, the first day of spring, but closed a few days later when a storm dumped 8 inches of snow on South Jersey.
"Anyone in this business is a month behind. That makes it harder," Bernard said. "You bring in new products and you have to pay for them."
The shop is open 10 months of the year through Christmas. Its inventory changes monthly with the seasons.
Bernard spends a lot of her time planting window boxes for patios, decks – and windows. These are especially popular for homeowners who do not have room for a flower garden.
Heidi Kates, of Middle Township, bought spring flowers to plant at the Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast in Cape May.
Kates said she always tries to mix in some pink flowers for owner Anna Marie McMain's favorite color.
"We usually stick with the same thing - the tried and true plants," she said.
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