This following article originally appeared in The Plantsman August/September 2006
The Mixed Border Nursery and Gardens is owned by Doug and Kathy Gagne, a husband and wife team with a wealth of experience in plants and business management. The tranquil nursery they’ve built from the ground up is a tremendous accomplishment. While they are just a few miles off Rt. 101 A and the Everett Turnpike in Hollis, visitors experience only peace and quiet as they stroll through their display gardens. The nursery is enveloped in a completely natural setting and this character is remarkable when weighed against the heavy commercial and residential development that is in close proximity.
Doug says, “We have worked hard to create a nursery that is comfortable and inviting. We encourage people to wander and shop at their own pace.”
Over the years, they’ve expanded every aspect of their operation including the number of full-time employees, the gardens, and the plant list. The business began on a much smaller scale. In 1984, Doug erected a barn and established a small nursery to supply his fledgling landscape design company. “The nursery was an add-on to my landscape business so I could raise some plants I couldn’t get elsewhere, and have them in the sizes I needed,” Doug says. He opened for business with a barn, and just two display gardens.
In the early years, The Mixed Border was a sole proprietorship with Doug at the helm, and Kathy working in the corporate world elsewhere. Kathy joined the business full-time in 1997. While there are many areas that overlap. Kathy’s focus is chiefly managing the nursery and retail sales. In addition to his plant production and selection responsibilities, Doug manages a landscape design/build crew, and presents design plans to customers.
To accommodate the ever-growing plan list offered at The Mixed Border, new areas have been developed for retail sales. Now their nursery includes a shade structure to feature perennials recommended for shady or woodland areas. Landscape cloth is stretched throughout the retail sales area to suppress weed growth. On a daily basis, the landscape cloth is swept to maintain a clean and orderly sales area. All plants offered for sale are sold in containers ranging from 1 quart to three gallon. Typically, the daylilies and hostas would be offered in the large 3-gallon size. The majority are sold in the 3 quart size to 1 gallon containers.
The inventory today features over 1,000 varieties of perennials, more than 200 varieties of woody plants, and some specialty annuals. Doug says, “There are at least four other businesses in the area that are heavy into annuals, so we’re not into this as much.”
To carve out their own marketing niche, Doug says, “We offer plants that you won’t always find at other places. When you have a fixed amount of retail space, you have to make smart choices about your plant list.”
Some of the eye-catching varieties offered at The Mixed Border include a perennial geranium variety named ‘Espresso’. This unique Cranesbill features chocolate brown foliage with a white flower. Customers will find up to 36 varieties of perennial geraniums, along with up to 12 varieties of Echinacea. Doug says, “I’ve always been a plant freak. I enjoy seeking out new varieties.” He admits being partial to variegated cultivars and dwarf conifers.
Kathy adds, “People seemed pleased to hear that of 12 Echinacea we offer, half of them are new introductions. This satisfies their desire for something unique.”
But experience has taught them to achieve a reasonable balance between the old and the new. “We keep the tried and true varieties like Echinacea ‘Magnus’ and Rudbeckias well stocked because they are solid performers and still in demand,” says Kathy.
Doug adds, “When you feature a lot of new material, the burden is on you to educate gardeners about their growth habits and flowering characteristics. Display gardens go a long way to help in this area.” The display gardens represent a “living catalog” where customers can view full-grown example of a wide array of plants.
Doug’s background in plants includes a solid blend of horticultural education and green industry experience. He graduated from UNH with a degree in Plant Science and immediately joined Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, MA. He worked there for six years after leaving UNH, splitting his time between the garden center and wholesale division. Eventually, the challenge of owning his own business won him over and he left to begin his nursery and landscape design business.
Two areas of the business have been customized to fit their location exactly. The first is a plan to insure an adequate supply of water. Drilled wells in this area of Hollis are not high-yielding, so up to three wells are needed to nourish the plants. Moisture of course hasn’t been an issue this year, but in a drought, sufficient water can be a concern. The third well is used seasonally as needed.
At The Mixed Border all growing media is mixed on-site. Doug says, “We don’t have enough room to bring in a large trailer-truck of soil mix.” Five years ago he purchased a soil mixer and now mixes up about 150 cubic yards each year. Bark, peat, sand, and a perlite mix represent the core ingredients of their growing media.
In early March, a potting shed is a hub of activity to pot up young plants, make divisions, or take cuttings from mature plants. Two greenhouses provide space for the on-site plant production work.
In recent years, Doug and Kathy have seen their customer base expand. They draw customers from the Monadnock area to the west, from Massachusetts, and from surrounding NH communities. They purchase some advertising in local print media, but find gardeners who will tell their friends about the Gagne’s inventory spur a lot of interest and traffic through the nursery. They keep their business name out in front of potential customers by utilizing the internet. A graphic designer was hired to build their website and it is an active link on the web pages developed by NHPGA, NHLA, and the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. Doug earned a certification with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, following the submission of extensive landscape plans, and a transcript showing his record of continuing education in the landscape design field. In addition to maintaining membership in these green industry organizations, Doug is a member of the Cary Award Committee. He serves on the Hollis Planning Board and enjoys the ability to guide growth in his local community. One other planning board member has a background in environmental horticulture and together they represent a good resource of information on how to build commercial or residential areas that are pleasing in appearance.