Wharton: Millcreek Garden owner in the growing business

Published June 28, 2012 10:06 am

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Millcreek Gardens' owner LaRene Bautner operates a complicated business with a simple goal — connecting people to plants.

"Our desire is to do it in the funnest way possible," she said while sitting in an office that was once part of her childhood home. "We want to create excitement and enthusiasm here, and hopefully it rubs off on the community."

Bautner's parents, Vernon and Murriel Smith, created Millcreek Gardens in 1955, buying one acre, rebuilding a badly damaged greenhouse and surviving the first winter with $25 in their pockets. Vernon was a landscape architect who mainly used the nursery to provide plants needed for landscaping. He did much work in the area, landscaping golf courses, Mormon temples and commercial buildings.

The youngest of seven children, Bautner began working at the gardens for $1 an hour when attending nearby Granite High School, where she was a star swimmer. After receiving a degree from the University of Idaho in recreation with a minor in business, she returned to the family gardening business. She bought part of what became a 3.7-acre complex with her brother Dale Smith and, three months ago, took complete ownership of Millcreek Gardens.

Bautner said her recreation degree helped her understand why people garden and enjoy beautiful outdoor living space.

A plaque hanging above her desk in the busy hub of the business does a good job describing her philosophy: "Leadership is action, not position."

It quickly became obvious that Bautner is a hands-on owner. With a radio that seemed almost attached to her hip, she exuded energy. Sitting down for an interview, the animated owner talked about her passion for growing things from seeds to large trees and trying to provide the plants her customers want when they want them.

"I'm not afraid of much," she said. "I can't think of anything I am afraid of. I am persistent."

Bautner teaches her employees to refer to customers as "guests." Walking into the gardens, it is not unusual to be greeted by workers asking if you need help.

"We want to show them a good time," she said about her customers. "But we're not perfect. We make mistakes. When we do, we acknowledge them and move on."

Millcreek Gardens grows about two or three percent of its own plants, mostly specialized vegetable starts. The garden center carries thousands of varieties of plants. Bautner travels extensively, trying to find new plants and products.

"My desire is to have what everybody needs when they come in," she said. "It's really a big armload to keep track of it all."

And there are times when it isn't possible. This year, for example, Millcreek Gardens sold out of butternut squash plants for a week. Bautner also said she was temporarily out of jalapeno and Anaheim peppers.

Trends she has noticed this year include home gardeners purchasing bigger plants that will offer vegetables or fruits more quickly. The demand for organic plants, fertilizers and compost also is growing. Orange and amber tones are popular, as are low-water plants.

Asked about her strangest request, Bautner smiled and thought for awhile.

"You get asked if you have something beautiful that blooms all year long, doesn't require any care, and is reasonably priced," she said.

The answer?

"Plastic flowers."

Yet, in a nearly four-acre complex filled with living plants and garden equipment of all types, finding those plastic flowers might be a challenge.


Twitter: @tribtomwharton