Owners Todd and Mandy Wiebenga had long outgrown the circa 1857 wood cottage where the business was founded by the late William Wehner and had, in fact, moved their shop nearly 10 years ago.
They built a 50-foot by 80-foot building on a six-acre site in the country to accommodate their equipment — skid loaders, aerators, compost spreaders — as well as a roomy dispatch center where most of the business' 16 employees meet at 7 a.m. every work day to discuss their assignments.
The Wiebengas also built hoop houses to store materials such as topsoil, cordoned off a nursery area where several hundred shrubs and small trees await re-planting in Quad-City yards and established growing fields for about 200 trees representing some 20 varieties. At night, there is open space for parking company trucks.
But the couple kept their office and design studio in the cottage that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places until this spring. Now they invite the public to an open house from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, to see their new space at 4905 S. Cody Road, rural Eldridge.
Although bigger in size, the business focus remains the same.
"We still sit down at the kitchen table and talk to homeowners about design, or re-design," Wiebenga said last week, sitting at a table in the new office.
Customers can buy a design plan and install it themselves — either totally or in part — or they can hire Aunt Rhodie's to do the entire installation.
Of about 500 jobs the company does annually, about 95 percent are for homeowners, while the remainder are for contractors or public entities.
Follow-up maintenance is another of Aunt Rhodie's services, including pruning, weeding, mulching and improving lawns by aerating, top-seeding and applying compost. "The only thing we don't do is mow grass," Wiebenga said.
Another service that is growing — not by intention but by demand — is "repair work" such as rebuilding retaining walls or fixing drainage problems.
Wiebenga cited the example of a condominium association in which the backyards of 12 properties were supposed to drain one to another, with the water emptying into a detention pond. Instead, the water remained standing to the point that the grass couldn't be mowed.
Aunt Rhodie's installed underground drain tile to fix the problem.
"It's not glamorous work, but it's work," Wiebenga said. "It's necessary."
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Clients want landscapes, not gardens
When the Wiebengas bought the business from Wehner in 2001, gardening was peaking as a hobby.
Gardeners, as Wiebenga defines them, are people interested in spending time in their yards tending plants — planting, mulching, weeding, watering, dead-heading. They generally want a mix of materials, everything from trees and shrubs to perennials, annuals and bulb plants that bloom at different times of the year for season-long color.
But, "the gardeners we have worked with are aging and are not being replaced," he said. "Nine out of 10 of the people we deal with now are looking for 'landscaping,' not a 'garden.'"
And by that he means trees, shrubs, mulch and lawn — a layout of plants that looks pleasing but requires minimal maintenance. If some of the plants bloom, that's great, but is not a requirement.
"For the younger generation, that's not something they're interested in," Mandy Wiebenga said of gardening. "They just don't have a connection with the outdoors."
In some cases, Aunt Rhodie's is asked to "de-landscape," or remove garden beds from the home of a gardener who is growing old and can't keep up with the work.
Or, the client may be a person who just bought a house with a garden but doesn't enjoy gardening.
In that case, Aunt Rhodie's will harvest desireable plant material, then grade off the remainder and plant grass seed. "If you're not a gardener, a garden tends to be a detriment (to a property)," Wiebenga said.
Other changes, trends
• Plant hybridizers are developing more plants with season-long or repeat blooms. Hydrangeas and Knockout roses are two examples.
• Landscape lighting has become more widespread, and the technology has improved.
• True ponds with plants and fish have fallen out of favor, although Aunt Rhodie's still gets a few calls for no-maintenance recirculating ponds and fountains.
• Firepits remain popular. They can be installed for around $1,000 and are available in gas or wood-burning. A stone fireplace, on the other hand, requires concrete footings so could cost around $10,000, a price few people can afford. Ditto for outdoor kitchens. Plus they are "like a boat," Wiebenga said — useful only about four months of the year in the Midwest.