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Family garden business closes after 109 years in service

John Messner, 27, stands in a greenhouse at Jamaican Gardens North in Libertyville, which is set to close Dec. 20. Tribune photo by Amy Alderman

John Messner, 27, stands in a greenhouse at Jamaican Gardens North in Libertyville, which is set to close Dec. 20. Tribune photo by Amy Alderman

Jamaican Gardens North Manager John Messner stands beneath the staghorn fern his grandfather Robert Platz planted several decades ago. Tribune photo by Amy Alderman

Jamaican Gardens North is set to close Dec. 20 after 109 years of being in the greenhouse business and 40 years of operation in Libertyville.

Manager John Messner, 27, who has been working at his family’s business his entire life, said the local greenhouse just couldn’t compete any more with national retailers.

“It’s just gotten tougher and tougher every year,” Messner said. “We’ve been competing with big box store prices, energy prices, oil and heat and things like that. When it was just Home Depot, we could compete because we specialized in exotic houseplants

and have our own grow house. Then when CVS, and grocery stores started selling plants–when one stop shopping became pretty big, that hurt us as well.”

The pink fuzzy flowers of a chennile plant bloom from arching branches at Jamaican Gardens North. Tribune photo by Amy Alderman

The Libertyville location, 14595 W. Rockland Road, opened in 1970, after Messner’s grandfather, Robert Platz, had a successful run with another retail greenhouse Jamaican Gardens in Morton Grove. However, much has changed since the family opened its first garden business, the Morton Grove location closed four years ago.

“The energy prices really hurt it,” Messner said, adding Jamaican Gardens North pays between $15,000 and $20,000 a month on its gas bill.

Keeping up with fast-changing trends has also been a challenge,” Messner said.

“You don’t know what Martha Stewart’s going to write about and you have to keep in a certain color mum or geraniums,” Messner said.

Both of the Jamaican Gardens were following the family tradition of the greenhouse business, which was started by Nicholas Platz with Platz & Sons flower supply in Morton Grove.

“Its tough to see it go, you know? My family’s been in the business since 1901. It started with growing and selling lettuce and my great-grandfather driving the lettuce in a horse drawn carriage to markets,” Messner said. “Then it went into selling cut flowers, and a wholesale plant company, which closed about five or six years ago.”

During the spring, Jamaican Gardens North employs 15 people, who if they aren’t family, work in a family atmosphere, Messner said. John Messner’s mother Barbara Messner, and his aunt, Carol Martins, is the owners, and his father, Andrew Messner, is a grower at Jamaican Gardens North.

“Some people don’t like working with their family, but I like working with my sister, my aunt, and my mother and father,” Messner said. “My grandfather was here everyday until he passed away. Everyone’s real close.”

Most of the employees weren’t surprised about the family’s decision to close the business.

“Some employees have been there a long time,” Messner said. “I don’t know if they were stunned. They saw it in its hay day, then saw the trickle down effect.”

Messner said he’s not sure what he will do next, but is hoping that he’ll be able to continue working in the garden business.

Tom Clusman, 69, who has been working at Jamaican Gardens North for 18 years as a plant purchaser, said his job may well have saved his life.

“I was working in a stressful, corporate job for most of my life. I had a heart attack and the doctor said to work somewhere pleasant,” Clusman said. “This is such a happy job. My cholesterol dropped right away. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.”

Compared to big box stores, Jamaican Gardens North is more about a labor of love, Clusman said.

“Unlike a lot of other retail situations, the customer service here is really great. The customers are all in here looking for beauty. In the winter sometimes, people come here just looking to get away from the gray and the cold. People come in here just to ask us for advice. They call me the plant doctor. People bring in their plants and ask me, ‘what’s wrong with this?’”

The economy’s been eroding the greenhouse industry, Clusman said, adding he wasn’t surprised when the announcement was made that Jamaican Gardens North will close.

“I could see the writing on the wall,” Clusman said. “I just felt sadness for the owners. They grew up with the business.”

He said he would love to take up a steady volunteer position at the Botanic Garden. “I call it my church,” Clusman said.

“I’m sure I’ll be keeping in touch with them (Jamaican Gardens staff),” Clusman said. “Even the growers and distributors, too.”

Dayna Wallace, 20, who said she has a dream of opening her own flower shop, started working at the greenhouse three years ago, and was inspired to go to school for a degree in horticulture.

“It’s kind of sad,” Wallace said. “We kind of had our own little family here.”

George Baldwin, 59, of Lake Forest remembers going to Jamaican Gardens North since it opened, and still has an elephant ear plant that he bought there in 1980.

“This used to be the only place to by exotic plants,” he said.

Baldwin pointed randomly at the greenhouse where red flowers blossom from the vines of the Rangoon Creeper, a sweet fragrance surrounds the seven foot-tall Lakeview Jasmine trees and a giant Staghorn Fern hangs from the ceiling, saying, “You can’t find that at Home Depot. You can’t find any of these. It’s just a unique place.”

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