Garden Avenue Greenhouse
Growing success for nearly 100 years
At the start of spring, the temperature hovered around freezing and the sky was overcast. But inside the Garden Avenue Greenhouse, the temperature was a balmy 80 degrees. The place was bustling, getting ready for a rebirth of its own.
Shelli Gayvert, co-owner of the greenhouse, was directing her nursery staff. They were on a tight deadline to transform the open greenhouse into a tropical paradise that would help draw in customers from around the region.
Tomato planting started in February when thousands of seeds were planted using a table-height mounted seeder. The small-scale seeder, which mimics field farming, drops seeds into a shallow tray portioned into hundreds of compartments. The dozens of trays are hand filled with nutrient-rich soil before they hit the conveyer belt to be seeded. When the time is right, thousands of seedlings large enough to be divided into four-packs, six-packs and larger, are all meticulously transplanted by hand.
Started nearly 100 years ago by Fred Kephart, the business is now tended by Shelli and her husband, Dan. Fred opened the doors in the 1920s on the same 10 acres located on Garden Avenue, a quiet street that runs parallel to I-90 just south of the 27th Street overpass. It’s the oldest greenhouse and nursery in Yellowstone County and today handles more than 1 million plants each year.
“It was actually a truck garden,” Shelli says. “Back then, Garden Avenue was filled with trucks full of fresh produce. Farmers lined the street with their trucks loaded with the produce they grew. Fred’s specialty was tomatoes.”
In 1963, Ray and Casey Gayvert, Dan’s parents, bought the business and for the next 50-plus years, a Gayvert would be in charge.
Shelli was raised on a farm near Rapelje and Dan grew up right on the property, which supports two homes along with 45,000 square feet of green house, 15,000 square feet of retail space and a seven-acre garden.
Dan graduated from college with a degree in horticulture and returned to manage the nursery for his parents. After he and Shelli married, she eventually joined the business fulltime. Their children, Julie and John, grew up playing and working at the greenhouse and now a member of the fourth generation, Shelli and Dan’s grandson, 2-year-old Wyatt, spends time at his mother’s side while she helps out at the nursery.
“Dan is farmer at heart,” Shelli says. “He’s lived and worked on this plot of land his entire life. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about plants and is adept at keeping the place running. He’s a plumber, electrician, mechanic and has a wealth of knowledge. It’s in his soul.” Shelli takes care of all the accounting and the customers. Together they operate like a well-oiled machine working separately or together depending on the need and the season.
By Mother’s Day weekend, the greenhouse is in full swing. Beautiful color spots, hanging baskets and colored planters brimming with blossoms fill the greenhouse, their fragrant smell permeating throughout.
“It’s always fun to see people come in and enjoy what we have here,” Shelli says. “We want our customers’ time here to be an experience for them. The warmth, the smells, the white noise coming from the water features. It’s all very relaxing and tranquil.”
Julie is the buyer in charge of purchasing and displaying the retail space. Her creative touch brings water features, bird feeders, spinners and unique planters to the grounds.
As part of the “seasons” of the greenhouse, the Gayverts transform their business several times over the span of the growing season. They begin with promoting yard art as people clean their yards and gardens after having been dormant over the winter.
Then, flowering plants start to fill the space and as the temperature rises and another month is peeled from the calendar, the bedding plants come out. Dozens of varieties of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables add to the excitement as customers look over the selections and make their choices.
“I really enjoy helping customers transform their yards and gardens into an oasis,” Shelli says. “We aim to help them make their space into something they want to come home to.”
She helps customers every step of the way, figuring the amount of sun an area receives. She looks at the type of soil that’s best, the type of fertilizer that’s needed, all while pinpointing a customer’s personal taste.
“We have such a variety of plants,” Shelli says, “I encourage people to wander around and see what strikes them. What colors and smells are they attracted to? Do they enjoy the sounds of spinners turning in the wind or the water from a water feature? We can help them plan out their entire area.”
By mid-summer, Shelli and Dan fill their truck with plants, produce and herbs and cart it all to the Billings Farmers’ Market. “We’ve been part of the farmer’s market for 23 years. It’s good exposure for us and gives us an opportunity to socialize,” Shelli says.
Putting a beautiful touch on downtown Billings isn't new to the Garden Avenue Greenhouse. The baskets adorning the center of the city are planted by the nursery's staff.
"That's a project we are very proud of," Shelli says. "We plant 150 baskets in March so taht they are ready to go just before Strawberry Fest."
By autumn, the nursery undergoes yet another major transformation. “We love fall,” Shelli says. “In late October we host our holiday kickoff. We have over 60 vendors, a food truck, pumpkin carving and a tree of mums.” The tree, filled with more than 100 mums in a variety of colors, has become a familiar feature. So are the thousands of pumpkins grown on the property throughout the summer ready for carving. Customers have a plethora of choices for fall decorating with corn stalks, squash, gourds, pumpkins and fall yard art.
In the week’s that follow, the Gayverts turn down the heat and batten down the hatches to prepare for winter. In the 10 years since Shelli and Dan have taken over, the business has continued to thrive. They’ve built on this near century-old enterprise, working to keep it productive, efficient and even more appealing as the years move forward.
“Everything is always changing, “Shelli says, “We just concentrate on what we do best and do it the best that we can.”
VISIT THE GARDEN AVENUE GREENHOUSE at 219 Garden Ave. in Billings.