- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002


When Alex Dencker was younger, he would go with his mother to Behnke's Nursery in Beltsville while she picked out the perfect geraniums. Now he's helping customers do the same.
Mr. Dencker, 33, is the newest store manager of the Beltsville Garden Center, the oldest and largest of the company's three locations.
This month is the busiest time of year for the nursery as the greenhouses even in the middle of the week are filled with area gardeners stocking up on everything from flowering perennials and annuals to shrubs and house plants.
Mr. Dencker, who works with a staff of about 165 during the busy season, is constantly on the go, covering the 11 acres at the Beltsville nursery many times over on any given day.
"I like to be all over the map," he says.
As he navigates through the greenhouses, Mr. Dencker, dressed in shorts, the familiar Behnke's blue shirt and a shady hat, is keeping his eyes open for unhealthy plants, shelves and tables that need restocking and customers looking for help.
"It's my responsibility to make sure everything looks new all the time," Mr. Dencker says. "Every plant that goes out of here is our reputation."
Behnke's reputation in Washington has been built over more than 70 years, since Albert and Rose Behnke opened the Beltsville nursery in 1930. The company, which is 60 percent family-owned and 40 percent employee-owned, has grown into a gardening powerhouse, with two other stores in Largo and Potomac.
The company draws from its family roots. Four Behnke family members still work there, including daughter and president Sonja Festerling and grandson John Peter Thompson, who is chief executive officer. Two other grandsons, Mark and Michael Behnke, also work for the company.
"This place has a lot of character," Mr. Dencker says.
Mr. Dencker started at the Beltsville store in 1987, working in the perennials department. Even when he was getting his degree in political science at the University of Maryland, Mr. Dencker's mind was always on plants. After college, he decided to stay with Behnke's full time.
And during the past 15 years, he has worn many hats, working in Albert Behnke's 8-acre garden in Burtonsville, growing perennials in Largo and holding managerial positions at the other stores. He even worked on the corporate side of the business and became the head horticulturist. He was named to his current position just last week.
For several months, the fate of the Beltsville store was unknown. Due to financial difficulty, the company was forced to put the 11-acre property up for sale. However, Behnke's began talking last month with two banks about a $4.5 million financing agreement that would be used to keep the store open.
Mr. Thompson said Behnke's is still in negotiations with the two banks, but he is confident the financing will come through in the next few weeks.
Behnke's is in the middle of its peak season, which usually begins March 1 and lasts through mid-June, Mr. Dencker said.
The majority of the merchandise comes from Behnke's 80-acre production facility in Largo. During this time of the year, five to six truckloads from Largo are dropped off in Beltsville daily.
Although he's managing the staff and trying to keep things in order at the nursery, Mr. Dencker is also busy getting his hands dirty. On this day, which started out sunny but had heavy clouds hovering overhead by early afternoon, he helps unload a new shipment of paeonias and tag other plants for sale.
Mr. Dencker and his staff have a lot riding on the weather. An unseasonably cold spring or a drought could harm the plants.
"It's a full-time job to make sure the plant material is healthy," Mr. Dencker says.
Two unusually cold days last month that produced frost could have damaged much of the store's merchandise had the staff not been prepared. They worked overtime to protect the plants, either moving them indoors or covering the ones that couldn't be moved.
"We just pray we're not going to see a lot of dead leaves [after the frost]," Mr. Dencker says.
"Those two frosts didn't do as much damage as we thought they would."
The current droughtlike conditions can be deadly for Behnke's, too. And during this time of the year, when customers are flowing at a steady pace even in the middle of the week, the staff works hard to keep the plants healthy.
"We always hope it rains at 3 in the morning and not noon on a Saturday," Mr. Dencker says.


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