The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis sent Jeremy Friedman’s career in a new direction. He’d long worked in construction when the industry “came to a screeching halt.” He started looking for a new path forward.
So he opened a nursery, growing plants that he wholesales to markets throughout the region. City Floral Garden Center, for example, is the kind of operation that buys saplings he’s raised from seed. And then, in 2013, a large garden center in Castle Rock closed and Friedman saw an opportunity. He could sell directly to consumers, which would help fill part of the vacuum left when his year-round client left town. He could also do it cheaply, since his idea for a pop-up market would open only in May and June.
Plum Creek Garden Market was born.
Friedman and his wife, Lindsay, planned to expand the business in 2020. They staked out a second location in Golden and a third in Denver. Right now, the parking lot of the long-vacant Kmart at Monaco Parkway and Evans Avenue — Denver’s Goldsmith neighborhood — features greenhouses covering rows of flowers and vegetables waiting for new dirt.
The old Kmart has been on District 4 Councilwoman Kendra Black’s list of pet projects for years. Back in 2017, she told Denverite the property was a “total wreck” and said she was frustrated that she couldn’t convince its owners then to sell. Then, last year, the lot finally changed hands. There was speculation that housing or new retail could take the Kmart’s place. No formal development plans have been filed with the city, but there are some ideas coming together.
Plum Creek is now the second seasonal use for the property. A Christmas “Santa Claus Shop” has made use of it each December since the Kmart closed. Black said she’s happy there’s some springtime life buzzing there.
“I’ve bought lots of plants for my yard there already,” she said in an email, adding that her constituents are pleased, too.
In Denver, Friedman saw a similar opportunity to the one that got him started seven years ago.
Groundcovers, an independent garden center on Iliff Avenue, closed after 40 years when the city purchased its land last year for a new park.
“We lost a great garden center that had been there much longer than I’ve been in the industry,” Friedman said. “We felt like there was kind of a hole there for the independent garden center market.”
Groundcovers was one of Friedman’s clients, so locating Plum Creek in front of the empty Kmart meant he could fill a void in the neighborhood while he recovered some of the lost business.
The closure also meant there were capable gardeners available for hire. Keri Luster, Groundcovers’ former owner, was hired on to manage Plum Creek Denver. She brought on some of her old staff, too.
Plans for the pop-up were formed before the novel coronavirus made news around the world.
In March, when the wheels were already turning to open his three locations, Friedman said he was a little nervous.
“We had questions when COVID came upon us,” he said.
Though many businesses have been forced to wait out the pandemic, Plum Creek was allowed to open as an essential business since it deals in agricultural products. And while some business owners who rely on disposable income and social gatherings for revenue have said the economic slowdown and fears of a second wave of COVID-19 have kept customers away, Friedman said lots of people are using this odd time at home to work on their green thumbs.
“I think we are seeing new gardeners,” he said. “People are sitting at home and they’re thinking about how to make their space feel better, and gardening is definitely something that’s feeding their souls.”
Nikki McKinzie was one such customer. She rode her bike over to the pop-up market with her two kids Wednesday for the second time in two days. Her daughter, Anya, was looking at plants for a “fairy garden.”
“I like this a lot. It’s just pretty, even if you don’t want to buy anything,” she said. “At least we can get out of the house.”
She’s happy to see the parking lot being used.
“This has been sitting here just empty for forever,” she said. “It’s kind of an eyesore.”
As the pandemic has caused a bump in sales, Friedman said it’s also made it easier to find help to meet demand. While he’s had trouble finding horticulturally minded people to work for just two months in the past, soaring unemployment means the labor pool has grown.
“This year, it’s been slightly easier,” he said. “We hired a lot of restaurant workers.”
And while the empty lot may be hard on the eyes most of the year, the gaping space gave Plum Creek plenty of room to spread out and ensure customers could shop without getting too close.
Friedman said he’d love to return next season, but the property owners haven’t been able to commit to 2021 just yet. The short-term garden center still has a chance to grace the lot again, unless a new long-term use finally takes root at Monaco and Evans.