As a child, Marsha Smaaladen used to ask her mom to order her the penny seed packets from Gurney’s catalog. She grew the seeds — as well as her passion for plants and gardening.

Her grandpa and uncles were avid gardeners and she learned from them. She went on to work in flower shops in Jamestown and Northwood, N.D. In 1991, she married her husband Steve and moved to rural Aneta, N.D., where Steve, his brother and his dad ran a dairy farm. In 1993, Marsha opened Country Greenhouse on their farmstead.

In addition to selling plants at Country Greenhouse, Marsha Smaaladen plants containers for customers. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
In addition to selling plants at Country Greenhouse, Marsha Smaaladen plants containers for customers. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
“My goal when starting was to pay my expenses and have a little leftover,” Marsha says. Now, 28 years later, Marsha is amazed at the evolution of Country Greenhouse — from a hoop barn, a lean-to off an old barn to two greenhouses with hopes of a third.

2020 was the best year for her greenhouse business. “People were sick of being in the house and wanted to do something new,” Marsha says.

She saw more first-time gardeners in 2020 than ever before and more people who wanted to can and preserve their garden produce. Many now are returning customers in 2021. Seeing first-time gardeners, especially families bringing their kids, is exciting for Marsha to see a next generation become interested in plants and growing a garden. With a short season on the northern prairie, she enjoys the peacefulness while gardening and working in the greenhouses and loves hearing how different customers enjoy their yards, gardens and potted plants.

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A few of the vegetable selections at Country Greenhouse. (Katie Pinke/ Agweek)
A few of the vegetable selections at Country Greenhouse. (Katie Pinke/ Agweek)
Along Highway 15 near the junction of Highway 32 in east-central North Dakota, Smaaladen’s Country Greenhouse is a drive for anyone, but people travel for the selection of annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs, fruits such as strawberries and raspberries, rose bushes, potting mix and peat. She also plants containers for customers.

Marsha’s business philosophy: “Treat your customer right. They will drive. And they don’t care about the distance.” Her returning customers become “once-a-year family,” and she awaits their return each spring.

Marsha opened Country Greenhouse in 1993 on their farm when her husband, Steve, was dairy farming full-time with his brother and dad. Today, Steve no longer dairy farms but finds similarities in the greenhouse business to farming saying they both involve risk and both gardeners and farmers are optimists. Pictured are Marsha and Steve Smaaladen on May 24, 2021 inside one of the greenhouses of their family business. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Marsha opened Country Greenhouse in 1993 on their farm when her husband, Steve, was dairy farming full-time with his brother and dad. Today, Steve no longer dairy farms but finds similarities in the greenhouse business to farming saying they both involve risk and both gardeners and farmers are optimists. Pictured are Marsha and Steve Smaaladen on May 24, 2021 inside one of the greenhouses of their family business. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Marsha is quick to point out she does not do the work of Country Greenhouse alone. Steve stopped dairy farming in 1997 and sold the cows. He works full-time for the U.S. Postal Service as well as overseeing operations and maintenance for the greenhouses. His goal is for the business to “be convenient, look nice and be organized” for customers.

“I still miss farming. I still love farming,” Steve says. “But this business is (Marsha’s) passion. It’s her ministry. She prays for her customers and with her customers, sometimes right here in the greenhouses.”

There are similarities to running greenhouses and farming, Steve says. “We take risks each spring. We put out plants some years in snow and freezing temperatures,” he says. “The customers buying plants and flowers are optimistic just like the farmers.”

Steve Smaaladen works in maintenance and operations at the family business of Country Greenhouse, which he refers to as his wife's "passion" and "ministry." He works full-time for the U.S. Postal Service and is a former dairy farmer. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Steve Smaaladen works in maintenance and operations at the family business of Country Greenhouse, which he refers to as his wife's "passion" and "ministry." He works full-time for the U.S. Postal Service and is a former dairy farmer. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Steve and Marsha have two sons. Zachary, 23, will be married later this summer. He runs a lawn mowing business. Zane, 14, who was adopted from China in 2008, works in the greenhouse business. Steve says the business has taught Zane to work with adults and different types of people and he is “very good on the till.” When Marsha isn’t working in the greenhouse business, she homeschools Zane, is active in her church and works part-time for the U.S. Postal Service in Pekin and Tolna, N.D.

During her 28 years owning and operating a greenhouse business from her rural farmstead, Marsha says the most significant change has been the internet. “We hardly had cellphones when I started. The only advertising was word of mouth, which is the best deal because I was pretty broke, but now, we have more advertising and the internet,” she adds.

To read more of Katie Pinke's The Pinke Post columns, click here.

Marsha Smaaladen opened Country Greenhouse on her rural farmstead in 1993 and says her business philosophy is: “Treat your customer right. They will drive. And they don’t care about the distance.” Her returning customers become “once-a-year family,” and she awaits their return each spring. Photo taken May 24, 2021. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Marsha Smaaladen opened Country Greenhouse on her rural farmstead in 1993 and says her business philosophy is: “Treat your customer right. They will drive. And they don’t care about the distance.” Her returning customers become “once-a-year family,” and she awaits their return each spring. Photo taken May 24, 2021. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Marsha’s “green bucks” program gives customers $1 coupons for every $20 they spend before June 15. After June 15, they can return to use them on additional purchases until mid-July. Most often people come back for perennials and trees, Marsha notes.

The ability to put customers first from a rural location while working together as a family to grow a small business is inspiring. Marsha is knowledgeable, she hustles and she cares for customers. You see it in her work alongside her husband and sons.

I’ve been a gardener and plant lover my entire life, following my grandma and mom’s examples. Last year, when we had been in the house for too long, I brought my girls to Country Greenhouse to create their own fairy gardens. They purchased figurines and small plants for containers. My daughters were motivated by the selection of vegetables and ended up planting their own vegetable garden on my parent’s farm. They’ve helped with pulling weeds in the past (and thoroughly enjoy sampling vegetables), but last year inspired them to grow plants on their own. We’ll be giving gardening a go as a family for many years to come and planting our favorite pots soon.

Make a visit to a local greenhouse yet this season. Plant a few containers to brighten your doorstep. Grow a garden. Expand a tree row. Create a perennial garden for returning seasons. Get your hands dirty — and soak in the peace that comes with the anticipation of the sweet aroma of flowers or eating and preserving fresh vegetables.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.