SAVOR THE SEASON: Couple grows organic landscaping business in hamlet of Keene
KEENE — Before the East Branch Organics landscaping and garden center became a reality, it already existed in co-owner Heather Leisher Coffin’s vision of her ideal garden center.
But when she first discovered the property, located behind the Stewart’s Shops off state Route 9N/73 in Keene, more than a dozen years ago, the garden center had been abandoned for 10 years and the grass was the height of an average adult.
“It was almost like finding a ruins,” she said.
But underneath the overgrowth were the beginnings of a new garden center that now offers landscaping services and a floral CSA, sells everything from perennials and annuals to wine and spirits, and even hosts educational and instructional events.
Leisher Coffin and her husband and business partner, Tom Coffin, moved to the area 13 years ago from Nantucket Island, where they operated a landscaping business together. They’d been looking for something different from island life — more room to spread out, better schools for their two young kids, real estate prices that didn’t break the bank. They tried Maine out for half a year, but Heather said it “didn’t fit.” That’s when they tried Keene, a place they’d visited in the past to camp and hike. During their first night here, Heather said she knew they’d made the right decision. Then, when she discovered the East Branch property, all the puzzle pieces of their farming future organically fell into place.
Heather’s been surrounded by plants her whole life — her father is a horticulturist, and she spent summers traveling to nurseries with him. One summer during college, she got a job as a gardener on Nantucket Island. She’d been studying international relations, but she discovered that gardening was her future. She started working for a landscaping company on the island, and that’s where she met Tom.
The landscaping company Heather and Tom worked for together inspired the “Organics” part of East Branch, where all of the center’s growing practices are organic. Heather said that Nantucket Island is a densely developed place with manicured lawns everywhere, and it was common landscaping practice to apply chemical fertilizers to give clients the lush, green lawns they wanted. But Heather and Tom noticed the side effects of those practices: they saw algae blooms, dead birds, rabbits and other wildlife that had suffered from the toxicity of the chemicals. When they later formed their own landscaping businesses together in the early 2000s, they were among the first landscaping companies to adopt organic practices. Now, she said, it’s illegal to use chemical fertilizers on Nantucket Island.
Heather and Tom were also among the founders of the first farmers market in Nantucket, and that’s what inspired Heather’s idea to open a garden center.
“I loved the farmers market so much that I just wanted that feel every day,” she said.
Right now, it’s pumpkin and mum season at East Branch Organics. But in the spring, Heather said the growing season is at its height — the property’s five greenhouses are stocked to the brim with plants. In the summer, all the plants come out in the open air for cool, convenient shopping. In the winter, East Branch sells Christmas trees and makes wreaths. Then, after New Year’s, it’s back to planning for the next season.
Heather said that East Branch has naturally expanded over the years, from one part-time employee at the beginning to around 15 team members during the summers. They’re still expanding, too, and Heather’s on the brink of implementing a new events coordinator position.
Now, Heather and Tom are stepping into a new business. Starting next week, they’ll be the new owners and operators of McDonough’s Valley Hardware in Keene Valley. They’re planning to continue running the shop as a hardware store, and Heather said they’ll have more retail space for garden supplies.
Heather said that even when she tried not to follow her intuition and move to Keene, the move still managed to happen. Before the move, Heather said she tried to “pull the plug” — she decided it’d be safer to stay in Nantucket. But then, everything went wrong. Her kids got sick, her son’s school said he’d enrolled too late and would have to be transferred to another school, and the rental house they’d gotten in Nantucket had a sewage break. The family decided to go back to the Keene plan. On their first night here, Heather said she felt like she could breathe for the first time. That was before she knew the garden center existed.
Her lesson learned: Follow your intuition, and let life happen organically.