Linder’s Garden Center, where eager gardeners loading up on annuals and too many tomato plants has been as certain a rite of spring as the arrival of robins and baseball, will close within the next few weeks after more than a century in business.

Dave Linder, company president, who grew up with his three siblings in the business begun by their grandfather as a humble celery farm in 1910, said Wednesday that the announcement has been emotional for his family, employees and customers.

“It’s a sad thing,” he said, adding that breaking the news to employees was one of the most difficult things he has had to do. There is no date set for closing, but it will happen after inventory is cleared — aided by 50 percent discounts that began Wednesday — at its Larpenteur Avenue store and 11-acre complex of greenhouses on St. Paul’s North End.

Customers used words like “devastated” and “stunned” when learning of the decision to close the store and its satellite network of more than 50 Flower Marts.

“That’s so sad. I’m shocked,” said longtime Linder’s customer Virginia Spaniolo as she loaded a cart of bright mums into her car. Spaniolo, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet, bought them as appreciation gifts for clients. “I’m coming back tomorrow to get another load.”

Jessica Goode, a Linder’s employee, fought back tears as she kept busy working at the checkout counter. “We’re all just heartbroken,” she said.

Linder said this year’s poor spring was the final in a series of blows that the company has endured over the past five years, starting with the Great Recession. The prolonged wet and cold that delayed garden planting and landscape projects was foremost, he said. “Our business is very, very dependent on the weather. This spring really threw us a curveball.”

Linder’s sells 80 percent of its products in a 10-week window typically starting in April, when the last snow fades. “April was horrible, just horrible,” he said. By the time the weather warmed up in June, it was time for Linder’s longstanding practice of offering discount sales as the growing season progresses.

In addition, the recession slowed home-building which, in turn, slowed the sales of trees, shrubs and sod, which make up a sizable part of the commercial and wholesale nursery operations, he said.

Other factors also played into the decision, he added. The demographics of Linder’s core customer base, baby boomers, have been changing precipitously. As boomers age, giving up big yards and vegetable gardens as they move to townhouses and condominiums, the smaller spaces drop demand for garden and nursery supplies.

The industry’s dynamics and new competition also took their toll. Linder’s developed a network of Flower Marts scattered across the Twin Cities as a convenience for customers, bringing its products to the suburbs. But big-box retailers and home centers have been expanding their gardening lines. “Our business plan started to lose some of its edge,” Linder said. Linder’s was unable to secure financing to keep the business afloat.

Humble beginnings

Like many big nurseries, including Bachman’s, based in Minneapolis, and Gertens, in Inver Grove Heights, Linder’s had humble beginnings as a truck farm. In the first half of the 20th century, long before the arrival of suburbs, freeways and shopping malls — and before refrigerators were common — truck farming was big business in communities surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Albert Linder grew vegetables, mainly celery to supply Chinese restaurants, his grandson said. He gradually switched over to flowers before passing the business on to sons Peter Sr. and Walter. Peter Sr.’s four children continued the expansion begun by their father, Dave Linder said, each playing a role in that growth. His sister, Lill Linder, is the company’s vice president. His brother, Peter Linder Jr., developed its network of Flower Marts after retiring from the St. Paul Police Department. A fourth sibling, Robin Linder, was integral in developing the Larpenteur Avenue center, which opened in 1984, and the company’s website before he died from a brain tumor in 2001.

The Linders have been a pillar in the gardening business community, added Jon Horsman, spokesman for the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association. Their loss will leave a hole in the organization, but the wider effects are uncertain. “Right now, we’re just reeling from this a bit,” he said.

It’s also not clear yet what’s going to happen to the Linder’s property on St. Paul’s northern edge. “We had dreams and visions about what it could be,” Linder said.

Along with the growing operations in St. Paul, Linder’s has production greenhouses on 52 acres in Lake Elmo. Linder’s has been a year-round growing operation, producing more than 13 million bedding plants and half a million perennials in more than 800 varieties every year. That includes about 50,000 poinsettias.

That made it a holiday destination as well as a harbinger of spring. The center was decorated with thousands of lights and 80 decorated Christmas trees, opened in a lighting ceremony that became a tradition — along with the ever-present Baby, a large parrot who watched the goings-on from his perch in the store.

“Rest assured that Baby will be well taken care of,” Linder said. “And by someone in the Linder family, more than likely.”

Linder’s typically hires more than 1,000 people at the beginning of the gardening season. That number had been drawn down to about 50 full-time workers and 100 part-timers, as it usually is this time of year. Many of his employees were longtime veterans who returned each year and took pride in friendly and knowledgeable service, Linder said.

“You’re doing something that brings joy to people’s lives,” he said. “That gets to be a pretty good business to be in.”