After 36 years, Northland greenhouse changes hands
Sep 24, 2023
GNESEN TOWNSHIP — After 36 years, a move and numerous expansions, Suzie's Country Greenhouse has a new owner and a new name. Grey Rabbit Gardens is now operated by "full-time gardener / part-time lawyer" Chelsea Helmer, of Duluth.
The greenhouse opens May 1, and seasonal regulars will recognize familiar faces.
Former owner Susie Bellefeuille still has her hands in the dirt, just not as often, and only if she wants to.
"I can come down here anytime I want to help. When I don't want to, I don't have to, and I’m sleeping way better, especially when there's a storm," said Bellefeuille, 69.
"I think she would like to go quietly in the night, but I don't think that's very fair," said Helmer.
On Monday, a group of women planted, potted and watered during the News Tribune's visit. Bellefeuille's husband, Jody, joked it was the quietest he’d ever heard them.
The Dirty Girls are part-time employee-regulars from mid-March to late-April. They play music, gab and get stuff done. And, the name is self-explanatory. "We play in the dirt, we do everything," said Amy Norris.
Before working there, she used to spend hours at the greenhouse as a customer. She likened the Dirty Girls to "a sisterhood," and in the past six years, she has learned so much about different areas of horticulture in their midst. "They never blink" as they carry large bags of dirt and hundreds of plants. They’re committed, willing to dive in and keep the ship running, she said.
After a rough winter, Norris acknowledged the bursts of red, yellow and orange in the greenhouse and how being there uplifted her mood. "Growing something from a tiny sprig and seeing it progress into 100 blooms in a pot, it makes you so proud," she said.
The Dirty Girls are all remaining greenhouse employees and will continue to work with Helmer. Reflecting on her time with them, Susie Bellefeuille said they were instrumental to her business. "I never would’ve done it this long if I didn't have them."
"Susie couldn't have handed it off to a better person," Norris said.
Bellefeuille started gardening with her grandfather, Carl Peterson. As a way of honoring him, she keeps a framed picture of him holding a six-headed cabbage he grew.
Bellefeuille was a stay-at-home mom in her 30s when she returned to college to earn her horticulture degree. After graduation, her husband built two greenhouses outside their home on a dead-end street in Duluth's Woodland neighborhood. It was "probably pretty scary" starting from scratch, she recalled.
When they ran out of room, they relocated in 1994 to their 22 acres in Gnesen Township. "People said we were crazy to come this far out, and it just boomed," she said.
And, the operation was definitely a family affair. The Bellefeuille children were in their teens at the time, and they all ended up helping — filling pots, transplanting, working the cash register.
Jody Bellefeuille built or renovated the seven greenhouses, the Fairy House, the checkout building and the old barn.
Walking the land, it's easy to liken the Fairy House to something out of a Dr. Seuss book. A slanted roof, periwinkle exterior and bright yellow and teal trim. "She showed me a picture and said, ‘Do you think you can build that?’
"Yep," recalled Bellefeuille.
In the past, the Fairy House has contained all fairy garden items, and this year, it's host to kid-sized rakes, shovels and watering cans in bright colors.
Bellefeuille also repaired their 102-year-old horse barn. He fixed the bowing walls and sagging roof, power washed the surfaces and added flooring. "You can see where one chewed on the stalls," he said, motioning to a missing gap in the wood.
Bellefeuille recalled feeling apprehensive about selling the business, especially after meeting a potential buyer. Like his spouse, he wanted it to go to someone who would carry on what they built. Helmer's the right one to do it, he said.
Bellefeuille had listed her business for sale about three years ago, removing the listing after six weeks. "I couldn't do it, I wasn't ready," he said. "Then, Chelsea happened to call one day, and we hit it off."
Helmer used to visit the greenhouse with her mom for the veggies and hanging baskets. She got into English-style gardening and started propagating herbaceous perennials.
With three greenhouses at home, Helmer wanted to learn first-hand about running a business. She cold-called Bellefeuille and started working with her and the Dirty Girls.
They start seeding in February, open the first greenhouse in March and fill up as much space as possible. Then, the cuttings come in and planting's complete toward the end of April, when the focus shifts to watering and maintenance.
When you start growing, it's a very intensive seven days a week until you’re done, and caring for the plants in bad weather can be "a real nightmare," Bellefeuille said.
It's an adjustment in volume and variety for Helmer, who is focusing on reducing chemical pesticide use and expanding perennial offerings.
Another focus is the weather, you live by the forecast, she said, and has increased. Helmer regularly monitors humidity, air flow and temperatures regularly. Buying a greenhouse the year Duluth broke the season snowfall record probably wasn't the greatest idea, Helmer said with a laugh.
Bellefeuille has lost two greenhouses to snow. Luckily, the first one didn't have plants in it.
Two years ago, snowfall meant missing their first opening day in 36 years. "The weather decides a lot of things for you," she added.
For the worry, the payoff is worth it to work with the plants and embrace guests and the joy they have when they visit the greenhouse.
Helmer quoted a saying: "If you do something you love, you never work a day in your life."
"I knew she was a perfect fit, and as you can see, she was," Bellefeuille said.
"I learn from the best," said Helmer.