Chris Ernst has always loved gardening. So much so that she has made a career out of it, although not by the conventional means of growing and peddling fresh vegetables, herbs and strawberries. Instead, the spirited entrepreneur operates Trans-Plants, a company that primarily leases plants to restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Ernst’s grandparents, Christopher and Louise Rosenbaum, were gardeners and owned greenhouses more than a half-century ago at the southeast corner of U.S. 31 and Hanna Avenue, now U-Haul Moving & Storage.
“They grew a lot of vegetables, and I helped,” said Ernst, 58, whose family and cousins also lived on the property; the cousins resided in a big, old farmhouse.
Her parents, JoAnn and the late Bill Ernst, were also avid gardeners. “I remember planting 300 tomato plants in their garden and going Downtown to sell the tomatoes to people who lived in the houses that were real close together. The people sitting on their porches always bought our tomatoes.”
Ernst was further exposed to gardening as a youth when bagging turnips for Peaper Bros. in the 4200 block of Bluff Road. The company is still one of the largest growers of turnips in the Midwest.
She continued to hone her gardening skills by taking horticultural classes at Purdue University, where she majored in commercial interior design.
After graduating she worked six years for Grant Leighton, which was contracted to care for plants at the Hyatt and other businesses.
Feeling that she had the experience and drive to make it on her own, she launched Trans-Plants from her home in May 1986.
All was not rosy at first, and Ernst had to work as a cocktail waitress at Valle Vista Country Club whenever possible to pay her bills. “I had just bought a house and started my business. What was I thinking?” she mused.
“Federal Home Loan Bank was one of my first customers, and they are still with me.”
A growing client base necessitated the need for more space – hence a move to her parents’ garage and subsequent relocations until settling into her current facility at 1260 S. Senate Ave. in the early 1990s.
In addition to plant care, which entails watering, fertilizing, trimming yellow leaves, checking for bugs and swapping out inferior plants for healthy ones, Ernst and her small staff create a variety of gift baskets and floral arrangements for all occasions. The baskets are in high demand around Administrative Assistants Day (April 27).
Ernst is often praised for her work, as evidenced by auctioneer Mike Heimel commenting, “Chris is a fine example of the old Bluff Road family values as her business and attitude proves that. She goes the extra mile to provide excellent customer service while providing a great value for her products and services.”
She hires about 30 temporary workers to decorate a variety of businesses for the Christmas season. “We start around Nov. 19 and have to be done by Dec. 5,” she said. “We can decorate the Hilton in about six hours with 10 temps. I really work my temps. They can work as many hours as they want,” she said. The work is hard, and everyone’s hours can be long. It depends on what is going on.”
The staff includes Ernst’s 85-year-old mom, who comes in three days a week and helps out wherever she can. “She is best at giving all of us a hard time,” Ernst said.
“I like designing the layout of the plants, and it doesn’t matter if the building is old or new. I find ways to make it look better.”
Ernst tries to buy her plants from as many local companies as possible, but there aren’t many around any more. The majority of her plants comes from Cincinnati.
Ernst’s green thumb extends beyond her business as she has a 10-by-12-foot greenhouse and eight 4-by-12-foot raised gardens in the backyard of her Homecroft home.
Her greenhouse is packed with some 1,000 bedding vegetable plants. “I grow almost everything, and that includes 30 types of herbs. I love tomatoes, strawberries and grilled asparagus with a little butter on it. I could never make any money at this, but it sure is fun.”
Her next-door neighbors, Bob and Lois Kattau – particularly Bob – played a key role in erecting the greenhouse. “Bob brought me over a space heater the other night when it got real cold,” said Ernst, who added that last week’s wind storms scared her. “A couple of (Fiberglas) panels blew out, but I put them back in.”