Times are tough as Kathy’s Corner waits for spring to arrive

Kathy Wheaton touches the leaves of a hebe, a plant native to New Zealand. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Kathy Wheaton touches the leaves of a hebe, a plant native to New Zealand.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Oddly enough, Kathy’s Corner is nowhere near a corner. The roadside nursery boasts more than 100,000 plants on a straightaway south of town.

And after a rocky year, owner Kathy Wheaton said she’s unsure what lies around the bend for her establishment.

Difficult weather for an entire year and autumn’s economic downturn were crushing blows to the family-run business, Wheaton said. It was “without a doubt the toughest year” for her nursery since she opened in 1971.

“We’re counting the days ’til spring,” she said. “I wouldn’t say we’re two weeks from shutting our doors, but we’re as close as I’ve ever been. It depends on what the next six weeks bring.”

Though she’s exhausted her business’s reserves and personal savings, and she and her husband Loyd haven’t seen a paycheck in more than six months, Wheaton said she’s not giving up.

“I could probably go anywhere and do anything else and make more money, but I love growing flowers,” she said. “This is my passion; this is who I am, and I don’t want to quit.”

Wheaton’s passion for plants is unrivaled only by her compassion for her Island community, it seems.

“She gives and gives, and she’s really accessible,” said Vashon Garden Club president Sally Fox. “Anybody can go in and talk to Kathy. She’ll never put you down for asking a really basic question.”

Time and again, Fox said, Wheaton has let the garden club and other Island groups borrow her plants for events, including the Strawberry Festival parade.

“She said, ‘Sure, take whatever you’d like, just bring it back,’” Fox recalled. “She’s so generous with the community.”

Fox said she admires Wheaton’s commitment to her Island nursery, regardless of today’s challenging climate. Wheaton has lived on Vashon for more than 50 years and raised seven daughters on the Island. Her connection to the rock runs deep.

“She’s one of those people who has that indomitable spirit,” Fox said. “She just digs in and does what it takes to keep going and works really hard.”

Fox noted that Wheaton is not alone in the plant industry — she’s feeling the same pinch as other plant growers and brokers nationwide.

“Last year was a really hard year,” Fox said. “You had a very cold spring, where people weren’t buying plants, and in the fall when nurseries have their big sales and make their money for the winter, we had a horrible economic climate. It was a double whammy.”

To make up for the slump in plant sales, Wheaton added a landscaping and yard work sector to her business three years ago.

In the last year, her landscape crews have accounted for 30 to 40 percent of Kathy’s total business, she said. It’s only because of income generated by yard work gigs that Wheaton can pay her employees’ salaries and her utility bills.

“We do everything from landscape design on,” Wheaton said.

Edie Ulatoski hired Wheaton’s crews last year.

“We have an island in the middle of the driveway, and it was a weed patch. I could have cried every time I walked past it,” Ulatoski said. “Kathy’s people worked so hard on it — I don’t think they stopped to take a deep breath. It’s such a joy to look out there now.”

Crews of two are available six days a week, Wheaton said, and work on everything from treecutting to rockeries to ponds.

“If we can keep the guys working, then we’ll be able to keep the nursery open,” she said.

“I think people really have no idea that we’re struggling,” Wheaton added.

Health problems and medical expenses have contributed to the financial burden she’s feeling, she said.

In the past year, she’s had three cancerous growths removed from her face. She goes back next week to have them checked out. Her husband Loyd had major surgery last year, but today is able to head one of her landscape crews almost daily.

Gardening took its toll on her skin, she noted.

“Everybody who goes outside needs to be wearing sunscreen. I can’t say it enough,” Wheaton said. “It was a very interesting lesson. ... Nobody pays attention to sunscreen in December, but I do now.”

She said she hoped people will stop by the nursery to check out plants, though spring is months away.

She’s having a sale where all her plants are 25 to 75 percent off, and perennials, trees and shrubs could all be planted now.

“We have everything from bedding plants to trees, and everything in between,” she said. “We really want to help people make their world beautiful, and whether that means digging in the dirt or handing them a flat of pansies, we want to help them be successful, solve their problems and make their world beautiful.”

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