Feature: Art Knapp Plantland pulls up roots in Richmond

After 50 years of helping local gardens grow,the Van Hest family says farewell

One of Richmond’s long-running businesses shut its doors for good Sunday, but its legacy will continue to live on in countless gardens across the community.

It’s something that likely would have brought a broad smile to the face of Frank Van Hest, whose family owned and ran Art Knapp Plantland for 50 years, providing plants, advice and friendship to customers at several locations in the city.

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Van Hest, who passed away in early 2005 at the age of 72, was a burly, charismatic Dutch immigrant and the front man for the business he and wife Liz started in 1966 when they opened their Art Knapp Garden Spot in Steveston on No. 1 Road near Regent Street.

“One (No. 1 Road) and Steveston was the place to go buy plants back then. The only other competition was Laing Farms on No. 3 Road and Saba Road,” said Pat Van Hest, the eldest son of Frank and Liz, who started working in the family business when he was just 15.

“Back in 1965, there was maybe 35,000 people in Richmond, and Steveston was basically separate from the rest of the community,” he added. “I remember going to the corner of Steveston and No. 1 Road and looking across and could literally see Richmond Centre, or Brighouse as we called it then.”

With the community about a decade away from starting to experience a boom in development, the Van Hests were busy building their business and developing a reputation in the community as a nursery that not only offered selection but a friendly word and plenty of advice on gardening.

Fortunately for generations of Richmond’s keen gardeners, Frank didn’t follow his first love and put down roots in sunnier climes.

 

Tropical destination

Growing up in the Netherlands, Frank studied tropical horticulture at the National Agricultural College in Deventer which is not far from the central city of Apledoorn.

“His original plan was to go to Indonesia,” Liz said.

“Indonesia was also a former colony of Holland at that time,” added Pat. “But then came the war of independence in Indonesia and it kind of put a kybosh on all of that.”

There were also thoughts of packing up and moving to Africa. But it was the glowing reviews of Canada from Liz’s brother who had recently moved to the Lower Mainland that piqued Frank’s interest in heading to this corner of North America.

“My brother talked us into moving here because in those days it was difficult to find good jobs in Holland,” Liz said.

When the Van Hests arrived in Canada back in 1958, Frank used his education and experience as a landscaper in Holland to get a job at Art Knapp in Surrey, which was then owned by the Vander Zalm family, principally Pete and Nick, the brothers of former B.C. Premier and one-time Richmond MLA Bill Vander Zalm.

The store gets its name from entrepreneur Arthur William Knapp, who founded the business as a nursery in Victoria in the early 1940s. The first Art Knapp’s Garden Spot was opened on Kingsway Street in Vancouver in the early 1950s. Later on, the business was sold to Bill and Art Vander Zalm, who continued to expand the locations.

“When he first started, we helped set Frank up,” said Bill Vander Zalm. “He was an employee for my brothers in Surrey and then he wanted to go on his own. That was fine, we encouraged that sort of thing.

“He was a larger than life character,” Vander Zalm added. “He was also a good operator. He was sharp. And he, unfortunately, passed away at too young an age.”

Vander Zalm added the Van Hests became like family members as they found their way in new lives in Canada.

“The whole Art Knapp organization was kind of a family thing because we also helped Liz’s brother set up his own nursery,” he, said. “Frank was successful and he was knowledgeable about the business, always jovial and joking and Liz was a very hard worker.”

Liz recalls that Bill Vander Zalm was one of the very first people she and her husband met when they came to Canada. “He was a friend of my brother’s,” she added.

After about seven years working for Art Knapp’s and the Vander Zalms, the Van Hests went in search of a place to call their own and found it in the form of a one-and-a-half acre lot in Steveston.

“Even back then there were very few spots available. Luckily, we were able to buy it couple of years later,” said Liz.

 

Building a business

In 1966, the Steveston Art Knapp Garden Spot was opened. The Van Hest family had grown to include four sons, and they all lived in a small home on the nursery property, while the business began to find its client base, as residential development on Lulu Island started to pick up.

“If you look at the early years, it was not a struggle, but we were trying to build up a business,” Pat said. “But once the boom time came in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, then it was really good.”

“There were lineups from the tills all the way outside,” Liz said. “We were having fun and getting to know everybody. And, when you drove around the neighbourhoods back in those days, there were all these young couples moving into Richmond. And they all had homes with big lots and big gardens.”

“After all these years, the common denominator as to why the stores did so well was people could come in and get personal, hands-on help with gardening because horticulture is a science,” Pat said. “And I think people really liked getting one-on-one information from us.”

“We also sold pretty much everything the other stores would sell, too. But when the big box stores started showing up, then there was price competition that had customers saying they could get what they wanted cheaper. It’s true, they could, but we could tell them how to use the products better. It was always selection service, and because it was a mom and pop family business, we put our heart and soul into it.

“I also had a knack for it,” Pat said. “I never went to university. My dad had so many books on horticulture. And he was like a professor anyway. I also enjoyed and had a passion for it. When I graduated from high school, that’s all I wanted to do in life.”

As the store’s popularity rose, so did Frank’s profile. He became a frequent part of the annual horticulture show at the PNE and even had his own gardening show on TV for a while that aired on local station CKVU 13, now called City TV.

“He was pretty funny on it,” said Pat with a smile. “I remember one of my friends telling me it was one of the funniest shows he’d ever seen. Dad had that thick Dutch accent which made it comical. There’s a pile of master VHS video tapes from the show stored somewhere. We haven’t seen them in years.”

Frank also became involved in the local community, especially the annual Salmon Festival.

“July 1 was one of his favourite days of the year,” Liz said. “The flower show was very popular with the crowds. But Frank also enjoyed playing Santa Claus in the (Steveston) parade on Christmas Eve. He did that for 25 years and he was the ‘real’ Santa.”

 

Time to expand

With the Steveston store doing well, the Van Hests decided it was time to grow the business beyond the fishing village and serve the needs of a rapidly developing Richmond. So, they opened a second Art Knapp Plantland at Fantasy Gardens, a development which in the mid-1980s occupied the sprawling property at No. 5 Road and Steveston Highway. Owned by Bill Vander Zalm and his wife Lillian, the park, with its religious-themed gardens and collection of shops in its European Village, would include the large nursery.

“It was quite something at the beginning,” said Pat, adding it was opened in 1986. “The size of the store allowed us to have selection. If you look at the marketplace and a store like Home Depot, they can bring in maybe 10 varieties of roses. We could bring in 200. And that’s what people were looking for.”

Meanwhile, the Steveston location was experiencing challenges as zoning in the area limited what could be done on the site. So, in 1992 the property was sold to a developer and the land became a social estate, which still stands today.

Pat said it was tough to leave Steveston after so many years there, but the Fantasy Gardens operation made up for what was being let go and the sale also helped establish a new Art Knapp in Nanaimo where he and his brother, Tim, run a bustling, three-acre nursery today.

The Fantasy Gardens location was run until 2005 when the lease expired and the overall site was poised for re-development after changing hands when the Vander Zalms sold it in the early 1990s.

The Van Hests kept the Art Knapp name going in Richmond by opening the Steveston Highway and No. 4 Road location in 2006 and a second store in central Richmond, focusing on townhome and balcony gardens, which was closed last year.

The decision to shut the final store on Steveston Highway last weekend was a difficult one for the family. They knew it was time to move on and focus on the Vancouver Island operation, but the history they had built up in Richmond was hard to leave behind.

“We all have different feelings,” Pat said. “Being in Nanaimo since 1992, I consider myself an Islander now. But in the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about what it means to be leaving Richmond. It’s hard. After all, it’s been 50 years. But once we built the store in Nanaimo, that was the future for us.”

“It’s a sad thing to see it happen,” Liz said, “because I have known a lot of people in Richmond.”

“It’s bittersweet,” Pat added. “I’ve had customers come in over the last couple of weeks, shake my hand and tell me they were sad to see us leaving. But it’s time to go, and that’s the way it is for us.

“How many businesses have left Richmond? A lot of the mom and pop operations have gone because Richmond is changing so much. But I think this is the best thing for us. It’s just time.”

While winding things down in the last store, Pat said he’s reflected on the many relationships his family has grown over the years and the debt of gratitude they have for the customers who supported their business for five decades.

“We have to give everyone a big thank you,” Pat said. “If it wasn’t for the people of Richmond, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

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