Family business growing
Ag heritage traces to 1852

By GAY GRIESBACH - For the Daily News

Oct. 28, 2014

 Daughter Liesl Thomas, mom Marilyn and son George Radtke are shown Friday at
W. & E. Radtke in the town of Germantown.  
Gay Griesbach/For the Daily News

GERMANTOWN — On one plot in the town, wholesale horticulture is a family affair.

The Radtke clan runs W. & E. Radtke. They market perennials, grasses, vegetables, ground covers and herbs under the names Scarborough Faire Herbs, Grandpa Red’s Veggies and Northern Sunset Perennials.

W. & E. Radtke produces about 1.25 million plants annually, primarily for landscapers and garden centers.

Liesl Thomas and George Radtke took over the business in 1998 from their mother Marilyn and father Harry, who passed away in 2009.

Marilyn helps out, as do George’s wife Kim and sister Rhonda. In addition to the third and fourth generation of Radtkes, Rhonda’s son John Weber, daughter Lianne Peters and Liesl’s son Arthur Thomas have displayed their green thumbs at W. & E. Radtke.

“It’s a joy, seeing my family every day — it’s a blessing,” Marilyn Radtke said.

The Radtkes can trace their agricultural heritage to the Pagenkopf family, Pomeranian immigrants who farmed what is now 17th and Concordia in Milwaukee in 1852.

In 1890, William Radtke came from Germany and worked on the Pagenkopf farm and married one of Pagenkopf’s daughters, Wilhelmina. After her death, he married Wilhelmina’s sister, Louisa.

Ten years after his arrival in America, William started a farm on the site of the former Capitol Court Shopping Mall. There, he raised vegetable transplants, herbs, vegetables for market and pansies.

In 1929 two of William’s six children, William and Elmer, started a truck farm business called W. & E. Radtke.

Plants and produce were sold at the Hay Market in Milwaukee, where growers and restaurateurs prized early crops, which brought in the most money.

To hasten the season the brothers used hot beds, mini-greenhouses where fresh horse manure was used as a heat source. Straw mats covered glass-topped frames to keep tender plants safe on frosty nights and opening and closing the windowed roof was the only way to control plant growth, according to a family history.

After the early season, the hot beds were raked out and converted to cold frames. The Radtkes still use more than 1,800 cold frames, which each hold 44 flats of 4.5-inch perennial pots or 240 gallon pots.

William’s only son, Harry, joined the business in 1950 and in 1951 the farm was moved to Glendale.

Harry Radtke wed Marilyn (Carnell) Radtke in 1957, and when she started working with her new husband and father-in-law, they had 6 acres of land where they grew vegetables, annuals and lettuce in hotbed frames.

“The first thing I learned was how to water plants,” Marilyn Radtke said.

She is still called upon to do hand-watering during the busy season.

William died in 1964, and Harry took over sole ownership. In 1971, the operation moved to its present location.

George Radtke started working after school when he was in seventh grade.

That was in 1974, but his father encouraged by him to attend college and he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in horticulture.

“I grew up with it as a kid,” Thomas said.

She has been piloting the business office since 1981.

When she started Thomas thought she might work for her father for a time while she figured out what to do with her life.

“I’ve been in the business ever since,” Liesl Thomas said.

George Radtke said during his time, he’s seen the farm become not only larger, but more automated.

“We used to fill flats by hand, but now we have machines that take care of that chore,” he said.

When he started, Radtke’s had 3,600 square feet of greenhouse space and 20 acres. The wholesaler now has 42,000 square feet of heated greenhouse space, 90,000 square feet of shade houses, four acres of open containers and eight acres of field production on the 63acre farm. The number of varieties has grown from 150 to 1,400, George Radtke said.

They try 80-100 varieties each year and lineup for the 2015 crop will be determined using sales records from the past four years and looking at averages and trends.

They also keep a wish list.

“The customers let you know,” George Radtke said.

Thomas said in the past few years container garden plants have been gaining traction with the company’s garden center clients and landscapers have begun planting both vegetable and herb gardens for high-end clients.

George Radtke said their line, Native Naturally, has become popular, especially plants that attract monarch butterflies.

The family is getting ready for winter, but plants won’t be covered until the ground is frozen. Coverings maintain even cool temperatures.

They’re also hoping for snow.

“We like a lot of snow. I’ve been hearing that this winter will be like last year, but every year is different. We can cross our fingers, hope for the best and say our prayers,” Liesl Thomas said.