Luann Finke wanders among the shrubs, flowers, trees and ornamental grasses at her nursery. She stops to take note of a few particularly lush leaves, point out an intricate flower and notice an area of new growth on a young tree.
She and her husband, Rich, have owned and run Finke Gardens and Nursery for almost 30 years. But Finke Gardens is not just a place to buy plants, Luann’s biggest goal is to educate customers and the community.
The best way she teaches others is by example. Luann’s life is focused on sustainability and conscious decision-making. It’s a way of life she came by naturally as a native of Geneva, Nebraska, who grew up in her family’s garden.
“For my family, gardening was a way of life,” she said. “You produced the food that you ate throughout the year.”
She remembers her father and grandfather planting and maintaining their massive garden while her mother worked in the kitchen to cook and can the harvest each year. Between the two jobs, Luann found herself in the garden more than the kitchen as a child and grew to love the subtle, yet intricate details of plant-life.
While she loved gardening, Luann didn’t intend to make it her career. In college, she worked her way through five different majors before discovering horticulture. She didn’t know what type of job it would provide for her, but the subject matter fascinated Luann and soon she was hooked.
As an undergraduate student, Luann was the first employee at the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum and traveled around the state collecting cuttings and seeds from native plants. She was quickly immersed in a culture of shared knowledge and a mission to diversify the availability of native plants throughout the state.
She went on to earn her graduate degree from the University, which is where she met Rich. The two were students in the same department and shared a passion for learning and educating others about plants. They worked on community projects, spoke at the State Fair about plant diversity and helped people understand plants in a way that wasn’t being taught anywhere else. After graduating, Rich and Luann got married and continued their work together.
They were a good team. So, when people started asking Rich and Luann for help with their personal gardens, the plant duo decided it was time to start their own company.
At that point, neither of them had business experience. Luann had worked in the Nebraska Extension office and served as the Education Director for the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, but she’d never run her own business. Despite their lack of experience, Rich and Luann knew their business needed to do two things – offer a great diversity of plants and earn a reputation as an honest business that did things right.
Those are two tenets that have served the Finkes well over the years.
When they started out, Rich and Luann grew all of their own plants at their acreage, just outside of Lincoln. Now, they’ve moved their production to a 7-acre stretch of greenhouses and fields between 66th and 70th streets, just north of ‘O’ Street.
In the “old days” they sent out a paper newsletter to customers and neighbors touting their sales and informing readers about planting and growing tips. Now, this newsletter only comes in digital form.
When they started out, Luann was uncertain about how to promote their new business. Now, she handles all the marketing, speaking and community events that she can to connect with the community.
But what hasn’t changed over the past 30 years is Luann’s passion for sustainability. Even small things like recycling and efficient water usage are key elements of her work that reinforce her values. When a customer asks her for plant suggestions, she’s quick to inquire about their location and soil content, so that she can determine what kind of plant would thrive in their environment.
But it goes a little deeper than that. Luann’s work isn’t just during business hours, it’s a lifestyle. At home, she and Rich plant a garden and have all sorts of plant experiments growing around their house, and Luann has taken up cooking and canning as a way to keep fresh, local produce in her home during the year.
By all definitions, Luann is an expert at what she does. She’s studied, researched and worked in the field to hone her craft, but unlike some other experts, she’s not afraid to share what she’s learned.
Her story is about using her knowledge to better serve others.
The sharing is what keeps her going. Whether she’s handing out her personal pesto recipe to a customer or teaching a class at the greenhouse, sharing is what Luann does best.
When Luann retires, she dreams of inviting small groups of people out to her acreage to host garden-to-table cooking classes. They’ll learn, taste and experience the joy of being connected to where their food comes from.
But Luann isn’t thinking of retiring anytime soon. She has plenty of work to do, and that’s just the way she likes it.