After more than 25 years, Edelweiss Nursery owners to retire

It's said that when the right time comes to retire, a person just knows. For Joe and Debbie Braeu, that moment came last summer as they were unloading a large delivery of trees and shrubs for their business, Edelweiss Nursery in Lakewood Township...

Edelweiss Nursery
Edelweiss Nursery has operated at 5175 Washburn Road since the 1980s. (Clint Austin /

It’s said that when the right time comes to retire, a person just knows.
For Joe and Debbie Braeu, that moment came last summer as they were unloading a large delivery of trees and shrubs for their business, Edelweiss Nursery in Lakewood Township.
“We turned, looked at each other and said, ‘This is the last time, isn’t it?’ ” Debbie recalled.
For more than 25 years, the couple unloaded several truckloads each year to stock their retail nursery and garden center at 5175 Washburn Road, 1 mile north of Duluth. It’s hard work. But the striking specimens from Oregon and the Twin Cities paid off. Edelweiss became known as the area’s premier source for unusual and unique trees and shrubs.
Seeing what he felt was a limited stock available in the Duluth area, Joe had set out to broaden the offerings. At Edelweiss they grew to include eye-catching weeping varieties, dwarf conifers, alpine perennials and cultivars that he developed himself.
“I’ve never gotten shrubs or trees anywhere else,” longtime customer Nancy Gregg of Duluth said. She and her husband, Paul, have been going to Edelweiss for 25 years. “We have an amazing variety of unusual things. The exotic ones aren’t anywhere else in town.”
While the Braeus’ decision to retire was made last summer, they didn’t start telling their customers until earlier this month at their annual 55 percent off birthday sale. They have been selling out their existing stock and won’t be ordering more. They close for the season Tuesday and will reopen in May and June to sell off what remains.
“We will miss the retail,” said Joe, 67. “We have so many people who come. For them it’s a joy.”
For the Braeus, it’s been more than a business. Clients have become friends over the years.
“For both of us it’s been a passion,” Debbie, 59, said. “We never considered it a career. It’s who we are.”
The closure, however, will create a void for local gardeners who won’t be able find the variety of trees, shrubs and perennials that Edelweiss has offered.
“They’re going to be missed, that’s for sure,” Gregg said. “I belong to a garden club. Everybody shops there. With their unusual specimens and their variety and their people skills, I don’t know anyone who has gone there and hasn’t bought something.”
Getting started

Joe Braeu’s horticulture training, know-how and design skills have driven the business’s focus. He grew up in southwestern Germany, where he studied horticulture. He did horticulture work in Sweden and Canada before meeting Debbie while traveling in the United States. They married and settled in her native Duluth, where they started their business.
What began as a lawn and maintenance service in 1979 turned into a landscaping business. By 1987, their holding nursery for clients had turned into a retail nursery open to all at their home in rural Duluth. Seven years ago, Joe stopped doing the actual planting for clients, though he has continued to design landscapes and gardens and consult.
“They have done designing and put in ponds for us,” Gregg said. “If we see something we love, we ask, ‘Where might it go?’ Joe knows exactly where.”
All along, Joe was intrigued by Duluth’s two growing zones, Zone 3 and Zone 4, depending on whether the location is near Lake Superior or farther away.
Gregg said her yard in Duluth’s lakeside neighborhood is protected by a rock ledge, allowing for some warmer Zone 5 plants. That prompted Joe, with the couple’s permission, to test its limits.
“He used our yard for experimental purposes, mostly with trees and shrubs,” Gregg said. “If they work, that’s where they stay. If they don’t work out, out they go. They almost always worked out.”
The surprising successes include a California redwood tree still going strong 12 years after being planted in their yard and a 6-foot-tall Japanese maple planted in the ground 10 years ago.
“Most who have Japanese maples have to bring them inside in winter,” Gregg explained.
Joe also knows well Bill Ziebarth’s spacious and award-winning yard in Piedmont Heights that is landscaped with many unusual trees and shrubs from Edelweiss.
He, too, would ask Joe where a certain tree or shrub would thrive in his hillside yard. And Joe would always know.
Ziebarth, a skillful gardener himself, said he has learned a lot from Joe and will miss him and the business.
“They have new and exciting varieties,” Ziebarth said. “I don’t ever remember seeing azalea and rhododendrons in the Duluth area before Joe arrived. His designs are really very much European. In Germany, you see very small homes with no front lawn but all shrubs and flowers.”
According to Debbie, Joe introduced the approach in Duluth in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I didn’t see that in Duluth before that,” she said.
Future not idle

The idea of leaving the business behind isn’t new to Joe and Debbie Braeu. The pair have attempted to sell their home and business, which sit on the same 4½ acres, for several years with no success.
So they carried on.
But now, at 67, Joe says he doesn’t want to be a burden if he were to develop health problems in the middle of the growing season when the business is open.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “You know when it’s time to say ‘OK, I’ve done enough.’ ”
In a few years, the Braeus may move away to be closer to their two grown daughters.
“We’d love to live in Zone 5, for gardening purposes,” Debbie said.
Joe agreed.
“I’ve always had Zone 5 envy,” he said.
But for now they’re staying put. They are looking forward to traveling when it’s not the off season and places are closed. And they’ve got lots of home projects to tackle, gardens to alter and new ones to create.
“I have so many woods to develop,” Joe said. “I have so much to do. I won’t be bored.”
Any sadness over closing the business is buffered by the fact that they’re not moving, Debbie said.
“We’re not going cold turkey June 30,” she said “We can choose what to do.”
Joe will probably continue to do consulting and landscape design but, he said, “it’s on my terms for people I know.” And they may open their picturesque grounds for garden tours.
Then there’s all the open spaces that will be created when all the potted nursery trees and shrubs are gone.
“It might be fun to set up tents and have weddings here,” Debbie said.

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