Almost 30,000 trees of 110 different species grow in the extensive fields of Heritage Nursery. The Elkhorn nursery, which prides itself on customer trust, offers shrubs, perennials, grass varieties and landscape materials among its popular products.
Bill Spittler has always enjoyed interacting with people and working outdoors. He operated a mowing service that helped him pay for college before graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His business and accounting degree earned him a few corporate jobs before he made a life-changing decision in 1988.
“Corporate was alright, but it wasn’t my gig,” Spittler says.
While still working at his corporate job, Spittler started a part-time nursery from the back of his pickup truck, which he kept up for four years.
“I didn’t really have a plan when I started,” Spittler says. “I just knew I loved this.”
In 1992, Spittler followed his passion and opened his nursery in Elkhorn full-time. He bought 10 acres of land on 212th and Maple streets, started to acquire some trees and expected to do a little retail.
Today, Spittler is very familiar with planning ahead — he says there is no crystal ball to predict the future, but the nursery knows what to generally anticipate from their plants.
“A lot of times in the nursery business, when you’re planting trees, you almost have to look out five to 10 years,” Spittler says. “Some of the trees that were planted this week, we’re not going to harvest for six to seven years, especially the evergreens. They grow slow.”
The time and care that goes into everything the nursery sells are evident. Spittler says Heritage Nursery is proud to provide exceptional customer service, high-quality plant material and an expansive variety that meets customers’ diverse needs.
Spittler says the nursery’s original customer base was retail. When a customer asked if he would sell wholesale and match another nursery’s prices, he discovered his niche and ran with it.
The nursery does about 10% retail today, but 90% of its business is directed toward landscapers and garden centers. Spittler says the transition from retail to mostly wholesale grew the company by simply allowing them to sell more plants.
“It really helped because we’re dealing with a lot more volume,” Spittler says. “When the landscapers come in here, they’re doing a whole yard instead of one or two trees or a couple of shrubs.”
Heritage is a top landscape supplier and wholesale nursery today, but Spittler still recalls their humble beginnings. The early days at their Elkhorn location relied on the help of good neighbors and interested customers.
“I had a customer in my pickup that we called ‘Old Blue,’ and he was driving around with me as I was showing him a few of the trees and everything,” Spittler says. “He said, ‘Well, where’s your office, Bill?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘You’re sitting in it.’”
The nursery overcame uncertainty after opening in Elkhorn and has managed to survive as a business during other trying times, including Nebraska’s historic floods. Still, Spittler says he was very concerned when the pandemic hit in 2020.
As luck would have it, the nursery did not face the same hardships as many other businesses. Spittler says people staying home meant they opted to invest their money into their backyard rather than travel plans.
“People were bored, so they went outside in their yards, and they wanted to get out and do work,” Spittler says. “So, really, it didn’t hurt our business at all — it actually probably helped our business.”
The nursery is busiest in the mornings as most of their landscapers come to load their trucks before work. A typical day at Heritage consists of about 35 friendly employees on site — and five friendly dogs. On any given day, Boomer, an amiable Bernese Mountain dog, might come up to meet you as you enter the nursery.
Spittler says he works hard to make the nursery a welcoming and family oriented space. His two sons work alongside him, and his wife, Allison, also helps promote and support the nursery.
A growing demand years ago led to an expansion of the nursery to serve more of the Lincoln area. In 2002, Spittler established Heritage Nursery West, a 58-acre production nursery just south of Lincoln in Roca, Nebraska. With an increase in retail clients in addition to landscapers, the nursery opened a new location in Lincoln in 2016 to meet those sale needs.
Spittler has plenty of goals for the future of Heritage Nursery but says he is mostly focused on being more self-sufficient and providing employees with an opportunity to succeed alongside the company. “I’ve had so many good employees, and I know maybe this is a cliché, but it’s really nice to see them grow in a nursery,” Spittler says. “It’s not just the trees that grow, but your employees also grow with the company and share in that profitability.”
Spittler also highlights the importance of landscapers, landscape companies, contractors and retail clients in the nursery’s success.
“We’ve had some lifelong customers who have been very loyal to us and stayed with us,” Spittler says. “So, it means a lot to get to just build those relationships with your customers and vendors.”
Spittler says Heritage Nursery wants to continue providing only the best products and services to landscapers and homeowners throughout the community.
“People have asked me, ‘Bill, what’s your favorite tree?’” Spittler says. “And honestly, my favorite tree is the one that’s been paid for and is on someone else’s pick-up leaving Heritage Nursery. That’s my favorite tree right now.” ◆