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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Local business

Veteran puts down roots at Colbert nursery

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

People looking for lush foliage for their yards have a new option, Hero Greens Nursery in Colbert.

The veteran-owned business offers everything from trees to shrubs to flowers. The business only recently opened to the public.

“We’re still under construction for most of this season,” said owner Stephen Ertel.

Ertel and his wife Elizabeth have been busy laying drip irrigation lines and building an open-sided shed to provide shade for some of the plants. “I’m a do-it-yourself kind of guy,” he said. “There is a mile and a half of irrigation in the ground.”

It’s a process that’s still underway because some irrigation parts have been unavailable. “We are still hand watering plants and trees,” he said.

Having drip irrigation was important to him, both because it’s better for the plants and because it uses less water. “We invested a lot in irrigation,” he said. “We made that investment in the front end. It’s just the right thing to do. I can fertilize less and waste less water.”

Growing plants isn’t something Ertel envisioned doing as a kid. He grew up in Southern California and then joined the Army. He served for four years as a military policeman but found himself deployed to Iraq.

Ertel said the Army sent a lot of MP’s there because their mix of infantry skills and people skills were in demand in Iraq .

“You just got tasked wherever you were needed,” he said.

He got out of the Army after four years and found himself wandering.

“I bounced around a lot,” he said. “I couldn’t find a good job.”

He and his wife moved to Liberty Lake in 2011. In 2012 he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was referred to the Spokane Veterans Center in Spokane Valley, where he began seeing a therapist and going to weekly support group meetings.

“They have just really served me well,” he said. “They care for people really well there.”

The help he got gave him the drive he needed to take the risky step of opening his own business. “I lost that drive for years,” he said. “That’s progress for me in my journey.”

He went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Eastern Washington University in 2017. Along the way he found himself enjoying gardening and landscaping his yard.

“I had a heart for plants,” he said. “It was peaceful and enjoyable.”

He began learning more about plants and found himself interested.

“There’s a huge world out there,” he said. “I like subjects that are deep and wide that I can really dive into.”

He got a job managing the hydroponic greenhouse on the roof of the Hemmingson Center on Gonzaga University’s campus. He oversaw a $20,000 renovation that transformed the space for 1,100 plants into space for 5,500 plants.

“I maximized the space and really started cranking out produce and a lot of it,” he said.

It was that experience that led him toward owning his own business, along with his purchase of property in Colbert.

“We have 2 ½ acres here, so we thought we’d just turn it into a nursery,” he said. “Our whole back acre is a tree field.”

Ertel doesn’t plan to just buy and resell plants. He’s been buying what he calls mother plants that will be source material for new generations of plants. He said he searched to find high quality plants.

“I’m very picky,” he said. “The whole premise of this place is that we’re doing the growing.”

He also took care to pick out plants that are low maintenance and drought tolerant.

“Ornamental grasses is a niche that we’re going for,” he said.

He has some plants available now, but a lot of what he is doing is preparing plants for next year. He plans to build a greenhouse so he can keep working all winter long.

He named his business Hero Greens Nursery because he wants to be able to offer jobs to veterans in the future, he said, not because he considers himself a hero.

“I have this vision of one day having a bunch of vets running around here and running the place,” he said. “I have a heart for other vets. I’ve been in those dark places and dark times and really struggled. I think we can really impact vets here, whether it’s a job or a direction.”

He spent all winter working with a local company called Marle Worm Growers to develop a custom bland of soil and was preparing to open his business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He and his wife have two young children at home and they wondered if they should push their dream back a year. In the end they decided to move forward.

“We prayed hard about this and really questioned what we were doing,” he said. “For whatever reason, this is what we felt called to do.”

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