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In March 2020, Theresa and Kevin Riley were planning a party.
Rockledge Gardens, their destination nursery and event space on US 1, started by Theresa’s father as a bulb-packing plant, was about to turn 60.
As part of that celebration, the Rileys planned an announcement: They were ready to retire. With their three children happy in non-gardening careers, they were looking for someone to take over the business, someone who would love it and nurture it.
Then came COVID-19.
The party was canceled. The Rileys, like business owners around the world, went into preservation mode, implementing curbside pick-up and online ordering.
Now that they’re no longer in crisis mode, the Riley’s made a different announcement last week, in their Gardening Bugs e-newsletter. Rockledge Gardens has been sold. Theresa and Kevin are retiring.
New owners Devon Klingman and Brendan Hayes-Morrison were introduced to Rockledge Gardens customers during a casual wine reception Wednesday. Another event is planned for 11 am-4 pm Sunday.
How do you get from Antarctica to Rockledge Gardens?
Until a few months ago, Devon and Brendan rented a home in Charleston, South Carolina, but they spent at least half their time at sea working as merchant marines.
Brendan grew up in Gainesville, Devon in Colorado. Last summer when both were on dry land for a few months, they took a trip around Florida in their VW camper van. They were charmed by the Space Coast.
Brendan’s sister has been close friends with the Riley’s daughter Aurelia since college.
“Devon and I were here in October visiting my sister,” he said. “She said, ‘I have to take you to this place.'”
They fell in love with the gardens.
The couple learned that Theresa and Kevin were planning to sell, and their interest was piqued. But at the time, the Rileys were in serious negotiations with potential buyers.
When that sale fell through, Theresa asked Devon and Brendan if they were serious about their interest.
Neither had horticultural experience, but they’d been looking for their next careers. Both felt they’d taken their merchant marine careers as far as they could. They wanted something sustainable, something they could grow together.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘It’s for sale,'” Devon said. “‘Should we? Could we?'”
They decided to dig into Rockledge Gardens.
“Once we had the green light, everything just fell into place,” Brendan said.
Much of the paperwork was handled remotely; Brendan was captaining a ship in Antarctica. Devon was in Europe working as a navigational officer. They got their Small Business Association loan approved and negotiated the contract while at sea.
“When we got off the ships, it was 80% worked out,” Brendan said.
If they’d had any lingering doubts, those were dispelled when, as the couple prepared to move, they kept encountering people in Charleston with ties to the Space Coast.
“We were 400 miles from Rockledge Gardens, and people kept telling us how much they love Rockledge Gardens,” Brendon said.
The legacy of the Rileys and the Wittes
Theresa’s parents, Mary and Harry Witte moved to Brevard County in 1948. Harry Witte opened a bulb-packing plant and roadside stand on US 1 in 1960. In the early days, the nursery was on the honor system, according to the Rockledge Gardens website : “Our sign said, ‘grab a bag of soil and leave your money in the can.'”
Through the 1960s and ’70s, the business grew into a full-fledged nursery.
While all six of the Witte’s children worked at Rockledge Gardens over the years, Theresa is the only one who chose it as a career.
She and Kevin met at Rockledge High School, and Kevin started working at the nursery. Both went to Florida State University, with Kevin majoring in communications and Theresa studying social work.
“I’m not sure if we knew from Day 1 if we would be here,” Kevin said.
“We didn’t,” Theresa said.
After graduation, though, they decided the family business was where they wanted to be. Their first home after they married was a small caretakers cottage next to the building at the front of the gardens that now houses a farmers market.
The Rileys grew Rockledge Gardens into more than a nursery. In addition to the market, there is an open-air building for weddings and other events. The old packing house has been turned into an air-conditioned space for smaller events like baby showers, book club meetings and business meetings.
Last year, they got a beer and wine license, so shoppers can sip while they shop, or just buy a beverage and enjoy the lush scenery.
Like their aunts and uncles, the Riley’s three children worked at the gardens at some point in their lives. But none of them wanted to make the garden center their life’s work.
John-Michael moved to North Carolina, where he writes computer code.
Aurelia works for a car company as a product specialist and does some film work.
Joseph teaches theater and theater design at Cocoa Beach High School.
Only Joseph’s wife, Liz Lark-Riley, continues to work at the gardens full-time, serving as managing director. Theresa credits her daughter-in-law with building the Rockledge Gardens wedding and events business.
Kevin and Theresa have loved their time at Rockledge Gardens.
They’re not leaving because they don’t enjoy what they do. They knew if they didn’t have a succession plan in place, the gardens would be in danger of closing when they were no longer able to work.
Plus, they’re just ready to retire. They want to travel and enjoy their grandchild. They’ll now have time to garden at home, and they’re keeping the land across the highway from Rockledge Gardens. Theresa plans to grow cut flowers, and they’re hoping to grow fruit to sell at the farmers market.
Kevin is going to do woodworking, and Theresa wants to try pottery.
A new day for a community landmark
At Thursday’s meet-and-greet, customers and vendors introduced themselves to the new owners while saying their goodbyes to the Rileys.
“There’s so much here to love,” said Suzanne Richmond of West Melbourne, the owner of Funky Chicken Farm, which has provided fresh eggs and other products to the farmers market. “For one thing, the people here are amazing. The atmosphere Theresa and Kevin have created is one of beauty.”
Judy Carr, a school teacher who lives in Melbourne, said she has bought butterfly plants at Rockledge Gardens.
“It’s a beautiful place,” she said. “Every time you drive by, it makes you happy.”
Mary and Jerry Roper-Witt of Viera asked Kevin’s advice on trees to replace oaks in their yard that were damaged by storms.
“We’re from the northwest in Seattle,” Jerry said. “We have to learn what plants to plant.”
The staff at Rockledge Gardens is extremely helpful, he said.
That staff — and the staff’s extensive knowledge — will remain at the gardens.
Devon said when it comes to plants, she favors succulents. Having grown up in the arid west, she’s drawn to xeriscaping.
Brendan has spent time in Hawaii and loves frangipani, also called plumeria, the flowers used to make leis.
They don’t know a lot about plants and gardening, but that’s something they can learn.
“They spent the last three weeks with a learning curve that doesn’t curve,” Kevin said. “It goes straight up.”
Both have extensive management experience, and their time in the merchant marines has taught them invaluable leadership and problem-solving skills. Devon has retail experience.
Not only have the Rileys and their staff built a beautiful community garden center, but they’ve got all the behind-the-scenes systems in place, Devon said.
“Plans are basically to keep going with what the Rileys have been doing,” Brendan said.
Ultimately, they’d like to offer a grab-and-go lunch service during the week, with soups, sandwiches and salads.
“We want it to be a garden destination,” Devon said. “We want people to come and sit in the beer garden, spend time with the plants.”
The beginning of a new era
Rockledge Gardens will always be an important place for the Rileys.
“We’ve had a lot of family celebrations, Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas dinners, my mom’s 90th birthday, my sister’s memorial,” Theresa said.
But it’s time to let the next generation infuse the place with energy, enthusiasm and new ideas.
Harry Witte was a Navy veteran, and used to use metaphors such as “steer the ship” and “navigate rough waters” when talking about the business.
Devon is a Naval reservist, and Brendan is a Navy veteran.
“So it comes full circle,” Brendan said.
In 2020, Theresa said thinking about retiring made her sad. In the two years since, she’s come to terms with it, and feels she’s leaving her father’s legacy in good hands.
“I know my dad would be pleased,” she said. “My mother would be, too.
“This is what was meant to be,” Theresa said. “It is the next best thing to having our own kids take over.”
Meet new Rockledge Gardens owners
Rockledge Gardens will host a second meet-and-greet with Devon Klingman and Brendan Hayes-Morrison from 11 am-4 pm June 26 in the beer garden near the entrance.
Complimentary popsicles and refreshments provided by River Road Coffee & Popsicles will be available!
The event is free and no RSVP is needed.
Rockledge Gardens is at 2153 US 1, Rockledge. Call 321.636.7662 or visit rockledgegardens.com.
Suzy Fleming Leonard is a features journalist with more than three decades of experience. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find on Facebook: @SuzyFlemingLeonard or on Instagram: @SuzyLeonard
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