Pharo Garden Centre

By Nancy Moffett

The love of plants and gardening has been a lifelong passion for Ray Steidinger and Victoria Leister, owners of Pharo Garden Centre on Easton Avenue/William Penn Highway near Bethlehem. It shows on their strong hands and outdoor faces. But there’s more than a passion for their business evident when you meet them. They have a strong bond with and commitment to their
customers as well.

Take their annual Christmas Open House on Thanksgiving weekend. It began as a way to thank customers for their patronage, says Leister. “We serve mulled cider and homemade cookies and give everyone who attends a glass bird ornament,” she explains. With 3,500 people on their mailing list, this event and their Holiday Shoppe draw people from across the Lehigh Valley, New Jersey, Stroudsburg, Kutztown and as far away as Maryland.

A visit in the off-season with most of the Holiday Shoppe being taken down and packed away is still impressive. Hundreds of ornaments are strung from wires in specially built holiday rooms that evoke the spirit of the season. Here you’ll find handblown glass figures from Russia, Germany, Poland and other European countries. There are German nutcrackers; Fair Trade items from Columbia, Peru, Chile; crèches from Uzbeckistan; lighted Christmas houses; Byers Choice figures; Nativities from around the world; clay crèches from Peru…beautiful glass birds of all colors and decoration. Add to the array ornament wreaths made by Leister, evergreen garlands, topiaries, traditional wreaths and, of course, fresh, locally grown Christmas trees.

The holiday season may be a highlight, but Pharo Garden Centre bustles with activity during planting season as well. The three-acre property has several greenhouses where Steidinger grows organic vegetable plants and some flowering annuals. Perennials, annuals and shrubs are bought from growers in Pennsylvania and New York. “We get great hanging baskets from a local grower,” Leister explains. Other offerings are fruits, herbs and small trees. They take pride in the quality of the plants they offer as well as their use of organic products. They encourage customers to use the organics they sell to keep their plants flourishing. “Because we use organics, our plants stay healthy past Memorial Day,” Leister says, “so we can offer them all summer.”

The history of Pharo Garden Centre goes back to 1912 when Merritt Pharo, a Penn State graduate, opened a landscape business and garden center near Bethlehem. Here, he sold plants and services to homeowners that included Bethlehem Steel executives. In those days, plants were grown in the ground and only taken out during the cool spring and fall months. During the summer, his crews mowed grass and tended properties until planting time resumed.

Ray Steidinger worked for Pharo during summer while he attended Delaware Valley College. After graduating with an Ornamental Horticulture degree, he joined the Centre working for Merritt’s son, Dale Pharo, who took over the business after Merritt’s death in 1958. In 1978, Ray bought Pharo Garden Centre from Dale. Victoria Leister joined Ray in 1981 – managing the landscape design part of the business – after completing an Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Architecture degree from Temple University.

Also in 1981, the partners decided to expand the business by moving to a 3 ½ acre field in Bethlehem Township, just a few miles down the road from the original Centre. With the rapid growth in the Township, their location is now close to the intersection of routes 78 and 33, lending easy access for customers. With the move, they also moved away from landscape design to concentrate on being a retail gardening resource with an emphasis on organics. The pair put in the infrastructure, including the 75-by-30-foot building that houses the Centre.

It’s hard to believe, but this energetic duo runs the Centre almost entirely by themselves. “We have counter help in April and May and during the Christmas season,” Leister explains, but for the rest of the year, they share the day-to-day tasks. Building the elaborate Holiday Shoppe takes 90 days, Steidinger explains, and another 90 days to dismantle it and rebuild the interior to fill with spring plants and gardening products. During the winter, they travel to trade shows and seminars looking for new offerings and information to pass on to their customers.

Their philosophy does not include having “sales,” as most retailers do. “It wouldn’t be fair to our regular customers who buy from us year after year,” Leister says. They keep margins low to foster loyalty and give buyers a fair price. Looking at the price tags on many of the Christmas ornaments bears out that philosophy…many beautiful, unusual pieces are priced far lower than you would find at other boutique stores.

So what keeps Steidinger and Leister so dedicated to the Garden Centre? “We enjoy doing it. You have to be born into it,” Leister says. Being outdoors with the wildlife that shares the property is a perk they love. “We have rabbits and birds, even a pair of ducks that we fed one year,” she says, “and we enjoy seeing the hummingbirds fly through the sprinklers. We never get bored. It feels like we don’t really work here.”

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