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Volume 15, Issue 39 ~ September 27 - October 3, 2007

Retiring with Blooms and Blossoms

Azalea afficianados closing shop but not giving up on their passion

by Margaret Tearman Bay Weekly Staff Writer

Charles and Wanda Hanners have decided to retire. Again.

They tried to retire 20 years ago, when they left their jobs as engineer and educator. But that retirement was short-lived. By accident — or divine design — they fell in love with azaleas, and their love affair with these native flowering shrubs gave root to their second career: azalea experts, growers and retailers.

Now the Hanners have decided to give retirement another try. When the last of their nursery stock is sold this fall, they plan to close Azalea Trace.

Starting from Scratch

It all started 30 years ago, on their one-acre property in Bowie and a going-out-of business sale at a Howard County nursery. “I went to the nursery planning to buy some plants for landscaping,” says Charles. “And I came home with a whole lot of azaleas.”

None of the pots was labeled. They took pieces of the plants to a local azalea club, hoping to identify the varieties.

That introduction opened a vast new world they couldn’t help exploring.

“We were amazed to learn there are 9,000 varieties of evergreen azaleas,” Charles says. “But only 300 to 400 of those are available in the marketplace.”

About 10 years after bringing home those first azaleas, the Hanners made the decision to retire, Charles from the NSA and Wanda from her job as an elementary school teacher. By this time, their azalea hobby had grown into an occupation; the budding horticulturists had filled their limited Bowie property to the brim with azaleas they grew from seeds and cuttings.

“We’d had these seven acres in Calvert County for 15 years,” says Charles. “We always knew we would move here, but we didn’t know when.”

They sold their home in Bowie and made the move south, bringing their azaleas with them.

Pots of homegrown azaleas quickly multiplied around their new home in Huntingtown.

They decided to “put out a shingle,” Charles said, and start selling their progeny. Word spread, and Azalea Trace was born. And the Hanners were out of retirement.

“We advertised a little,” says Wanda, “but most of our business was word of mouth. Our customers are friends of friends.”

Their business helped ease them into their new community.

“It wasn’t long until we started recognizing people in stores,” says Charles. Soon the Hanners became known as, in his words, “those local nuts who like azaleas.”

Growing a Business

In 20 years, the Hanners have transformed their Calvert acres into a forest of naturalized azaleas. They boast a collection larger than the National Arboretum. Collectors, aficionados and the curious wander the well-trod paths, up and down the gentle hills. Benches built by their son, Charles, are placed along the way for rest and reflection.

In clearings, the forest gives way to the nursery. Neat rows of the Hanners’ cultivated azaleas are planted according to size and each meticulously labeled.

Every variety is entered into a database designed for them by their other son, James.

“I can cross-reference every single one by color, leaf, bloom time and growth habit,” Wanda explains. “When a customer requests a color or size, the database tells me what we have in stock.”

Each azalea is photographed in bloom, and the pictures are included in the database.

The Hanners don’t keep this information to themselves. They offer their customers a CD brimming with pictures and growing information of the more than 2,000 named azaleas and countless other seedlings growing in their nursery.

“We are very proud,” says Wanda, “that we have grown every azalea we’ve sold.” Anticipating the day they would close their retail business, the Hanners stopped taking cuttings four years ago.

By October, they expect to be sold out.

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