Stories Behind The Booze: Renee Webeler
The main thing I took away from meeting with Renee Webeler is her love for her family and community. Her family’s warmth is shared even with strangers, displayed as soon as I pulled up to meet her at the greenhouse during a particularly nasty downpour and her husband raced out to escort me in. The humidity and technicolor of the lush greenhouse is almost transcendent; I forget I’m even in Cincinnati. Renee’s “grab and go” plant arrangements pop up throughout the garden center, flower arrangements pieced together perfectly accentuating the other plants in colorful ceramic pots. They themselves look like pieces of art signifying Renee’s personal touch throughout the building and greenhouse. The only thing that competes with her love for her family is her love and loyalty to The Queen City.
Let’s start with the basics: How did your family get involved with White Oak?
So my father-in-law bought the business about 30 years ago, and my husband knew he wanted to work with plants, but went to school to study business. Before we met, I had a frame shop; I went to the University of Cincinnati in the School of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning program for Fine Arts… So how I got involved, at first, was strictly just to have a job. After realizing this was something I wanted to do for a career, I moved out here with the plants. I don’t see the plants as plants, but as paint brushes and tools to make colorful pots, to make colorful things. Even first coming out here, not knowing what plants were, I was arranging displays and saying, “Okay, this is how to organize a composition,” so that’s where my role has evolved.
Yes, these are absolutely beautiful. It is like a piece of artwork.
And that’s where I have come into the business. Fortunately I have had a lot of freedom with the Webelers. My mother-in-law does the landscaping division of the business, and my husband does her old job, as he’s now the CFO, and his brother lives in the house behind the business. So really, the whole family works here.
I don’t see the plants as plants, but as paint brushes and tools.
So let’s go back a second. How did you end up in Cincinnati in the DAAP Fine Arts program?
Oh, I’m from Cincinnati. I grew up about 5 miles from here, right in Cheviot and went to St. Martin’s grade school, Mercy High School. It’s funny: It’s very much a Westside thing that when people ask you where you went to school they say the high school first instead of the college.
[Laughing.] That seems to be all over Cincinnati.
It’s very strange. Anyway, right out of high school I fell in love with photography and decided I wanted to pursue photography in college, and got accepted into the DAAP program, and I also ran track for UC. It’s a very interesting dynamic being an artist and an athlete, because most don’t like each other as they come from very opposite spectrums. But I had a great group around me that was incredibly supportive.
So are you still photographing?
Um, Instagram [laughing]. I have two kids now, and that’s always a challenge, but I do constantly take their pictures and I really love to bring my camera in here. It makes it a challenge, though, with the kids, so phones make it so much easier. I fell in love with photography for the darkroom, not necessarily for digital. It’s definitely a thing – there’s a smell; there’s that environment. You just can’t get the same quality as you can with film. I also collect old cameras. I just don’t make the time to do it.
I feel like that’s a really big struggle, though, for women who are working moms – especially artists. Because if you do little passion projects for yourself, you’re almost supposed to feel guilty about it.
Yes, yes. And how I’ve gotten around that slightly is starting to do projects with my daughter. I’ll get out the watercolors – even though I’m not a good artist – but it’s something she can do, so it kind of lends itself to projects we can do together. But it’s few and far between as she’s four and my son is two. So it’s like, “When can I get him down for a nap so we can do something together?”
That’s brilliant. As far as projects go here, let’s talk about events that you’re also doing.
Oh yeah, yeah. I run our “Make and Take” program, which is seasonal and started around 15 years ago. We’ll start doing classes for the fall at the end of September; it will be one of the “grab and go” pots. The next one we do an outside planter. I’m in charge of setting that all up and getting that all ready, and I teach some of the classes.
We’ll also do talks, educating people about, for example, perennials and bulbs and what to plant. We’re doing an upcoming talk on houseplants on when to bring them in and what to do. We also have different garden center groups that meet here.
What’s a typical day in your life consist of?
We’ve been fortunate enough not to have to put our kids in any kind of daycare. I have a lot of family locally, so family watches our kids. So every day is different because every day a different person watches the kids, so it’s really chaotic, and my daughter just started preschool, so our schedules are insane. Plus with the garden center: We’re open seven days a week. My husband and I work different days of the week, so we juggle a lot. But a typical day would be getting up with the kids, getting ready for wherever they need to go. And then as far as work here goes, in the springtime when we’re the busiest, we call it early morning water. So I come in an hour or so before we open with a team of two, get everything watered and ready. Then I’m mainly waiting on customers, getting everything stocked, and then, if there’s time, creating displays, and hopefully, our display will be demolished because someone just bought everything off of it. [Laughing.]
What’s your biggest challenge?
Communication is a big challenge, I find. Mainly because my husband and I work at the same place but we don’t see each other, like I’m out here in the greenhouse while he’s back in the office. And we only have Sundays off together, so making sure we are all on the same page – I find that to be the most difficult thing. I also find it with the employees here, just making sure we are communicating and just being on top of things. I think it’s great, though, with my schedule, because my husband is able to be at home with the kids watching them. And I’m still active. I play softball; I bowl, and that was one thing we both promised each other when we got married was like, when we have kids, that we’re both still able to get out and do stuff. He plays tennis; he was a tennis player in college.
That’s really smart. It’s easy to start revolving around your kids.
Yes, it’s so easy to get like that. It’s been a huge help to have our parents, too. My dad is one of eight; my mom is one of six. Everybody lives in Cincinnati on the Westside except for two. So I have a plethora of aunts, uncles; my grandparents are still alive, so we have plenty of help. My family helps out a lot. And my family is also the ones who call you and say like, “I need a new roof; can you come over and help out this weekend?” And you’re like, “Yeah,” and we all gang up together and help out and go do these things.
I’m so envious!
Yeah, it’s a fantastic support system, and we know we’re lucky.
It’s an awesome family, an awesome environment, and I think that’s why I enjoy a family business so much, too.
Um, knowing everybody’s business [laughing], which can be good or bad. I play softball with my mom and my sister, and then my mom or my husband’s parents watch the kids on the weekend. On Mondays, I bowl with my mom and my aunt, and my dad and his brothers will come up and watch. So I see my family constantly, and I love it. We go camping, and it’s like extended family, too. I’m dreading the day something happens to one of them. That’s why I have stayed in Cincinnati, is my family, and I can’t imagine my life without them. Growing up, my dad’s family always had family dinner every Tuesday. So every Tuesday my family got together and Grandma cooked dinner with big stock pots because you’re feeding like 40 people [laughing].
Oh my god! I love your family.
It’s family and I love it. It got too hard to keep doing Tuesday dinner, but everybody still sees each other. It’s an awesome family, an awesome environment, and I think that’s why I enjoy a family business so much, too.
What’s your favorite thing about Cincinnati?
I also like the family feel of Cincinnati. Growing up on the Westside – I mean, I can’t attest to anything different because this is the only place I’ve lived – but just that general feeling of coming from some place… It’s part of my heritage; it’s part of my being, per se. So maybe like a small town feel, but you’re still surrounded by such great things like the Taft Museum or Playhouse in the Park or the Reds. You just have so much going on that it bothers me when people say, “I’m so bored. There’s nothing to do.” Whereas I’m overwhelmed with so many things I’m missing, like there’s the Ansel Adams show and I still haven’t gone yet.
Do you always see yourself doing this?
Yes, definitely. At first I wasn’t sure, but as I came out here to the greenhouse and started growing with the greenhouse and being around awesome people… Yeah, I don’t really see myself doing anything else.
Do you have any advice for those lacking the green thumb?
Yes! A lot of people kill with kindness; they overwater things, especially house plants. And then other plants they usually forget to water. I would say that 95 percent of the time people kill their plants, it’s because of watering. And it’s also just trial and error. I went to a talk with a lady who spoke about perennials who said she doesn’t give up on a plant unless she’s killed it 10 times.
Okay, so what’s the easiest plant to stay alive?
A lot of houseplants actually, but one is called Sansevieria or Mother-in-Law Tongue. You can put it in a closet; you can forget to water it for a month, and it will be okay.
And lastly, who do you find to be the most influential woman in your life?
As far as being a mom, my grandma. She watches my kids once a week, so I see her once a week, and we do lunch together because it’s my half day. As a mom, sometimes you come up with these crazy ideas, and she’s always telling me not to stress myself out and telling me what she did. She’s always giving me good tips and recipes and [laughing] constantly feeding me. She is just an amazing person because she’s been through a lot.
Join us tonight (October 16) at White Oak Garden Center for our October Boozy Hour, 6-8 p.m.!