“We started working for our father in the 1950s for 10 cents an hour,” Eric, 74, told me over the phone recently. “I was 10 years old. That was good money in those days.”
That was in a small town 20 miles northwest of Amsterdam called Egmond. Jos and his younger brother Eric came from a long line of bulb growers. Over the centuries, tulips have created fortunes for the Dutch, but when your father and his father and his father and his father are all bulb growers, it can be a bit of a problem. The Netherlands is famously deficient in something bulbs need: land. For the Roozens, there simply wasn’t enough of it to pass on to everyone in the next generation.
So in 1971, Jos came to the United States. He worked first at Behnke’s in Beltsville, the famed garden center that closed in 2019.
Jos started to do a little bit of work on the side. “Then he called me and said, ‘You want to come over and we’ll start a nursery,’ ” Eric said. Eric came to America in 1975, a year after Jos opened the garden center on Allentown Road in Fort Washington.
“At first, all we did was maintenance,” Eric said. “We had about 85 bank buildings — Suburban Trust, First American — and we did those buildings, complete landscaping and all the maintenance.”
Eventually, the retail side of their operation grew so big that they dropped the maintenance part. At its height, Roozen Nursery had four locations, including additional stores in Silver Spring, Annapolis and Annandale. The stores buzzed with gardeners seeking color for their yards or advice for their lawns. (I went to Roozen’s to get a mystical product called salt hay to lay over the freshly-sown seeds of a new lawn. They were the only people who had it.)
Was it hard, I asked Eric, to transition from growing things in the Netherlands to growing them in the Mid-Atlantic? (First I asked him if he wore wooden shoes while working in the Dutch tulip fields. He did not.)
The biggest difference is the soil here, Eric said. “It’s hard clay soil. Over there we have the sandy soil. Over there, you plant it and water it and it will grow. Here you have to amend the soil to give the plant better growing conditions.”
Eric said that the world’s biggest bulb grower is in the United States — Washington Bulb Co. in Washington state, run by a distant cousin named Roozen — and for a while tulips were big business for him and Jos.
“When we came here, we would sell a couple million tulips every fall,” Eric said. “That completely stopped because the deer ate them all.”
There are more deer marauding through gardens now, he said, than there were in the 1980s.
“Now you’re glad if you sell 15,000 or 20,000 tulips in the fall,” Eric said. “People say, ‘Why would I plant tulips if the deer are going to eat them and the squirrels are going to dig them up?’ ”
Roozen’s Nursery was a regular advertiser in The Washington Post, where it placed its ad next to the column Jack Eden used to write. Starting in 1999, Jos would broadcast “Garden Sense” on WMAL every Saturday morning, later with co-host Rick Fowler.
Jos died in 2018. The nursery was back to being one location, in Fort Washington. Eric lives right next to it.
“In ’76 I was watering some plants at the nursery. I see across the street a man with a For Sale sign. I said, ‘Hold on. How much you want for the house? Okay I’ll buy it.’ ”
Eric met Laura, his wife of 36 years, through the nursery. “Her family, they were builders and developers. We did business with them,” he said.
Said Laura of the nursery’s closure: “It’s definitely bittersweet.”
But the time was right. Nearly five decades is enough. Now the couple will have time to visit their three daughters.
And it’s not as if Eric is hanging up his trowel completely.
“I’ve always been interested [in gardening] and I’m going to stay interested,” he said. “We closed the door a week ago. So far I’ve been working in the yard every day. And it’s relaxing. Now I can work in the yard and, after a couple of hours, if I’m tired, I can take an hour break. If I want to take a two-hour break, that’s fine too.”
I asked Eric for his best bit of gardening advice.
“I always told the people don’t buy the plant and then try to find a spot for it,” he said. “You have to have an empty spot and then look for the plant.”