The original building that housed Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse was relatively small, but now it’s an expanded building in vibrant shades of pink, green and yellow. Inside, there are various hues of green stretching from floor to ceiling for Muncie residents to choose from.
Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse aims to better the community by making affordable plants and produce accessible while working against inflation. Brian Carless is a co-owner and became comfortable in Muncie through his work in the Avondale Community Garden.
“The community garden is a project that I did when I was at Ball State. I did a class where we surveyed the neighborhood, which is the Thomas Park/Avondale neighborhood,” Carless said. “After the class, I proposed to the board of habitat, ‘Why don't we build a community garden in the neighborhood?’ because it would help increase access for food and provide something for people to do and a way to meet your neighbors, and they were like ‘Hey, that's a great idea.’”
The garden was completed in 2016, during Carless’s fourth year in school. After graduation, he moved back home to Lafayette, leaving the community garden behind. But not for long.
Three years after the completion of the project, Carless bought a home in Muncie. Upon his return, he was curious about his impact and the success of the garden, so he began volunteering. This is where he met the man who took care of the garden in his absence, Jeff Brubaker, his future business partner.
Brubaker has worked in multiple greenhouses in Indiana and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He got into his line of work by dumb luck, and after 23 years, he still feels at home in a greenhouse.
“I was looking for a job when I was in Richmond and applied at a greenhouse that specialized in roses,” Brubaker said. “From there, I fell in love with the craft and went on to work at Heartland Growers in Westfield.”
Carless said that his business partner is very knowledgeable in horticulture and growing, helping teach him before they started Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse.
“He taught me how to start everything from seed and grow all kinds of different vegetables because he had a greenhouse in his yard. Through the learning process and through growing so much produce that we didn't know what to do with it, we talked to each other about ‘Well, why don’t we try to make this into a business and see if we can start a local neighborhood greenhouse?’”
Brubaker, also known as Sparky, explained that he woke up early one morning to drop off produce at Blood-n-Fire, a local food pantry. This led to a realization, which ultimately factored into the decision to open the business.
“I originally thought that they were planning on cooking the vegetables up, but when I noticed they weren’t, they were giving them out I thought, ‘Well, I can do that and not have to get up at 6:00 in the morning, but I still get up at 6:00 a.m.,’” Brubaker said.
In 2021, Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse was opened to the public, conveniently just across the street from the community garden. Brubaker and Carless began selling a considerable variety of produce and plants, specializing in vegetables.
“One thing that we like about this is anything that we don't sell, we will just go out to the garden across the street and plant everything we have leftover,” Carless said. “And then we can start giving produce away in the neighborhood, repurposing what we otherwise don't use.”
Necessary supplies for the greenhouse are becoming more expensive due to inflation, but Brubaker and Carless are prioritizing keeping prices reasonable for consumers.
Produce prices notoriously skyrocketed in 2022, and they aren't expected to change anytime soon. While the increase is projected to be slightly less this year, the United States Department of Agriculture, predicts prices will continue to be at above average rates, with an expected increase of 7.9 percent for all food.
“We’re trying our hardest to keep everything at a low, competitive price because a lot of times houseplants are for sure overpriced, or it seems like you’re spending a lot more money than it should be worth,” Carless said. “We like to provide quality but at a really good price, so we haven't really affected what we charge so much as the cost that we've incurred. All of our products, pots, soil, everything’s gone up double.”
Seed hasn’t been too expensive, but there are also concerns of scarcity.
“Finding stuff and getting stuff on time if people even have the product, that's kind of a bigger obstacle that we’ve come into,” Carless said. “There's been crop failures too, so finding seed on certain varieties of plants is near impossible right now. For sure, it’s costing us.”
Despite these setbacks, Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse continues to grow. Carless said due to the current state of the economy, some wholesale options are becoming more expensive than the local “mom and pop” shops, increasing demand for smaller businesses like theirs.
“I definitely see this trend of supporting local, shopping local and supporting people you know increasing right now,” Carless said. “I think that that's a big key to help us through this time. People understand how much a dollar means. They want to go and spend that within the community or give that to a local business owner as opposed to going to Walmart or Lowes. Especially if the quality can be better, it's a no brainer.”
Jena Ashby is head of the 8twelve Coalition, a nonprofit organization in Muncie aimed at bringing people together to achieve change. Brubaker and Carless both serve on their beautification action team, and as a customer of the greenhouse herself, Ashby values the work being done by the two men.
“Sparky’s is always improving how their business looks. They are also helpful and participate in many community events, taking their products to other areas like the $2 Tour of the Village,” Ashby said. “ We love supporting local businesses while encouraging others to do the same.”
Carless is also a resident leader within the 8twelve coalition. He has contributed a lot of his time to helping to bring residents together. Ashby remembers Carless’s impact with the garden, and how it brought the community together.
“The Avondale Community Garden project was a great example of how residents, Ball State students, Lowes Corporation and the 8twelve Coalition worked together to increase community space in the neighborhood,” Ashby said.
According to Carless, plants purchased locally often have a better chance at thriving because there’s less of a transplant shock. He has a few additional benefits to purchasing your plants from a place like Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse.
“You know everything that's happened to that plant from start to finish,” Carless said. “You know the people who grew it, you know the place that it was grown in, maybe you helped grow it too, and I think that that personal touch is what really makes it different.”
He feels that Sparky’s Corner Greenhouse positively impacts the community in a few different ways.
“In an area that has seen a lot of disinvestment, there's a business that’s investing. The tax revenue that we generate goes right back into the schools and roads and the area that we live in, so any kind of positive investment is generating money coming back into the area, so no matter how big or small the impact, that is happening,” Carless said. “There's a sense that this area is growing, and there's opportunity emerging from it.”
Contact Ella Howell with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ella_rhowell