tales of gardening days past…

The nursery and garden center business is not for the faint of heart.  It is a brutal business and very seasonable. Once upon a time years ago I took a career segue and because of my love of gardening and skill level with gardening I decided to try working for a nursery.

I went from working in the financial services industry in New York City to being a worker bee in a local plant nursery for a while.

This nursery was one where I had bought my first roses as an adult. When I was working in New York I was commuting. I really couldn’t afford the kind of place I wanted to live in in New York City. I was in my 20s and I made enough money to sustain me, but it really wasn’t enough money to live on your own in Manhattan in other than live in a walk-up shoe box consisting of one room and a kitchenette and not necessarily the most ideal neighborhood . And by that point I was already tired of living with roommates, so that wasn’t an option.

So this is when I started gardening as an adult – to manage my stress. It wasn’t a deliberate choice – I liked digging in the dirt and after a long week it relaxed me. That was why when I became part of a boutique investment bank’s layoff, instead of joining my coworkers who were also laid off and looking for another job in New York City I decided to hit the pause button and see what else life had for me.

So I took a job in a local nursery. It was small it had history and character, although it was at this point being run by the widow of the original owner.

That was the job where I learned that the fictional character Simon LeGree had nothing on that small business owner in particular. Seriously, it was awful at times as much as it was often wonderful ….and there we all were among all those beautiful plants.   I recall many things including being sent to the warehouse when single men came into the shop because the owner felt the younger daughter needed to shine at that point – it was so suburban Cinderella’s stepmother it was funny. However on the plus side, I did learn with that experience that I did have serious gardening chops.  

While I worked for this nursery and learned how the business worked, I experimented with things like container gardening planting for the nursery’s customers and even flower arranging. Again, it was a small business so anything the worker bees did that was spectacular the business owner took credit for – like she was actually digging in the dirt with her long manicured nails.

The nursery had a general manager who was a lovely man and knew the business. I learned a lot about gardening from him as well.

The customers were wide and varied. Hard core gardeners, Main Line prima donnas and old school matrons. They were the flora and fauna we watched in addition to the real flora and fauna.

There was a divorcée who was best described as a blonde bombshell. In warmer months she used to like to wear short shorts. She had this pair for around the Fourth of July which cracked me up because they looked like an American flag only she wore them with pantyhose and high heeled sandals. She also liked frog statuary. So whenever the nursery would get in a new supply of critters in the concrete jungle she would appear.

Another of the host of the cast of characters was a snotty middle-aged Main Line matron. She had a pedigree and she married a pedigree, and she belonged to all the correct gardening clubs. She was a right Tartar to deal with. And she had an amusing habit. She would buy ivy topiaries and other things we had potted for sale in decorative pots and then return them a few days later. What we eventually figured out was when she entertained she bought fancy potted plants. It was like she was “renting” our plants and then returning them. She actually gave everyone the idea to rent certain kinds of potted plants although that was not cost-effective in the end.

There were a couple of old ladies who were among my favorites. They would come in and they would only buy a couple of plants here and there. But I loved to wait on them because they were just so sweet. There was one in particular who was a very old Quaker lady who used to drive a beat up 1950s station wagon. I never knew much about her until she passed away. Then I learned what an amazing woman she was.

At this time there were still enough Main Line estates that the gardeners would come in for their plant material and ideas for where they worked. One of these head gardeners, worked for an estate owned by Lower Merion Township called Appleford. He used to come to me for help with his roses. I even would go over to the rose garden at that time and walk around with him to help him out. The garden still exists but last time I saw the rose garden it looked slightly sad and very over-pruned. Decades ago when I worked for the nursery the roses were lush and plentiful and fussed over. I also learned a lot from these old-school head gardeners.

Sadly, this nursery wasn’t sustainable long term. It could have been if the owner running when I worked there actually knew more about running this kind of business. I suppose they did their best with the hand they were dealt, but they weren’t very nice people and I think that’s a required component when you’re dealing with plants…and people.

Soon we all knew that the business was on life support and it was up for sale. Among the problems the small business faced was competing with big box stores and grocery stores starting to carry nursery plants.

I liked working for a nursery enough that I even found someone to be a potential purchaser, who if they had purchased it, would have retained me to run it. But that didn’t pan out because as is the case with many businesses when they are being sold, when the sellers want to much in “good will”. So it didn’t happen and I took a job with a hedge fund and life went on.

But that time long ago stayed with me in the fact that it cemented how much I love small independently owned plant nurseries and operations. I would still rather patronize a small nursery business than a giant Home Depot.

What bothers me are the trends and gardening have changed and while you still have lots of home gardeners who love to create and dig in the dirt like me, you also have a lot more people who just want it all done for them. A lot of them are development dwellers who can’t even put a pot of flowers on their front porch without permission from the homeowners association. And the thing is those developments employ professional landscaping services who will go to big box stores for their plants and supplies because it’s not cost-effective for them to support a small local nursery.

But without small nurseries a lot of the wonderful things about gardening fall to the wayside. In small nurseries you can go to them for help and they will educate you on the types of tools to buy and how to deal with garden pests. They will even show you how to prune, I know I used to when I worked in a nursery. I always took the time to show someone how to prune if they asked when they were buying something. The philosophy was simple: if they did things in a better way the plants would thrive and they would come back and buy more plants.

Of course one of the other things I loved about working in a plant nursery for the discounts. I could splurge on amazing things for my parents’ garden which was my garden at the time, because of this discount. It was a fun way to experiment.

I think we need to support our small nursery businesses more as there are so few of them left in the grand scale of things. So when the spring rolls around and you’re thinking about your garden remember the smaller businesses.

Thanks for stopping by.