WHEN MY PARENTS came down to Grenada to visit me while I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll never forget the day my father and I spent on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. We had spent a week together looking at the work I was involved with, developing a papaya fruit that could be grown efficiently and could be safely shipped to Holland. We also did some snorkeling and hiking on the beautiful island. My mother, Rita Martinson, was busy making friends and being a lover of all things that bloom. Rita was in heaven. My father and I had set aside some time to talk about life after Peace Corps. I loved what I was doing and I had developed a real love for tropical agriculture in developing countries. I had an offer from a coworker to revitalize his citrus orchard in the Dominican Republic. As I was telling dad that it would be eight hours by truck, then a day’s ride by horseback to get the fruit out of the orchard to market he looked at me without saying anything with the look of concern on his face.
Then as I told him about a great offer to work in the United States with the Rodale Institute as an inspector deeming organic farms as genuinely organic and educating farmers who wanted to be certified organic, a rigorous series of things that have to happen to reach that status. Dad listened quietly. We watched the waves crashing on the cliffs when he asked me if I’ve given any thought to coming back to Mississippi to help him with the family business. I had considered it, I knew it meant giving up my life as a wanderer, I also knew it meant I would have a way better chance of crossing paths with my favorite person, Mimi. It had been years since we’d seen each other although we wrote letters to each other regularly and I thought about her constantly. Dad and I talked about what it would be like to come home and be a part of the family business. Karen and her husband Maur had already bought Green Oak Nursery from him so he was at the Garden Works location in Ridgeland. For those of you who have been around here a while you will remember it was originally called Discount Nursery. It was discount nursery from 1983 until around 2000 when Mimi finally convinced him that the name sounded more like a place to buy tires or cheap furniture. She also convinced him to build a wood facade and interesting design that Garden Works is today.
While a seagull stood on a big rock listening to our conversation, we decided we needed to have our own greenhouse operation attached to the nursery. The bedding plants that were being offered to us for resale were limiting and we were always at the mercy of the truck drivers as to whether or not we would receive the product on Monday or a Friday. It’s hard to run a business like that. We thought if we produce our own annuals, perennials and herbs that we would be able to grow a higher quality plant that didn’t have to get trucked in from other places, we could grow whatever we wanted and we could restock daily. As we shook hands on the deal, I’ll never forget the seagull flew away at that very moment as if he were overseeing our decision process. Call me crazy, I believe in signs.
NOW WE WERE talking about something I could sink my teeth into. I loved the whole idea and I loved the thought of building greenhouses and adding a new aspect to his 60-year-old business. At that time the only bedding plants being sold were mostly six pack flats of common annuals and the variety list was not impressive enough to inspire much. We knew of one person who had broken out of that mundane list of plants and sizes available to the market. Floyd Patterson at Green Thumb Nursery in Gulfport (which no longer exists after Katrina) was growing the best-looking bedding plans I have ever seen. The plants were so nice because he used an unusually large pot and some incredibly good soil to grow them in. The pots were square, but they hold the same amount of soil as a quart pot. Most growers provide plants in what they call fourinch pots, they are actually three and half inch pots that hold very little soil which makes it hard to produce a big healthy plant. The soil used by most growers doesn’t hold water long enough, so garden centers often have to water the plants more than once a day. I understand why growers have to use smaller pots and less expensive soil. Wholesale growers’ profit margins are very narrow so they have to rely on volume and cost saving methods to make it work. We wanted to grow for ourselves so none of that matters. Our vision was to produce a large healthy plant for four-inch pot prices that will perform well for the customer.
We also realized over the years that all the hanging baskets we had been selling were little 10 inch hanging baskets. It is nearly impossible to keep them watered during the summer months. We would go to a 12 inch hanging basket with a soil that would hold water longer and use varieties that would cascade well over the ugly green pot. Mr. Patterson agreed to take me on as an apprentice for one year. I was so excited to get back and learn his tricks of the trade. I found a place to rent in Long Beach that was close enough to ride my bike to work every day. I learned so much that year. I still use the same four and half inch pots, 12-inch hanging baskets and the same soil that I believe is the true secret to having plants perform as well as they do for us. We had so many requests to sell the same soil to the public that we now sell. It is officially known as “the good stuff“ by our customers. During that year on the coast I put my feelers out for any used green houses for sale. It turns out there are lots of people who build green houses that don’t last after they realize that what works out on paper is very different than reality. I found 13 greenhouses from five different people who were ready to sell. My team and I would dismantle the structures, pull up the posts, knock off the concrete, load them up in the 18 wheelers and rebuild them as we unloaded the hoop houses. The green houses are still on the Garden Works’ back 40 producing great plants.
MY OTHER REASON TO come home panned out. Mimi was just graduating from the College of the Ozarks with her degree in English literature. She planned to teach high school English and coach cross country at Madison Ridgeland Academy. Although we were separated for three or four years, the minute we reunited, the flame was still as hot as ever. It was perfect, we continued living our lives and growing up, then circle back around to each other and made our commitment to one another soon after. The story of Mimi coming into our family and our family business is one of our most interesting ones yet. Mimi discovered things about her artistic side. As anyone who has seen her work know her eye for how things should look from a plant design standpoint is exquisite and so original. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can tell you for sure that the Garden Works that you visit today is like taking a hike in Mimi‘s mind, an uncanny gift. Our family knows she has been one of our greatest gifts as far as bringing us into this hybrid shopping experience that we call Garden Works. I’ve been to garden centers all over the world and I’ve still never seen anything quite like it. You’ll get the story of how someone who, although from a Delta farm family, had never gardened, blossomed into one of the best in the country next week. Until then stay relentless in your quest to find a way to help someone struggling with all these waves of negative events that are impacting our lives. Most of all, protect yourself and remember your yard is all you have that you have complete rule over to keep yourself busy and hopefully at peace.