By Chris Chanlett
Every town needs a garden center. I know because I had one for 17 years. We closed it in 2015, and have been hearing about it ever since. It just meant so much to people that we offered a good selection of plants, shared our knowledge such as it was, and gave folks a place along the Greenbrier River “to be with nature.”
Every time we hear that from our former customers, we thank them and recount how lucky we were to close when we did. In late June of 2016, the Greenbrier River experienced an overnight inundation for which we could not have prepared. It wrecked our remaining buildings, but stopped short of trashing the river with thousands of pots, labels, bags and accessories.
We count our lucky stars that we had the perfect window on the floodplain that we did when the floods were more normal, out-of-season or minimal. It gave us the opening to do the most meaningful work of our lifetimes. A good garden center provides a hub of horticultural knowledge from, “Do you have one of grandma’s snowball bushes?” to “What’s the latest from Proven Winners®?” People told us what plants thrived for them, and as landscape gardeners we told them what they could rely on. Or what to experiment with as climate change spread zone crept northwards. Or what to plant as a memorial tree.
We were growing and landscaping with hundreds of varieties of perennials even before we opened the garden center in 1998. We rode the perennial craze and taught people how maintain them. We expanded our woody plant selection and relished the bonanza of Proven Winners® that improved the performance of annuals.
We were learning to take some responsibility for invasive plants. It was not just the multiflora rose and autumn olive that every farmer hated. It included some of the woody mainstays (barberry, burning bush and Bradford pear) and perennials (ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum ‘Moudry’) that we had made a lot of money selling. We are so glad now that we do not have to disappoint people with their undesirability.
We learned a lot at MANTS and WVNLA winter meetings not only about what was new and promising, but also how to control what was rambunctious. How to use pesticides carefully and effectively. Lots of little tricks were shared. How to use basal oil sprays in winter, a practice I now apply relentlessly on the farm to suppress invasives in my pastures.
One of the best lecturers at a winter meeting left me with the memorable line, “We’re not selling plants – we’re selling feelings.” People were connecting to beauty in the natural world and bringing it onto their own property. Maybe it was a tree for long-term shade or an annual for seasonal eye candy. Perhaps they wanted a more ambitious whole landscape design. It was a healthy thing to do—even if it failed (which people rarely shared with us.)
Unfortunately, economics of this world favor consolidation and gross sales. Big box stores maximize their turnover and chuck what’s left. It is hard to compete with their selection and pricing. What they cannot provide is local knowledge, lore and recognition. People also long for those intangibles in their transactions.
We will admit that operating a garden center built more social than financial capital for us, but I doubt any WVNLA members thought they were launching a get-rich-quick scheme when they went into business. Caring for your communities, human and environmental, will reward you in unexpected ways. Independent garden centers provide a critical invaluable asset to every town fortunate to still have one.
Chris Chanlett and his wife Torula ran Groundworks Nursery in Summers County for 30 years. He served on the WVNLA board 2010-2014.