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Rooted In Tradition

By Sherri Gardner Howell

“Mary, Mary” of nursery rhyme fame may have been disagreeable, but gardeners today are anything but contrary.

“Gardeners’ World” did a poll of random adults and found that those who garden, whether it is flowers or veggies, are more satisfied with their lives. Of those who did garden, 93 percent also said that gardening boosted their mood and left them feeling happy.

Princeton University got in on the act with something as simple as people who care for plants at home. The study, conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, found that the home gardeners had high levels of happiness when gardening as measured against other day-to-day activities. Local nursery owners appear to follow that pattern. Owners and/or managers of four iconic East Tennessee nurseries testify that, while their work is hard and often unpredictable, it is enjoyable. In addition, the legacies of the businesses are rooted in the pride of family ownership and a commitment to customer and community.

Stanley's Greenhouse

The greenhouses were newcomers to the farm when they were built by the Stanleys in the mid-1950s. The land itself had been in the family since it was deeded to the Davenport side by Tennessee State Senator William Blount’s half-brother, Willie Blount, in the late 1700s.

Stanley ownership came through the matriarchal branch when Henry Campbell Davenport’s great-niece Mae married Bruce Stanley. It was their son, Charles Monroe Stanley, and his wife Mary Kathryn who shifted the farm’s focus toward horticulture. They built the first greenhouse and opened Stanley’s Greenhouse in 1955.

The Stanleys are still at the helm of the greenhouse business: the late Charles and Mary Kathryn’s sons, Monte and Rocky, run the greenhouse business while their daughter, Barbara Stanley Barton, manages the bookkeeping side. The Stanley team includes Rocky’s wife, Lisa; Monte’s son, Bill; Rocky and Lisa’s daughter and son-in-law, Abby Stanley-Jerrolds and Holden Jerrolds. Lisa’s mother, Arzelia Henderlight Allen, has worked at the greenhouse since 1973.

“My grandfather, Charles, was selling farm vegetables in the 1950s on Market Square and noticed the vegetable market was getting overcrowded,” said Abby. “So they started growing flowers and ornamentals. They sold from the fields at first and then built the greenhouse.”

Stanley’s operation includes growing, wholesale and retail. “We grow over 60 percent of what we sell,” said Abby. “That allows us to maintain the quality we want.” Abby grew up in the greenhouse, at the retail center and on the farm. “I loved pansies, and I remember begging to learn how to use the cash register when I was only six. It was a fun place to be, which was good, because we were here all the time!”

The poinsettias that many people see as Stanley’s calling card get started in July. “They take six months of babying,” said Abby. “Last year, we sold more than 45,000 of them.” Holden keeps an eye on the technical side of the business. “He is always looking forward to see what’s coming, always doing research, trying new techniques and finding ways to upgrade the greenhouse structures,” said Abby.

Community is a big part of the business for Stanley’s, she said. “We have always been blessed to have such good community support. Because of that, we try to give back. My grandparents and parents have such a generous nature, and we all love Knoxville and the people here.

“We have built a lot of lasting relationships through our life work, and we always want to honor that.”

Pope's Plant Farm

It all started with “bunch plants.”

James Earl “Bubba” Pope had a regular job in insurance in Alabama, but spring always found him in East Tennessee, selling vegetables for Bonnie Plants.

The side job involved supplying bunches of mostly cabbage, onion and tomato plants to co ops and feed-and-seed stores.

“It was a good spring job for a long time,” remembers his son, Mike, who now owns Pope’s Plant Farm with his son, Will. “But the business changed as the times changed. Box stores changed the market, and people’s habits changed. There weren’t as many people canning vegetables by the 1970s.”

Bubba Pope, however, thought the opportunity was still there, and he wanted to do it from the ground up. “He decided to go out on his own in Maryville,” said Mike. “In the mid-1970s, he built a greenhouse on Morganton Road. He germinated seeds and transplanted plants. Every plant was done by hand.” A retail store in Rockford helped to diversify from the bunch plant business.

Today, Pope’s has two farms: the Greenback farm, which is the largest and is where the offices are located, and the Maryville Farm on Alcoa Trail. Those two farms have over 16 acres of greenhouses with more than 30 acres of outdoor production space.

There are three retail venues: Ginger’s Flowers in Maryville, The Junction in Lenoir City and Pope’s at Creekside on Northshore Drive.

“We work with a lot of landscapers and sell wholesale and retail. We propagate 4 million to 5 million plants a year,” said Mike. “And now we are big in the succulent business.” Succulents were brought to the business by Ginger Pope, Mike’s wife. “She had to talk me into it,” he admitted. “She kept saying, ‘These are going to be hot.’ So we grew them and put them out.

Some Kroger buyers saw them and loved them. Now succulents are our fastest-growing segment. They catch the eye of the younger clients.” The biggest change Mike has seen hasn’t been who buys plants, but the process of growing them.

“There have been a lot of changes in the way we do things. The process is far more automated.”

Pope’s now has three generations working in the business. “Dad is still around. My son Will is my partner, and my nephew works for the business, too. Will is remarkable, especially on the technology. We now do trade shows and are shipping all over the country.” That East Tennessee customer, however, still stays at the front of their minds. “That’s why we have three locations for retail,” said Mike. “Our staff has decades of experience with plants in East Tennessee, and they garden at their own homes. We want our customers to always have good quality and good service.”

Thress Nursery Gardens

Hannah Thress Noll moved from her grandfather’s lap “driving” a Bobcat to being the go-to person at Thress Nursery Gardens for landscape design.

When it’s a family business with a rich heritage, the roots run deep, said Hannah. The daughter of Keith and Dianna Thress and niece of Darwin and Patti Thress, Hannah and her brother, Isaac, grew up at the nursery.

“My grandfather started selling plants and shrubs in his front yard,” she said. “We got an actual building in the 1970s, but the business is 60-plus years old. When my grandfather died in  1991, the family tradition continued with his children.”

Thress Nursery Garden is a retail garden center and landscape business. “We had a lot of land, but we’ve never been the primary growers. The two sides--landscaping and the garden center--are both important to us. It’s all intertwined.”

The garden center is on one side of Beaver Creek, and the cabin, which has more seasonal plants, houseplants and gifts, is across the street. Lessons learned during their childhood meant they knew the kind of work they were committing to.

“It is hard work, really cold in the winter and hot in the summer. We always saw our parents work really hard. That’s just part of owning a small business and certainly part of this industry.” It is also a bond that keeps the family close. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t discussing with each other something about the nursery.”

Isaac, said Hannah, is excellent with technology. “He has made a huge difference in the way we do business. He keeps up with what is trending, what needs to be phased out, does research on new plant varieties and keeps us up to speed on what we need to know. Being able to pass that on to our customers is amazing.”

There are trends in the nursery business, said Hannah. “Smaller dwarf-size plants are popular now in the retail business. In landscaping, it’s nostalgia: lots of white and green, boxwoods and hydrangeas, purple perennials. That has replaced the lake-house theme that was in style for years. People are going back to a more classic, simple style.”

Being able to help the customer cuts across both sides and is a trademark at Thress. “We care about the quality of our plants, and we want you to be successful with growing them,” says Hannah. “The more we can share with you about the plant, the happier we all are going to be.”

Ellenburg Landscaping and Nursery 

Angela Ellenburg had her eye on a piece of property on Vanosdale Road in West Knoxville for a long time. “It had a solid history as a nursery established by the Gibson family for more than 50 years. I would see it as I drove my daughter, Chelsea, now 22 years old, to Bearden Middle School,” said Angela.

The retail nursery business was already a solid part of Ellenburg life. The family founded and ran Ellenburg Landscaping and Nursery on Walden Drive, off Northshore and near Ham’n Goodies, for 14 years before the Vanosdale site came on the market.

“As soon as we saw it pop up for sale, we bought it,” says Angela. “The visibility, the traffic flow and the community roots the Gibsons had established just made it perfect for us.” The company started with just Greg Ellenburg, Angela’s husband, and his landscape business in 1982. “He worked from home,” she said. “When we decided to expand into a retail gardening center in 1992, we split the duties. Greg kept what he loved most with the landscaping, and I took on the retail part. Of course, he is always nearby to answer customer questions. No one knows East Tennessee soil and what will grow like Greg.”

Customers followed them to Vanosdale. “We were very fortunate to retain 70 percent of our customer base from our previous location,” said Angela. Greg’s roots in lawn care started when he was a youngster, mowing yards and helping finance his way through the University of Tennessee with yard work. He has more than 25 years in the industry.

Chelsea is now part of the business as well. With 2.5 acres of trees, shrubs, plants, flowers, pottery and statuary, it’s a labor of love for the family.

“Whether Greg is doing a landscape job, or we are selling plants to a customer, we always start with the question: Do you want to work in your yard or just enjoy your yard? That allows us to tailor what we suggest to the customer’s needs,” says Angela.

Orchids are big sellers for Ellenburg. “We sell hundreds and hundreds of orchids every month.”

Angela says they are very proud of the service and education they give at Ellenburg Landscaping and Nursery. “We are in the service business because people want service. If you take something out of here, we want it to grow and be trouble-free. The more education we can do, the better for all of us.

“We are a retail garden center, and we want repeat customers.”

Nurseries: What You Need To Know

Some nurseries are growers. Plants are grown in greenhouses or outside from seeds, bulbs or propagation. Growers concentrate on wholesale sales. Some nurseries are retail centers, getting their plants from others and selling to local customers. They often have landscape and plant experts in the garden centers to help customers figure out what plants will work for their lifestyle. Some nurseries are both growers and retail centers, offering a mix of what they grow themselves and plants from other nursery growers. They sell to both wholesale and retail customers.

Garden Shop Guide

Local florists and garden centers offer many ways to bring a breath of spring indoors with fresh flowers, creative designs and gift options. 

7007 Kingston Pike •

3727 Sutherland Avenue •

 5508 Kingston Pike •

1733 Amherst Road •

1260 Rocky Hill Road •

1410 Tuckaleechee Pike, Maryville •

1001 W Broadway, Maryville •

3729 Cunningham Road •

331 Whitecrest Drive, Maryville •

207 N Seven Oaks Drive •

Bearden, Powell and Farragut •

8203 Chapman Highway •

3524 N Broadway •

9719 Kingston Pike •

3541 N Broadway and 3805 E Magnolia Avenue •

7325 Clinton Highway •

362 N Main Street, Clinton •

116 Carr Street •

603 Main Street •

1520 Washington Avenue and 2324 N. Broadway •

10229 Kingston Pike •

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