Johnson Family Legacy in Horticulture Holds Strong, Continues to Evolve
With both his grandfather and father in the horticulture
industry, Chuck Johnson grew up learning the nursery business and what it took
to do the job correctly. A young Chuck worked for his father, Willard Johnson,
at his business, Johnson’s Nursery, in the 1950s for 10¢ an hour to water
plants. He broadened his knowledge base by earning a degree in business
management from Tennessee Technological University, then went on to work as an
associate professor at the University of Tennessee before managing a large
garden center in Knoxville, TN.
But Chuck was drawn back to his family’s calling. In 1969, he and his wife,
Sarah, opened their own nursery business, named Chuck Johnson Nursery, which
they operated out of their home for the next 13 years.
His business appealed not only to landscapers and wholesalers, but retail
customers, too. But this change in direction required a new space, which they
bought in 1983 off East 10th Street in Cookeville, TN. Just seven years later,
they found that the space was starting to be too small. They demolished the old
buildings and built a new Johnson’s Garden Center. But just over a decade
later, the harsh reality came that they were about to outgrow the property
entirely, so Chuck relocated their business to its current location off East
Spring Street, still in Cookeville, in 2003. He modeled Johnson Nursery &
Garden Center after the finest garden centers in Europe.
A relationship he made in 1981 on the International Garden Centre Congress to
California proved to be key later on when he designed the store’s current
location. While touring garden centers, he met and became close friends with
industry legend Ernest Wertheim – who will be making a special appearance on
Thursday, August 20, as one of the three free keynotes this summer at IGC
Chicago. Since then, Ernest has provided Chuck and Sarah with encouragement,
advice and friendly criticism to make them think hard about their decisions.
“Ernest has the ability to make you justify what you’re saying,” Chuck says.
“You may think you’re making the right decisions, but when you have to explain
why, then you have to step back and think a little harder. He likes for you to
think things through and not make quick judgments.”
Industry garden center
tours, such as the GCA Summer Tour, IGC Show Monday Garden Center Tour,
International Garden Centre Congress and more, provided prime examples of
excellence in garden center retailing – from the store design and layout to the
aesthetics and displays.
“In the years preceding the construction of the new garden center, our purpose
on the tours was to look at physical facilities, such as specific types of
greenhouses, types of flooring, types of lighting, etc.,” Chuck says. “Now, our
purpose is to look at the product mix, the layout inside the store and displays.
“When you go see another garden center, whether it’s out of state or out of
country, you see that they can do things a little different,” he says. “You
pick up one idea at each store and bring that back to your garden center,
because you’ve got other people thinking ahead of you.”
He finds he also has a different purpose for attending industry tours –
networking. “A lot of the times, we go just for friendship. There are a lot of
great people on the tour bus, and you can relate to them at a later date.”
Chuck continues, “Every garden center we’ve toured, we’ve never met an owner
who would not share information with us. It’s the business we’re in. Every
owner has been willing to share anything we ask, and that just says a lot for
the type of people who are in our industry.”
Lifetime of Experience
Even though it started as a separate business from Chuck’s grandfather’s and
father’s businesses, Johnson Nursery & Garden Center has a collective of
over 100 years experience in the horticulture industry. “Sometimes we question
how many generations of experience we have,” he says. “We started saying we
have 100 years this year, but we actually started before that. My grandfather
started a farm, growing fruit trees and shrubs, and then his father [Chuck’s
great-grandfather] came to work with him.”
In 1915, Chuck’s grandfather W.L. Johnson officially opened Baxter Nursery in
Putnam County. He grew fruit trees, flowering shrubs, shade trees and smaller
edibles, which he then sold to customers in Tennessee and Kentucky by horse and
buggy. The green goods were shipped out via mail or railcar at a later date.
Chuck’s father, Willard Johnson, founded Johnson’s Nursery separately in
Baxter, TN, in 1947 as a wholesale business, and this is where Chuck got his
The current Johnson Nursery & Garden Center operation has come a long way
since the horse and buggy days. Now, they grow 60 percent of their green goods
on-site in containers, and feature a selection of annuals, shade and flowering
trees, small and large fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables and more.
Their silk floral department designs custom English gardens and silk florals in
containers, which are big sellers. They also specialize in silk floral
centerpieces, decor and wreaths.
Just as the business grew, so did the Johnson family. He and Sarah have two
sons, David and Charlie, who grew up in and currently work at the business, and
one daughter Jennifer, who lives in Knoxville with her own family. A few of the
grandchildren have even started working in the business as cashiers, setting up
the sixth generation.
With such an extensive history of plant experience, Chuck and his business
garnered plenty of awards and recognition over the years. Last year, readers of
The Herald-Citizen selected Johnson Nursery & Garden Center as the Best
Landscaping/Nursery in the area. Chuck received the Jack F. Schneider Award
from Garden Centers of America in 2002 for his dedication toward the betterment
of the garden center industry. He also had the opportunity to serve on the GCA
Board of Directors for seven years, and eventually served as president in 1999.
“There is so much more to being in this industry, the plant business, than just
the satisfaction of having a business and being able to have a product that
customers come in to buy,” Chuck says. “It’s about the whole process of
growing, then seeing the joy that customers feel from just having the
opportunity to come shop these quality plants.”
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IGC East Is Fast Approaching!
IGC East, August 4-6 at the Baltimore Convention Center, is the preeminent trade exhibition and conference for independent garden center retailers. Owners, managers and buyers come to see thousands of new products, meet with hundreds of established and rising-star suppliers, attend inspiring keynotes and educational sessions covering every aspect of the business and exchange ideas with legions of fellow professionals.
Register today! Don’t miss 2015’s best opportunity to recharge your creative batteries, rekindle your passion and stock your shelves with a bounty of compelling products. Click here
to register or to read more about IGC East!
IGC Chicago Is Almost Here!
The ninth annual IGC Chicago is widely recognized as single best event for garden center owners, managers and buyers. Each year the entire industry comes to buy at IGC because it has hundreds of exhibitors, thousands of new products and scores of educational opportunities. Plus it's 100% pure garden-centric! This means you will spend more time with the right vendors and less time walking miles of aisles of products you don't sell. It's all here on display for your inspection and order-writing from 700+ new and established vendors spanning spectacular Navy Pier's 210,000 square feet surrounded by Lake Michigan's azure waters on three sides and enchanting downtown Chicago on the fourth.
Register today! Don’t miss 2015’s best opportunity to recharge your creative batteries, rekindle your passion and stock your shelves with a bounty of compelling products. Click here to register or to read more about IGC Chicago!
It Pays To Be A GCA Member at the IGC Shows!
As a member of the Garden Centers of America, there are the additional benefits for you at IGC East and IGC Chicago:
- Savings of $100 on each IGC Retail Conference "All-Access Pass" Package, and $60 off each IGC Show Garden Center Bus Tour registration
- Two free drink tickets per company for use at the IGC Show FREE Tuesday Party & Concert featuring the Gin Blossoms
- Special reserved seating at the Gin Blossoms Concert
- GCA Member Networking Lunch at IGC Chicago
to register for IGC East or IGC Chicago!
GCA Opens Call for Entries - Best Bathrooms
GCA's Best Garden Center Bathroom Awards, now in their fifth year, recognize IGC retailers whose restrooms contribute to the store's favorable shopping experience. The deadline for entries is 5 p.m. EDT, July 17, 2015. The winner of the top honor, the Gold Award, will receive a plaque and one free registration for next year's GCA Summer Tour 2016. Other recognitions will include a Silver Award and several Awards of Merit, honored with plaques. Last year's Gold Award winner was The Garden Mart, pictured above, in Mukwonago, WI.
To enter the competition, garden centers should send several photos of their store bathrooms, saved in jpeg file format, along with a brief paragraph about the bathrooms, the concept behind the designs and their benefits to the garden center. This information, along with the name of the store and key contact, address, phone and e-mail address, should be e-mailed to BestBathrooms@GardenCentersofAmerica.com.
Click here to read more about this contest!