Guilford Garden Center celebrates 60 years, changes hands

GREENSBORO — Amid all the holiday decorations they’ve got in their store, the new owners of Guilford Garden Center are keyed up for spring. 

Last week, Elliott and Stephanie Jones took over Guilford Garden Center on Milner Drive near Guilford College in Greensboro after buying it from the most recent prior owner, Christina Larson. The business, started in 1963, is celebrating its 60th anniversary year. 

Even in November, the garden supply store is surrounded by a lush landscape of plants for sale. And over all of that are the sounds of fountains trickling and hoses spraying, as staff members work to keep the greenery watered.

Inside is the kind of eclectic space where a customer could consider purchasing a statue of a cat licking its paw, only to turn around and find one of the three felines who live at the center doing just that. 

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Over its 60 years in existence, the business has changed hands and locations and weathered the hectic onset of the pandemic. 

“There’s no two days alike,” said Chuck Voight, another prior owner and the current landlord for the property. “It’s just like the seasons. They change, and so do plants, and so do people.” 

Voight said the garden center was founded by two couples: Betty and Carlton Fields and Marion and Don Sharpe, and was originally located across the street in Quaker Village where the Walmart is now. 

He started working for them as a delivery person in the mid-1960s, went off to other pursuits for a time, then came back to the business in 1973, when he and his wife Sara bought in, becoming partners alongside the Sharpes. 

Back then, the merchandise was a bit different. They offered things like guns and hunting and fishing licenses, and had power tools as a mainstay of the inventory. 

Gradually, however, he said, the business shifted more towards green goods — which just kept working well, as far as bringing in money. In 1987, when they moved the store to the current location, they dropped the power tools, he said. As part of that transition, they also increased sales of items like birdseed, gifts, and Christmas decorations.   

Larson, who brought the garden center from Voight in 2017, said that today the store is known for its availability of native plants, and more broadly, for the wide variety and stock levels of what they have for sale. It’s rare, she said, that they can’t find a desired plant for a customer, and usually when that happens, it’s because its something that’s not suited to the local climate. 

“We also take the time to educate people,” she said. “If someone comes in and says, ‘Hey I want to plant some English Ivy to hold a hillside,’ you take that opportunity to introduce them to some better choices that won’t swallow trees and your house.”

When the pandemic hit, Larson said, she wasn’t sure whether the business would be allowed to remain open. 

But it turned out that they qualified as “essential” and from there, business was fast and furious. 

“We would go home everyday completely drained physically and mentally,” she said. “But we were pushed forward by the fact that we were essential and that people spending time in the gardens and their yards was really important during that time.”

Not only were they serving a ton of customers, they wound up having to reorganize how they did business.

Today, and prior to the pandemic, customers can walk around and look at whatever plants or other items they are interested in purchasing. But at that time, they were having to have many extremely detailed conversations with customers to help them figure out what they want, so they could deliver it to them contact-free. 

That, she said, was what pushed her to start the online store. 

Before that, Larson said, she always had reasons that she’d cite for avoiding online: “We are too small. We don’t have time to upload every single plant and put a picture and description with it.” 

“You say you can’t do something until you go ahead and do it,” she said. 

As it turned out, she said, it’s been huge for helping them market and merchandise plants, to be able to link to it in their weekly newsletter, and educate people about what’s available. 

“It’s not just come get your annuals in April, and then we’ll see you again next April,” she said. “We have beautiful plants year round.”  

For the Joneses, the idea of owning a business so “rooted” in the Greensboro community was a big draw for purchasing the place, as was the emphasis on native plants and the aspect of being a “feel-good” place for people to visit, as Stephanie Jones put it. 

Already, they said, ordering and talking to suppliers in preparation for the spring is underway. 

For Larson, selling the business to the couple is a second attempt at retirement. Her first stab came in 2016, when she retired from the restaurant business after nearly 40 years in that industry — only to change course when she bought the garden center. 

She said she’s planning to continue to work some at the center for a little while to help the new owners with the transition. 

“I freakin’ love this place and all the people attached to it,” she said. “But you know, just like with gardens, everything has a season and my season has come to a close and now the Joneses will pick up and make it their own. Make it even better.” 

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