MidAtlantic Edition
Garden Centers 2003 Pennsylvania
Early Summer 2003

By George Weigel

T'S A LONG WAY from New York's Madison Avenue to a cornfield near Stewartstown, Pa. But that's the route John Shelley took in building his 20-acre garden center and landscaping business specializing in hard-to-find plants.
Shelley, an advertising executive by trade, pulled-off this glitz-to-glasshouse getaway with no formal gardening training and next to no experience in the horticulture industry.
"My gardening background consisted of watching 'The Victory Garden' on TV," said the 52-year old Shelley.
After graduating with a degree in advertising and marketing, Shelley worked 17 years for various ad agencies, many on Madison Avenue in New York.
By 1989, he burned out and fed up with the pressure and the constant uncertainty over buyouts and mergers.
One day I quit my job and headed home to York County (Pa), where my parents had recently retired", Shelley said. "On the way, I stopped at a greenhouse in my three piece suit and asked for a job."
He got it, loved working with plants and soon ended up buying 13 acres of corn and tobacco fields between Stewartstown and Winterstown, just seven miles north of the Maryland border.
In March 1991, John Shelley's Garden Center opened with a retail building, four greenhouses and a modest nursery.
Shelley knew that the only way a "little guy" was going to make it, was to find a niche and play it better than anyone else. So he focused on plants he liked personally specialty conifers and Japanese maples and started carrying practically every variety and form he could find.
In any given season, his garden center carries a whopping 600 to 700 variations of conifers and 300 to 400 variations of Japanese maples.
"If I find any oddballs when I'm looking over dealer lists, I'll always get a few," he said.
One of his favorite conifers is the blue Chinafir, Cunninghamia Lanceolata 'glauca', a sleek pyramidal evergreen with stiff, steely-blue needles that look like little swords. He's also partial to cutleaf, green Japanese maples, especially the cultivars 'Viridis' and 'Waterfall'.
"These have beautiful fall color", Shelley said. "People tend to like the red-leafed types better, but they can wash out in the summer."
Shelley has also branched out into several lesser specialties, including alpine and rock garden plants, 49 varieties of viburnums and nearly 700 varieties of perennials.
The family-run garden center also carries tools and garden supplies, aquatic plants and supplies, bonsai plants, orchids and foliage plants.
In spring, the nursery is filled with 20,000 potted trees and shrubs along with another 4,000 - 5,000 balled-and-burlapped trees. Shelley just bought an additional six acres to expand the tree selection.
A landscaping arm of the business offers design, installation, maintenance and an unheard of guarrantee on its plants so long as the customer agrees to include automatic irrigation.
Customers are especially fond of Shelley's ads, which read more like consumer exposes (i.e. "The Worst Tree Sold In America" and "The Truth About Fall Mums").
"They're informative ads", said Shelley. "Some customers come in with notebooks filled with them. Some people have yellowed ones from back in 1991."
Also a popular draw, especially with the kids: Pickle the one-eyed cat. Shelley adopted the sickly, black feline soon after the store opened and nursed him back to health. Now Pickle is the store mascot and chief mouse-hunter.
Shelley's business formula seems to be working. Despite droughts in four of the last five seasons, the business has been growing 10 to 15 percent per year.
"We've had people from as far away as Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and even Texas", Shelley said. "One lady from White Plains, NY, rented a truck and came down and filled it up."
Although the hours are long, the stress of running a garden center is less than that of being an ad exec in New York City.
"I'm definitely not going back to Madison Avenue!", Shelley said.