By Noah Salt • Photograph by Sam Froelich
One morning not too long ago, as winter began to loosen its grip on the western Piedmont and the first early buds of spring were appearing, we dropped by Winston-Salem’s legendary L.A. Reynolds Garden Showcase to try to get a jump on what to look for in the garden centers this spring, as well as some thoughts on the state of gardening.
The firm’s youthful co-owner, Ken Long, 54, was happy to oblige, leading us on a walking tour of the popular garden center’s handsome facilities off Styers Ferry Road at the western edge of the city.
“Frankly,” Long says, “the change in the nursery and garden retail business has been significant since about 2008. Many in the nursery business were booming up till the Great Recession. Like many other consumer-focused businesses, the gardening retail business took a major hit. The bulb market, for example, has all but dried up since then.” Long says his customers still buy large quantities of daffodils, but the demand for tulips and other similar plants has all but disappeared.
This phenomenon, in Long’s view, is both economic and social in nature. During the global crisis and its slow recovery, America’s discretionary spending on recreation and hobbies nosedived, affecting everything from travel and tourism to golf. Commercial nurseries and gardening specialists also suffered across the board; many of them had to close up shop.
“Since that time, many gardeners have increasingly looked for plants that require less time and expense to maintain,” Long observes. The time people today spend in gardens also has undergone a big change. Families are busy, and time is more precious than ever — you’re competing with soccer on the weekends — and the millennial generation is marrying and settling down later. What’s more, many simply don’t want to garden the way their parents and grandparents do. We’ve had to adjust to those changing social realities.”
But change and adaptation are familiar storylines to Ken Long and his brother, Mike, who along with four other siblings collectively own the 36 acres where the firm has been since 1982. One might even say it’s in their bloodline. After their dad, Jerry Long, was squeezed out of his position as the CEO of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 1988 (then called RJR Nabisco) — a corporate upheaval immortalized by the best-seller and TV movie Barbarians at the Gate — the “retired” executive began “looking around for a family business we could grow,” as his son explains.
“Dad wasn’t a big gardener, but he was a workaholic who really loved his yard. We grew up on two acres in Clemmons,” Long says of his father, who passed away in 2010. “The yard fascinated him.” About that same time, after trying a couple of things that didn’t pan out, the younger Long enrolled at Forsyth Tech to study horticulture. “We looked at buying a couple of different kind of companies, but then learned that the L.A. Reynolds nursery was up for sale.”
The nursery, no relation to the Reynolds family of tobacco fame, was one of the Twin City’s most reliable resources. In the late 1930s and ’40s, the company’s original owner was believed to have planted many of the beautiful hardwood trees that define some of the city’s finer neighborhoods along Buena Vista and Stratford roads. L.A. Reynolds also grew fruit trees and ran a thriving landscaping and road-paving business (the fi rm is believed to have graded the Interstate that passes through downtown Winston-Salem) and operated popular satellite garden shops downtown and in other selected places for many years.
The Longs purchased the company in 1991, just in time for a boom in home gardening’s popularity, fueled by in part by a surging economy, a robust home building industry, and even the popularity of Martha Stewart, who once proclaimed to this very reporter that gardening would be the “sex of the 1990s.”
She proved to be correct. The Longs changed the center’s name to L.A. Reynolds Garden Showcase, rebuilt greenhouses and steadily added retail space through a series of expanded showrooms, arguably becoming the region’s go-to plant retail outlet. They also replaced the store’s traditional customer red wagons with larger shopping carts and “doubled our sales in almost no time.”
Another trend they noticed was that 80 percent of their customers were female. “So we really focused on making this a pleasant shopping experience, which included high quality impulse items, and unique gifts for home and garden,” Ken Long explains.
Adapting to challenging times across their industry, the award-winning firm also added a seasonal gallery that does a brisk trade in Christmas decorations, and artificial trees and wreaths. The recent addition of a popular line of patio furniture called W2120 — made from reclaimed tropical woods salvaged from old boats —and other outdoor-themed home goods has significantly expanded the company’s retail profile.
But make no mistake; come April, Ken Long and staff will be busier than bees in the orchard that once occupied the land where the distinctive greenroofed center sits. The nursery annually puts on at least fifty seasonal workers to handle the large crowds that begin to show up about the time Long and his staff hold their popular annual Open House, typically the week before Easter. A similar Open House is held in the early fall.
“It’s a fun day, and a chance to welcome back our customers and make new ones. Among other things, we give out about 1,200 free hot dogs,” Long notes with a smile. “But at the end of the day we’re a dirty business. We love getting down in the dirt and helping customers learn what works for them — and how to make their gardens thrive. These days our mission is to serve and help create educated gardener,” he adds, noting that he’ll be returning to a popular call-in radio garden show that airs on WSJS’s talk radio (AM600) on Friday mornings this spring.
Ken Long’s “Dirty” Half Dozen
Herewith, a list of Ken Long’s favorite plants he expects to be popular this season:
Originating in Asia and the Pacific, related to rose of Sharon and hollyhocks in the mallow family, these vibrant bloomers (annuals in this zone) come in a variety of bold colors, making them ideal for sunny containers.
Hostas and Caladiums
Ideal plants for your shade garden, adding rich color, deep hues and texture. Both thrive in rich soil, and are partial to full shade and humid warmth. Most hostas work well in our Piedmont zones, but Caladiums are only hardy in zones 9 and above. Great for borders and planters.
Miss Huff Lantana
A small shrub and true perennial — meaning hardy in this area — that also works great in patio containers and hillside plantings. Showy orange and pink flowers that bloom all summer long prefer full sun and are low maintenance.
Loropetalum “Jazz Hands”
Also called Chinese witch hazel, awardwinning durable medium-size shrub (4–6 feet heigh), drought resistant and pest-free, it’s great in the border or mass plantings, with mature foliage producing variegated leaves splashed with rich purple, fuchsia and white, and stunning pink flowers in middle spring.
Lemon Lime Nandina
A new take on a garden classic, this modest-sized evergreen shrub, first ever limegreen Bamboo of Heaven, is highly pest- and drought-resistant and thrives in full sun to partial shade, producing bright lime-green leaves in spring that lighten up any dark space or foundation border.
Compact and flowerless, a fantastic border/container shrub — no taller than 3 feet — that stays golden all summer long, thrives in full sun and even makes a terrific hedge, providing rich year-round color.
L.A. Reynolds Garden Showcase, 4400 Styers Ferry Road, Winston-Salem. Open 9–5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, reopening Sundays in March. Contact: (336) 945-3776 www.lareynolds.com