During my junior year of college I procured a summer job at Flowerwood nursery in Alabama. When you are driving to the Alabama or Florida beaches you will pass through Mobile. When you get over that long bridge you begin to see the giant nurseries with all those green houses that seem to go as far as the eye can see. Most of those are Flowerwood nursery. They have four other locations in other places around South Alabama. I worked at the Dauphin Island farm.
Flowerwood nursery is one of the South’s great nurseries. They grow all the plants you’ve heard of such as encore azaleas, the Southern Living collection, endless summer hydrangeas, the knockout rose family, and a list of other plants so long I couldn’t begin to list them all. Their website is wonderful, it’s a great place to learn some plants names and get some inspiration for your next project. Flowerwood’s website has great photos of each plant they grow in alphabetical order. As most nurseries it was started as a backyard hobby back in 1938 and is now a third generation wholesale nursery that is now one of the biggest and best in the country.
The minute my last exam was done I jumped in my 1965 Volkswagen beetle and puttered south with my fingers crossed that she would make the journey. My father had been buying from Flowerword for as long as I could remember so I knew a couple of the salesman from the past. My sister, Karen had work a summer down there and had a great experience so I was excited to get down there to see what I could do. Flower wood had some cheap rental houses nearby for employees to rent that were there for short term stints like mine. I moved in with two other employees and started work the next day.
The place was mine-boggling giant. I eventually figured out my way around the seemingly endless rows of plants and greenhouses. My jobs that summer were to bump up the azalea liners which are four inch pots with rooted azalea cuttings to four gallon pots. There were tens of thousands of liners ready to be transplanted and more being produced every minute. There was no way to ever finish. I was working with Filipinos who had worked there long enough to have developed some very fast and efficient methods of getting the job done.
The women were taking cuttings from mother plants and sticking them in a rooting hormone then into the four inch pots at lightning speed. I worked with the men filling the three gallon pots with soil, putting them in giant carts pulled by tractors and planting a rooted liner into each pot. From that point we would take them to the field where they would grow for another three years until they were sold. They would go to an 18 wheeler for delivery to a garden center anywhere in the country.
It still blows my mind that a plant can take that long to be ready for sale for around six dollars back then. That is why they do such great volumes, the margin for profit is very small. I remember my direct boss used to holler out from time to time “three-ones and two-threes!“ He meant that no one could carry fewer than three one gallon pots or two three gallon pots in each hand. Next time you’re at a garden center try that, it’s hard to do. I was bound and determined to try to keep up with those guys who had been there for a while. They laughed at my efforts; at least I kept them amused.
My other job was to mix giant piles of soil on a concrete pad with a front end loader. They gave me the secret recipe. I mixed a pile that was big enough to last a days’ work. It was fun to watch the pile go from a mountain to us sweeping up the last bit at quitting time. I think my hands are still a little messed up from that job.
I had the weekends off and was surrounded by the most beautiful beaches on earth so I spent my weekend crabbing and resting around the gulf. When I realized there was about a month until school started back I made plans for a cheap flight to Jamaica. I could see that I could easily be replaced by another set of hands. The owner let me store my beetle at one of the rental houses and I took off for an adventure on the money I had saved from that job.
I know this was another one of my crazy harebrained ideas but I had written Trek bicycle company a letter asking them to sponsor me on a trip. I was going to ride my bright yellow trek mountain bike around the Jamaican island and take lots of photos including the bike in the photos and they could use the photos for advertising. They actually wrote me back to say “thanks, but no thanks“ instead of just throwing my request in the garbage can. I thought that was nice of them to even reply. I’ll look back on that and laugh but at the time it seemed like the best idea ever.
I spent my month down there taking mini buses all over the country. My last week was spent getting closer to the Sun Splash music festival that occurs every year in August. The festival that year was a tribute to Bob Marley, one of my all-time favorites. The week leading up to the festival was the best part as the musicians and the fans begin to show up by the busload. I set up my tent and took it all in. The nights before the festival, impromptu jams were happening everywhere. I wound up in a drum circle with Bunny Wailer, one of the original Wailers. I couldn’t believe I was sitting right across from one of my music heroes. When that week of craziness ended, it was time to go home and I needed some rest.
When I got back to Flowerwood I heard that the guy that drove Garden Works 18 wheeler was on his way to pick up a load of shrubs. I helped them load the truck leaving just enough room on the truck for my Volkswagen. We pulled her up on the loading dock and drove her onto the back of the truck. I told the driver a few Jamaican stories then crawled into the sleeper of the truck and slept all the way home. When we got to Garden Works I drove the beetle onto our loading dock, unloaded the truck full of bushes and headed back to Starkville to finish my degree in horticulture.
We still buy from Flowerwood and it seems their quality and range has gotten even better. That will be a summer to remember, a little work and a little play. Actually it was a lot of work and a lot of play. I think about that summer every time I pick up just one three gallon azalea in each hand just to spite my boss from that job.
I am hoping that you have found your groove in this new world we are experiencing. It’s getting easier for me dealing with this Covid mess. I’ve gotten used to having my mask with me and bumping elbows instead of handshakes. We need to hang tight for a while longer. Make your yard your refuge where you make your own rules and find a way to relax there as the weather allows for that more and more.