MADISON — The retail garden shop and landscaping business in the metro Jackson area was not founded by Billy Martinson, though it may seem that way. Currently president of Martinson’s Garden Work’s in Madison, Martinson is working on his fifth decade as a central figure in an industry that continues to thrive at home and nationwide.
“Working in the yard is a time-honored tradition not only here in Mississippi but throughout the United States,” Martinson said, reflecting on changes in the industry. “The Jackson area particularly has some of the best-kept yards anywhere. It is a hot business and I think it will continue to grow.”
Martinson, a Jackson native, traces his roots in plants back to his earliest childhood when his mother owned a garden shop in Vicksburg. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Mississippi State University in 1958. After a stint in the U.S. Army which awarded him a commission, Martinson and wife, Rita, returned home to Jackson. Looking for a job, Martinson decided he would create his own by opening his own retail garden shop and landscaping business called Green Oak Nursery in 1960.
The years were good to the company. Though the business moved a few times, eventually settling on Old Canton Road in Jackson, Martinson’s customers moved with him. In 1991 he bought nine acres of land in Ridgeland with an eye toward expansion. In 1998 he sold Green Oak to his daughter and her husband and opened Garden Works on the nine acres on U.S. 51 in Madison.
And the growth continues at Garden Works. Construction is ongoing on an additional 7,000-square-feet of garden house and selling area. The company owns and operates a fleet of 20 vehicles, including an 18-wheeler, and offers all products and services, short of grass mowing and routine yard maintenance, required by gardeners and landscapers.
While a slight majority of its business is with residential customers, about 40% of its business is commercial. Two of Martinson’s 40-person staff are landscape architects, and Garden Works offers a rather unique design-build capability.
“We go out and help customers locate their driveway, swimming pool, those kinds of things,” Martinson said. “We go out and do an inventory and help the customer make decisions about their landscaping, working as a partner along side them.”
These jobs can be relatively small or large. One current large job is at MCI Worldcom’s headquarters in Clinton where Garden Works is handling almost the entire landscaping work, including the delivery and planting of about 100 pear trees.
Although Martinson said the way plants are grown has not changed over his career, there have been innovations. One of these is a technology called Hydro-Mulch. Developed in Texas, the system allows for more effective and efficient growing of grass utilizing a mixture of fertilizer, seed and mulch that is spread via a high-pressure hose. Martinson said it eliminates the mess and expense of making repeated trips across the fledgling grass and removes the eye-sore of strewn hay.
Bigger changes in the habits and ways of the individual gardener have been seen by Martinson.
“The day of the private gardener is over — there are just a few left,” he said. “It used to be that fertilizers came in 100-pound sacks and you couldn’t buy a small truck-load of soil. But chemicals and fertilizers are now easy to handle and you can get small quantities of soil delivered. So more people are doing it themselves. They want a modern, cool garden shop to shop in. And they don’t have a lot of time — they need the convenience of being able to get all their needs at one place.
“We are not effected by the economy. When the economy goes south, people tend to stay home more and work around the house. I see the industry just getting stronger.”
Martinson pointed to an impressive record of employee retention for Green Oak’s and Garden Works’ successes. For instance, Garden Works manager Danny Donohue started with Green Oak in 1971 as a 14-year-old, riding his bike to work each day. Martinson named off an extensive list of personnel, too numerous to name individually, who have been with the company for long tenures.
“My management philosophy is to let people do what they want and like as long as its good for the company and making money,” he said. “I just make sure I give them good merchandise to work with and not hover over them.”
Martinson said he has no plans to step away from an industry he truly loves any time soon.
“I really enjoy what I do. We are doing this construction here, adding color to the front of the store, and have other future plans. And I’m now seeing second and third generation customers. I’m having too much fun to quit now.”