Gardens Alive, state's largest nursery, closing up shop

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Gardens Alive, the largest nursery and greenhouse operation in Wilson County and the state, is closing.

“It definitely hit us out of the blue,” said Russ Schmeiss, general manager of the Wilson operation.

Schmeiss said Wilson County operation posted slightly above $15 million in sales this spring.

“It was just a really tough spring for the industry as a whole,” Schmeiss said. “They had to make the difficult decision to go ahead and shut the doors. It’s not just this operation. They are selling off all four farms.”

The other three farms are in Tennessee, Michigan and Oregon.

Everything that isn’t nailed down will be sold auction on Thursday, July 26. The last day of operation will be Aug. 3.

“We have got over a million plants on the grounds,” Schmeiss said.

All of the plant material and equipment will be up for auction in more than 800 lots.

“The auction is probably going to be mostly populated by other growers and growing operations, and they are here mostly for the plant material,” Schmeiss said.

Larger equipment, including pay loaders, front-end loaders, backhoes and potting lines, will be for sale along with all of the small tools and some office equipment.

“We have a maintenance shop, so obviously there are a lot of tools that mechanics may be interested in, vehicle lifts, all of the various tools that you would have in a standard maintenance shop, backpack blowers, hedge trimmers, small lawn tools, that kind of stuff,” Schmeiss said.

Miedema Auctioning Inc. is handling the auction.

Schmeiss said weather and shipping costs were a large factor in the decision to sell.

“Costs went through the roof,” Schmeiss said. “It wasn’t just our industry that got hit. It was a lot of different industries across the country. Any industry that relies on freight was paying out the nose for freight. So when you couple that with the extremely hard and long winter, it was more the length of the winter and how long it hung on in our markets in the upper Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, we just couldn’t as a company weather those two big blows.”

Locally, the Wilson operation was on the way back, said Schmeiss, who was brought on in 2017 as a new manager.

“We did well at this site. We exceeded our sales goal. We exceeded our shipping goal, but overall as a company, they weren’t able to make it work,” Schmeiss said. “We knew things were bad kind of early on. You kind of get a sense for that kind of stuff as long as we have been in business, but we didn’t expect a total shutdown. We expected some heavy layoffs and that kind of stuff, but we weren’t expecting a shutdown at all.”

At its busiest, Gardens Alive had 229 employees this year during the spring rush.

“Ever since we found out the news that everything has been going to auction, it has been nothing but preparation for that,” Schmeiss said. “So we have been getting all of the plants in blocks, making sure the inventory is correct, making sure the inventory looks as good as it possibly can and trying to make it as organized for the auction company as we can.”

The company sprawls across 453 acres on three farms between Rock Ridge and Sims along Rock Ridge-Sims Road.

“Obviously, they are looking for a buyer for the operation,” Schmeiss said. “It is doubtful that something like that is going to happen in such a short amount of time. If they could find a prospective buyer for the place, I think they would take it.”

According to Schmeiss, the business started in the mid-1980s and had for many years been operated by Zelenka Farms until being sold to Gardens Alive in 2017.

“We planned on doing good things. It is just a shame that we weren’t given more time,” Schmeiss said. “It will be a year to the day that they brought us down here that they are closing the doors. It is a shame we didn’t get more than 12 months exactly. It is hard to turn a place around in 12 months, but we were on our way to doing that. I just feel bad for all those people who have been here forever. A lot of them have spent decades here.”

Cyndi Lauderdale, horticulture agent for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, called the closure “a really sad day for Wilson County.”

“The nursery industry has been very close if not some years surpassing our tobacco income, so with the closing of Gardens Alive, we will see a great reduction in our nursery income figures for next year,” Lauderdale said. “We were pretty shocked.”

“Gardens Alive has the most acreage out of any nursery in the state of North Carolina,” Lauderdale said. “It is a big impact for Wilson. They had a great spring sale. They sold a lot of material. It is a great business and it is sad.”

“It is going to be a very strange two weeks, that’s for sure,” Schmeiss said.

Thursday’s auction will begin at 10 a.m. at 7437 Rock Ridge-Sims Road, according to the Meidema Auctioning website. Auction manager Chuck Ranney can be reached at 616-560-0839 or by email at chuck@1800lastbid.com.