Few places in the United States are as full of history as the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, and garden center retailers can certainly appreciate the importance of history.

More than 50 percent of those surveyed in Garden Center’s 2016 State of the Industry Report indicated that their businesses had been open for 25 years or more. Family involvement, generational succession and success from humble beginnings are hallmarks of many great garden centers, and the destinations of the Garden Centers of America 2017 Summer Tour embody this spirit of history.

The 2017 tour, which began with a reception on June 25 and was based in Newport News, Va., spanned three days of travel and included visits to 10 independent garden centers, as well as other destinations like the Norfolk Botanic Garden, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg.

Dozens of retailers, growers, contractors and suppliers from around the country made their way to Newport News to network, sightsee and gain firsthand perspectives of some of the most prominent garden centers in Southeastern Virginia. Garden Center magazine was fortunate enough to have a place on the tour and bring these perspectives back to readers.

The 2018 GCA Summer Tour will be hosted in Seattle. Follow Garden Center magazine for updates on next year’s event as they become available.

Day 1 stops: Monday, June 26

Hard goods could be found mingling among plants on display tables at Ken Matthews Garden Center.

Ken Matthews Garden Center, Yorktown

FOUNDED: 1973

SIZE: 24,500 square feet total retail

WEBSITE: www.kenmatthewsgardencenter.com

Ken Matthews Garden Center’s landscape design department accounts for 60 percent of the business, with retail accounting for the remainder. The Yorktown store, which opened in 1984, operates on a staff of about eight to nine employees during peak season, with an emphasis on allowing customers to explore the store’s showfloor and covered outdoor sales space.

“Our strategy here is to create a friendly, low-key, walk-in-the-park atmosphere,” owner Ken Matthews said while introducing the tour to his store.

The sense of exploration at Ken Matthews Garden Center is complemented by informative and inspirational signage that guides shoppers toward “year-round” garden color, sun-loving varieties and trees and shrubs that can act as “secondary plants.”

Sage Kitchen, the in-store cafe at Anderson’s, is well-known in the area for its chicken salad.

Anderson’s, Newport News

FOUNDED: 1954 (nursery), 1977 (retail)

SIZE: 75,000 square feet outdoor sales, 33,000 square feet indoor sales 

WEBSITE: www.loveandersons.com

Although the store began as a wholesale grower in 1954, owner Clark Anderson decided to focus on retail operations in 1977 and expanded onto the building in 2009 with a 15,000-square-foot showroom. The store also includes Sage Kitchen, an on-site eatery that serves made-from-scratch soup, salad, sandwiches, “famous” chicken salad and more.

Clark Anderson is the brother of Eddie Anderson, owner of McDonald Garden Center. Robert Hendrickson, founder of the Garden Center Group and tour guide on the GCA Summer Tour, says the familial bond between the two companies is more collaborative than competitive.

“One pushes the other to be better at what they do,” Hendrickson says.

Digital integration can be seen in many forms at Anderson’s; speakers pipe in pop radio throughout the store, digital signage both guides customers and advertises special offers, and several merchandising displays feature small video monitors for playing product commercials.

Giftware, décor and apparel are very prominent categories at the Newport News Anderson’s store. Much of the inventory carries a nautical/beach theme, with mermaids, anchors, seagulls and more adorning several product displays. A large boutique area containing clothing and jewelry connects the main giftware department to the Sage Kitchen dining space.

Jason Blanchett, vice president of Anderson’s, says he’s pleased to host retailers from around the country.

“I think I’ve gotten a lot of my ideas from looking at other retailers and sort of evaluating what they do, and I think it’s good for everybody,” he says. “It’s a great time of year for downtime … for everybody to reset, get out of their stores, take those blinders off. It’s great for all parties involved.”

Darin Van Houten, who co-owns Van Houten Gardens in Bel Air, Md., with his wife, Elizabeth, says the Sage Kitchen was of particular interest during the visit to Anderson’s.

“We loved that they served alcohol. We’re looking — for as small as we are, we’re tiny — but we’re looking to do that, also,” he says.

Day 2 stops: Tuesday, June 27

McDonald Garden Market, Williamsburg

FOUNDED: 1945 (Market opened in 2011)

SIZE: 10,100 square feet total retail

WEBSITE: www.mcdonaldgardencenter.com

Set up in a fenced-in area in a parking lot behind a convenience store, the Williamsburg-Monticello garden market operated by McDonald Garden Center is one of 10 of these outdoor, seasonal pop-up garden markets that open each spring in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and other communities in the Hampton Roads area. At roughly 10,000 square feet, the Williamsburg-Monticello market is one of the company’s largest.

The markets are open from March through mid-July, though hours of operation can adjust depending on weather. As the markets operate on a tight schedule and must be removed at the end of each season, McDonald staff have developed an efficient system for setup and tear-down, Laura Moncure, market manage, says.

“We actually have a blueprint that, I believe, [McDonald president] Mark Anderson did at the beginning, when they were thinking about these pop-ups,” she says. “Every market has a specific blueprint, so that when the build-up crew comes, they know exactly where they need to place the tables and where everything is set.”

The fine-tuned blueprints also allow each market to give customers wide aisles and walkways to facilitate easier shopping despite a relatively small footprint.

The market carries a wide selection of perennials, ornamental grasses and edibles, to name a few.

Sneed’s Nursery & Garden Center

Sneed’s Nursery & Garden Center, Richmond

FOUNDED: 1975

SIZE: 2 acres

WEBSITE: www.sneedsnursery.com

Situated on about 2 acres of retail space, the deceptively large Sneed’s Nursery & Garden Center opens up into a long, narrow lot with retail displays that stretch back to a landscaping services office and nursery supply area in the back.

Visitors soon took notice of the chickens that wandered the mostly-outdoor garden center, as well as the coop they call home. Edibles such as peach, cherry, apricot and persimmon trees were interspersed among other green goods. Between the chicken coop, on-site beehives, fruit trees, and the shaded, outdoor atmosphere of the store, the store’s focus on natural food production is evident.

Jenny Jenkins-Rash, operations manager, says the store layout and product offerings are meant to complement the Sneeds’ philosophy.

“One of our focuses is organic and sustainable gardening practices,” she says. “Knowing where your food comes from is really important to us, so we have a lot of organic vegetables in a small-space vegetable garden. We want people to know you can do it no matter what you’ve got, even if you’re renting. The chickens and the bees are kind of an extension of that, so you can be an urban farmer right here in the city.”

Although Sneed’s is celebrating its 42nd year in business, the staff has only managed beehives on the property for two years. The hives do not produce honey yet, but the ongoing beekeeping process is intended to demonstrate to customers that they too can actively support pollinators in their area. Jenkins-Rash says the chickens also create a destination for entire families of customers to enjoy.

“There are five [hens] that are free range,” she says. “Customers love it. The chickens will run around and you can give them fruit — some customers come here just for that. Moms with younger kids will stop by, feed the chickens and check them out. It’s fun.”

The Great Big Greenhouse

The Great Big Greenhouse, Richmond

FOUNDED: 1977

SIZE: 9.5 acres

WEBSITE: www.greatbiggreenhouse.com

When naming a business, it sometimes makes sense to be direct. In the case of The Great Big Greenhouse, the name is certainly an apt one. The Richmond-based IGC, founded in 1977 and purchased by Meadows Farms Nurseries in 2010, sells from around 30,000 square feet of indoor retail and 5 acres of outdoor sales space. During the visit, GCA tour attendees sat down for lunch and heard a few words from owner Jay Meadows, who said the goals and management styles of Meadows Farms and The Great Big Greenhouse have blended “very nicely.”

“That’s hard to do, we’re kind of two different businesses,” Meadows says. “This [place] has a much different feel than my other 19 locations, but I think we did a really nice job of it. We retained a lot of the staff, we got some great people in a nice, easy transition. I think we added a lot to the marketing that was already being done here at the Great Big Greenhouse.”

One major innovation at the Great Big Greenhouse since the change in ownership is the store’s email list. Customers are encouraged to sign up to access members-only sales and have the option of an emailed receipt.

“Tremendous marketing opportunity there,” Meadows says. “We took it from zero to about 30,000 [names] here at the Great Big Greenhouse — Meadows Farms has about another 200,000 names on our email list. It’s very inexpensive and very effective.”

Outside, the store opens up into a sprawling field of shrubs, perennials, woody ornamentals and even a bonsai display. A pollinator-friendly display is maintained near the store building, and was practically swarming with bees during the visit — demonstrating the flowers’ effectiveness in attracting pollinators.

Cross Creek uses trees to provide natural shade to the perennial display area.

Cross Creek Nursery & Landscaping, Richmond

FOUNDED: 1974 (started retail in 1985)

SIZE: 26 acres

WEBSITE: www.crosscreeknursery.com

Cross Creek has a primary focus on landscaping services, with garden and nursery retail accounting for about 35 percent of the business. Several supplementary divisions, such as a full-service florist, ponds and streams and a bag-your-own mulch department round out the company’s offerings. As a grower-retailer that sells several in-house annuals, perennials and woody ornamentals, Cross Creek is committed to ensuring success for its customers. Signs near the tree displays include helpful “how to plant” tips and the company offers a one-year guarantee on its trees and shrubs.

Trees are not only sold at Cross Creek, but they’re used creatively to provide shade for customers. Large deciduous trees dot the outdoor sales area, providing shade for visitors browsing the various perennials displays. Tour attendee Jenell Martin, general manager of Catalpa Grove Farm in Columbiana, Ohio, says this particular touch caught her eye.

“My favorite part was their natural shading, where they just used the trees and set rows of perennials in between the trees,” Martin says. “That’s genius. You don’t need to put up a separate structure or shade cloth.”

Reflecting on the first two days of the tour, Martin says that she’s excited at the opportunity to see how other IGCs operate, especially regarding McDonald Garden Center’s seasonal markets.

“[Catalpa Grove Farm is] definitely in a more rural area, so this is good to get a different perspective. I really liked [the McDonald pop-up],” she says. “We have a produce farm, so we’ve often talked about doing a pop-up with produce, so it was really cool to get the idea that maybe we could do plants. And I loved how they talked about how they have it down to a science. They move the shed in, they bury the electric line, they have it very efficient. It can be done.”

Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square, Williamsburg

FIRST PLANNED: 1927

SIZE: 40 stores

WEBSITE: www.merchantssquare.org

One of the oldest planned shopping districts in U.S. history, Merchants Square comprises more than 40 modern shops and restaurants, including garden decor boutique Boxwood & Berry. Tour attendees browsed the walkable shopping district on their own and in loose groups to close out the tour’s second day.

Day 3 stops: Wednesday, June 28

There are several small touches and attractions that enhance the experience at White’s Nursery & Garden Center, including a popcorn machine and a kid’s playground.

White’s Nursery & Garden Center, Chesapeake

FOUNDED: 1956 (started retail in 1986)

SIZE: 54,592 square feet total retail

WEBSITE: www.store.whitesnursery.com

Given the size of White’s Nursery & Garden Center’s property, the tour was divided into smaller groups of visitors in order to ensure everyone saw the retail and growing facilities. Helpful signage points customers through the main building — originally a hoop house with additional construction built onto it — into the retail greenhouse and out into the outdoor sales space.

The main retail building is dedicated almost exclusively to giftware, tools and décor, including locally-made honey. Televisions are placed throughout the room, running commercials from suppliers and also promoting the White’s Nursery & Garden Center Facebook page.

Inside White’s retail greenhouse, visitors found a couple of added features intended to make customers feel more welcome in the store. A children’s play area gives younger gardeners a place to go while their parents shop, and popcorn and coffee machines are always running in the greenhouse to give customers something to eat or drink while browsing plants.

Outside, a paved pathway offers a comfortable walk through rows of potted shrubs, fruit trees and ornamentals. Scattered around the property are clearly-marked specialty service stations, including a “potting shed” area and a “glass house.”

Tour attendee Trent Mohlenbrock, co-owner of Changing Seasons Landscape Center Co., in Marion, Ill., says he appreciated the added touch of a concrete path in the outdoor sales area, where many other IGCs settle for gravel or dirt walkways.

“The layout and the hard surface is nice,” Mohlenbrock says. “Of course, that’s money, but it’s good to have a nice path like this.”

Signage and structures create a series of “landmarks” and attractions for McDonald Garden Center customers to gravitate toward.

McDonald Garden Center, Virginia Beach

FOUNDED:1945 (location opened in 1981)

SIZE: 6 acres total retail

WEBSITE: www.mcdonaldgardencenter.com

After getting a sample of the McDonald brand at the company’s Williamsburg seasonal market the previous day, the GCA 2017 Summer Tour group received the full course during the tour’s last day.

Opened in 1981, the Virginia Beach location of McDonald Garden Center is known in its community for a hosting a variety of special events including a spring gardening show in the first weekend of March, a “Crepe Myrtle Festival” and a “Grilling in the Garden” event, to name a few.

The store itself, however, which spans about 6 acres of total retail space, was the main attraction. An entrance adorned with trellises, hanging baskets and rows of containers set the tone for the store immediately upon entry. Hard goods such as benches and statuary were interspersed among potted plants and decorative plantings, creating a natural garden space atmosphere.

Once beyond the entrance, walkways weave through and between sections of woody ornamentals, tables packed with annuals and perennials and specially-marked departments. Some nursery stock is kept underneath natural shade trees, as seen at Cross Creek the previous day. Each component of the store flows together with unobtrusive but eye-catching signage.

Of particular note is the way that special sections of the store, with memorable monikers like “barn boutique” and “shady ladies,” are clearly marked and have unique identities granted by inventive merchandising. Barbara Kelly, sales representative with Turtle Creek Nursery, Inc. in Davidson, N.C., says the Virginia Beach McDonald store is full of inspiration.

“I like how they have set scenes so that you can envision it for your own home, what fits your personality,” Kelly says. “Sometimes when you just have rows of plants, you can’t envision it combined with a contrasting plant that would look beautiful with it. They’ve done that. Many of the garden centers have, but they’ve combined stone and wood and other things that you can do yourself to be creative. I think it inspires you to be creative here.”

Michaela Klockmann, sales rep with Scheurich USA Inc. in Chicago, adds that the store benefits greatly from thematically consistent branding and signage.

“What I really think is good is the coloring and the signage, where you can really recognize McDonald,” Klockmann says. “It’s like that satellite market — you come in here and you see the pink and the signage and you recognize the signs immediately. It feels very familiar.”

The exterior of Atlantic Garden Center.

Atlantic Garden Center, Virginia Beach

FOUNDED: 1991

SIZE: 60,000 square feet total retail

WEBSITE: N/A

It was then time to explore Atlantic Garden Center, a 60,000 square-foot storefront operated since 1991 by husband-and-wife owners Jim and Jane Crowell. The visit to Atlantic was marked by a bittersweet passing of the torch; the Crowells are going into retirement and as a result, the store will close at the end of July. However, the building is being taken over by McDonald Garden Center and will become the retailer’s second Virginia Beach location, leaving McDonald with two permanent stores after its Chesapeake and Hampton stores close later this year.

Citing his grandchildren as a primary motivator for his and Jane’s retirement, Jim Crowell explained the ongoing process to the tour group at Atlantic Garden Center. Mark Anderson is buying out the lease Jim and Jane have on the property, and Anderson plans to spend around $100,000 to refurbish the storefront and make it into a McDonald Garden Center store.

Mark says that the location of Atlantic Garden Center affords an opportunity to access a customer base the Hampton and Chesapeake McDonald stores missed out on. With the Crowells easing out of the business, he saw the value in stepping in to take their place.

“We have been looking for the past three or four years for a place to buy and build a new site on,” Mark says. “So, we switched gears, and especially when Jim came to me — we started talking about this. It was a wonderful opportunity for us. We do have five-year extensions on the lease … so, we got it basically locked up for 20 years if we decide to stay here. And then if things are really good, we’ll try to lock it up more than that.”

As the Crowells are attempting to sell off as much inventory as possible before retiring, displays at Atlantic Garden Center felt relatively sparse, especially in terms of décor and giftware. In the main retail greenhouse and in the outdoor sales yard, potted plants were displayed on basic tables and benches separated by wide aisles and walkways.

When McDonald Garden Center moves into Atlantic’s building, it’ll benefit from the location’s adjacency to a shopping plaza and several specialty stores, as well as Atlantic’s in-store post office, a feature that Mark says he plans to keep.

A plant display built into an oven at Anderson’s.

Anderson’s, Virginia Beach

FOUNDED: 1954 (location open 2016)

SIZE: 124,500 square feet total retail

WEBSITE: www.loveandersons.com

Much like the Anderson’s store in Newport News, this location presents itself as a clean, bright and modern garden store reminiscent of specialty department stores. The Virginia Beach store sets itself apart with a more open floor plan and a greater volume of outdoor sales space, with 90,000 square feet compared to 75,000 square feet at the Newport News store.

Presentation is key at Anderson’s, as demonstrated by the inventive and attractive signage leading customers to the greenhouse and trees and shrubs areas. Several merchandising displays are accompanied by corresponding artwork, such as a section of pollinator-friendly plants accented by a hummingbird-themed metal silhouette, or a “#greenhousetotable” sign surrounded by patio furniture suspended from the ceiling.

“I like how they differentiate the spaces with things over your head, whether it be the arbors outside or that entryway,” says Sam Brown, owner of Fiddleheads Garden Center in Dalton, Ga. “I like details like that — that’s one of the things we try to do. It gives [the store] character so it doesn’t just feel like a big box store. Something this size could definitely feel more like a chain.”

Although they are clearly distinct businesses, similarities between the sensibilities and approach of Anderson’s and McDonald stores are hard to ignore. That’s no coincidence, as Clark Anderson, owner of Anderson’s, is the brother of Eddie Anderson, owner of McDonald Garden Center and Mark’s father. Clark addressed the tour group at the end of the tour, after tour attendees had started to gather in the Anderson’s patio area to take in live music and socialize later in the evening.

“Horticulture is in the Anderson family blood,” Clark says.

Commenting on his company’s unusually upscale and broad approach to garden retail, Clark says the Anderson’s mission as introducing people to a “plant oriented-lifestyle.”

“We don’t want to look too much like a garden center,” he says. “This might, in fact, be the garden center of the future.”

Speaking of the future, Robert Hendrickson, founder of the Garden Center Group and a chaperone on the GCA 2017 Summer Tour, announced at Anderson’s that the 2017 summer event would be his final year touring with Garden Centers of America, citing obligations to his family and his own farm business.

Like Hendrickson, every business involved in the tour, whether by hosting or sending attendants, is constantly looking to the future and inward toward self-improvement. The drive to grow, adapt and thrive is a defining feature of the independent garden center industry, but looking outward for new ideas is also a hallmark of a successful business.

ALL PHOTOS BY CONNER HOWARD