Building On History
McDonald Garden Center delights its customers with plant festivals, reward programs and breathtaking visual displays at three locations in eastern Virginia.
September 26, 2008
You may recognize Eddie Anderson by his signature straw hat – but there’s a lot going on under it. Many would say this Southern gentleman has reached his goal of promoting gardening to improve the quality of life for the residents of eastern Virginia.
Anderson grew up in the bedding plant industry. During World War II, his father had a small greenhouse where he grew bedding plants. After the war, the industry really took off, Anderson says. In 1973, Eddie and his wife Sara purchased McDonald Garden Center from the McDonald family, who founded the business in Hampton, Va., in the 1920s with a Frenchman named Jacques Lejeander.
Originally, the business was called LeMac Nursery, which sold wholesale azaleas through the Fred C. Gloeckner Co. for many years along the eastern seaboard. When Lejeander went on to establish Gulfstream Nursery – the originator of the ‘Crimson King’ maple and several varieties of mock oranges – the McDonald family continued with its nursery business. After the war, one of the younger McDonald brothers joined the business and opened the retail and landscape center across the road from the nursery. “That’s what I purchased,” Anderson says. “The old production nursery is now under construction – they’re building houses on those couple hundred acres, so that’s all gone. We’re the last remnant of the McDonald heritage.”
In the 33 years since the Andersons took over, McDonald Garden Center has grown to include three stores – the original store in Hampton, the Virginia Beach location established in 1980, and the newest one in Chesapeake, which opened in 1992.
“That puts the three stores about 15 miles apart – one is on the other side of the James and the other one is on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, so we kind of form a triangle around the area here,” Anderson says.
Crazy About Crepe Myrtles
Those who are familiar with McDonald Garden Center immediately associate the retailer’s name with crepe myrtles. That’s because the business has celebrated the species for 23 years at its annual crepe myrtle festival, held during the normally slow summer season.
“Back in those days, we said, ‘What’s the slowest time of year? We’ve got labor available then.’ It’s busy but not like springtime, so we wanted to stimulate some activity that would provide employment for our people and give us more of a year-round program,” Anderson says.
Why crepe myrtles? Its entrance to the region can be traced to colonial times, and crepe myrtles work well for the area, blooming throughout the summer. At the time McDonald was trying to start the festival, the folks there asked themselves, “What are plants that have long-term durability that really are a success in our area?’” Anderson says. “Crepe myrtle is easily one of the most successful plants that we could grow in the landscape and probably is still underutilized.”
Whole streets in Norfolk, Va., are lined with 80-year-old crepe myrtles, he adds.
“Some of the biggest crepe myrtles in the country are here,” he says. “A parks director for the city of Norfolk, who has long since passed away, had been an advocate of the crepe myrtle. For years, he would plant two crepe myrtles in front of anybody’s house who called up and asked.”
Today, McDonald Garden Center’s crepe myrtle festival – dubbed the “Celebration of the Tree of 100 Days” – attracts 6,000 people at its three locations. “We’d like to think that we’ve had some role in fostering extensive crepe myrtle plantings in this whole region,” Anderson says.
Other specialty products McDonald is known for include camellias, azaleas, Japanese maples and figs.
For retailers looking into starting a similar festival program, Anderson recommends you do your research. “The big thing is, if you want to focus on a plant species, then it’s important to choose well for your region,” he advises.
Living Off The Landscape
One aspect of business that’s been a big part of McDonald Garden Center since its inception is its extensive landscaping service, and it’s gotten even bigger in recent years, Anderson says. “Landscaping has become an important part of what we’re doing, especially in the last five years, as land values have escalated and new home construction has increased,” he says.
Although McDonald focuses more on landscape renovations than new construction, it has a wide repertoire of business. Depending on the area of eastern Virginia, McDonald’s jobs range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Clients include the Busch Gardens development at King’s Mill in Williamsburg, as well as upscale homes in Virginia Beach.
“Our landscaping is really geared to complement our retail center,” Anderson says. “We’re working primarily with homeowners – that’s who our customer base is, whether it’s in the garden center or the landscaping. But the two work pretty much hand in hand with each other.”
As one of TGC’s 100 Revolutionary Garden Centers, McDonald Garden Center takes pride in its quality and selection of plants, as well as its staff knowledge, involvement and care for plants and the practice of gardening. And it shows, too, in the always changing creative displays showcased at each store.
While some of McDonald’s merchandisers are trained in the art of display, the garden center encourages all of its employees to contribute.
“We seem to have always had an interest in visual presentation, so those people who have some flair for it are given an opportunity to express that and they build on it,” Anderson says. “We are fortunate that people who like plants and gardening, and understand how to use and move plants effectively, have joined our team – that has always been a high priority for us.”
Among McDonald’s more than 200 employees, key team members are: Bill Kidd, senior buyer; Tom VanDyke, operations and landscape; Pat Overton, marketing; Mark Anderson, accounting and finance (pictured with Eddie); Mary Hall, Dave Caprood and Gabe Annunziata, store managers; Jill Roblee and Laura Ballenger, growers; Ruth King, technology; and Amy Landers, human resources.
Anderson credits his involvement in Garden Centers of America tours as a source for merchandising ideas, as well as marketing and management strategies. “Implementation is key,” he says. “A favorite saying is: ‘There is really no new idea under the sun – it’s how you take an old one and use it!’”
As a stop along the Fashion In Bloom trail Sept. 20-22, McDonald Garden Center’s Virginia Beach, Va., location will host Kraft Gardens, Beds & Borders, Monrovia Growers, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and Valleybrook Gardens. The theme this year is “Alfresco Style Living,” which really touches on McDonald’s penchant for showing its customers how to enhance their lives with the beauty of plants with attention to trends, lifestyles and new products
“Fashion In Bloom creates a showcase for unique product for independents and offers a way to reach them while challenging us all to market plants better to the end consumer,” Anderson says. “Garden centers need to determine their niche and identity and be determined to be true to it. Listen to the customer – what they want, when they want it and how they want it.”
Laura Drotleff is a freelance writer based in Willowick, Ohio. She spent seven-plus years as an editor on Greenhouse Grower. Reach Drotleff at email@example.com.