Mitchell’s Nursery & Greenhouse is somewhat off the beaten path — if you’re traveling from outside King.
But customers manage to find their way there, filling the parking lot and driveways most weekends from spring through Christmas Eve. The family-owned business, which began 40 years ago, is primarily run by its matriarch, Judy Mitchell. She may be short in stature, but there’s no doubt she’s single-handedly moved mountains of soil and forests of trees and shrubbery in her lifetime. And she spends most of the hours of most of her days there.
It doesn’t feel like it though, she says. “There’s always something to do and it’s always something different.”
Sand piles to root piles
She and her husband, Jim, met at North Carolina State University, where both earned bachelor’s degrees in horticulture. As a child, he turned his sandbox into a rooting bed, potting and rooting azaleas and camellias; Judy gardened with her mother and grandmother when she was a child in Catawba County. At NC State, she conducted research on greenhouse crops and bedding plants, while Jim researched blueberries; he went on to work for the state Department of Agriculture.
They started their business in 1976, peddling azaleas and African violets at the state fairgrounds. When they moved to King in 1979, they began selling them again. They charged $2 and posted a sign at the end of their road, and word quickly spread. They began adding other shrubs, trees, and ground covers, grew everything on an extra lot beside their house, and watered everything from a creek that ran behind the properties.
The operation has always been a family affair. Their son, Jay, actually grew up with the nursery.
“It was tiresome at times. There was never saying I was bored. If I said I was bored, Mom could find me something to do,” he says.
When Jim’s epilepsy kept him from continuing to work, their nursery business went from a side hustle to their main source of income. In 1993, they moved their home-based business to its current location, which spans 13 acres on Dalton Road. It’s an operation that includes 11 greenhouse bays and another two acres of growing areas just down the road.
Jay didn’t set out to pursue horticulture, but worked part-time at his aunt’s nursery in Raleigh while studying at NC State. He returned to Stokes County in 2001 to help his parents with the family business. He’s noticed through the year there are few women running nurseries.
“We have had several [male] customers through the years that don’t want to talk to her, but want to talk to Dad,” Jay says. “Dad just turns around and calls Mom. I kind of get a laugh when I see that happen.”
Don’t put all your eggs in one pot
Judy says their business continues to thrive because she didn’t follow the advice of her college professors: “They taught us in school to specialize in one plant or crop.”
But for her, success has come in diversifying.
“It doesn’t pay to put all your eggs in one pot. When the economy got bad a few years ago, it helped to have the greenhouses. We were able to sell flowers instead of trees,” she says. “Everybody’s got to have some flowers to brighten up their day.”
Their customers are landscapers, contractors, florists, garden centers, churches, and the general public. These days, their business is evenly divided between wholesale and retail. The nursery is also known for its annual events. The Spring Greenhouse Tour gives customers a sneak peek at spring and Easter flowers, and at their Fall Open House, the Mitchells serve hot dogs and refreshments. And in the winter — when most flowers fail to thrive — that’s when hundreds will flock there to take in a vast array of poinsettias. Theirs is one of two commercial greenhouses in the state to hold poinsettia trials. Visitors will vote on their favorite varieties, which helps national poinsettia breeders decide which poinsettias to release the following year. This year, Mitchell’s is growing more than 9,000 plants in 80 different varieties.
“It’s an exciting event,” Jay says. “Mom and Dad make homemade chicken salad and pimiento cheese sandwiches for customers.”
Jay says the biggest lesson he’s learned from his mom is her work ethic. Judy creates and maintains schedules for both the plants and her handful of employees. She opens and closes the business six days a week. In addition, she’s in charge of marketing, advertising, ordering inventory, billing, and taking orders.
“She’s here all the time,” Jay says. “I think she’d like to get a laptop so that she could do some work at home but Dad won’t allow it. He has a hard enough time getting her to come home.”
Want To Go?
Mitchell’s Nursery & Greenhouse
Where: 1088 W. Dalton Rd., King
Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m.; Sat, 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
More info: 336-983-4107 or mitchellsnurseryandgreenhouse.com