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Planting the Seeds of Success at Wilson Nurseries

Wilson Nurseries co-owners Mary Catherine, Jennifer and Ella Wilson on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

The plant business represents a world of contradictions. Between observing the delicate growth of their plants and completing the arduous labor it takes to help them thrive at Wilson Nurseries, co-owners Jennifer, Mary Catherine and Ella Wilson. understand how their hard work can pay off in the form of natural beauty.

"I'm not surrounded by ugly every day. Far from it, right? I think people desire to work in this type of environment, but I think most people are surprised to find out how hard it is. It's heavy, hard, hot, cold..." Jennifer, mother of Mary Catherine and Ella, said.

Wilson Nurseries was opened 43 years ago by Charlie Wilson, Jennifer's husband and Mary Catherine and Ella's father. After his passing in 2003, he left his family and his burgeoning business, establishing the three women as co-owners. Now, the company has over 135 employees and consists of not only its flagship location in Frankfort but also the Sage Garden Cafe, the Butterfly Greenhouse, a second branch in Lexington and plans to expand further.

From cultivating the life skill of growing and caring for plants to promoting healthy gardening practices like pollinator gardens that aid in butterfly migrations to remaining open as an essential component of the food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has provided an avenue for the community to help their health as well as the natural environment.

During the pandemic, "We packed that greenhouse full of things you could eat, and not just because that's what we could sell at that time, but because people wanted it and needed it. Everybody kind of had this panic, in a sense, about 'Where is our food coming from?' There wasn't enough food in grocery stores," Jennifer said.

Now more than ever before, the women understand the indispensable nature of their business. Besides selling plants that add beauty and liveliness to their customers' homes, their long hours and fresh ideas played a crucial role in encouraging their perseverance, happiness and physical wellbeing during the pandemic when there were no other options.

"I always make this joke with my mom that she never stops," Ella, a current digital media and design student at the University of Kentucky, said. "She always says, 'If you're not moving forward, you're moving backward,' so that's a big lesson. Our most rewarding part is just seeing it evolve."

Though Charlie's vision must be carried on by his family, the business that he began has taken root in the lives of many Central Kentucky residents, several of whom enjoy the nursery so much that they invite out-of-town visitors to witness its splendor, creating a new community of plant lovers that understand the history and significance the location brings.

"There are still people here that knew my father, and this is his legacy. I think that's the root of all my memories—my dad was here and his spirit is here," Ella said.

Those fond memories at the nursery began when Ella and Mary Catherine were extremely young, as both grew up watching and learning about the plant business from their mother and her employees.

Wilson Nurseries employee Lauren McCabe waters large monsteras inside one of the greenhouses at the flagship location on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

The Sage Garden Cafe, which is on the property of Wilson Nurseries in Frankfort, even began as the Wilsons' home.

Mary Catherine recalled the fun she would have with her sister while exploring the property, including when they got a golf cart stuck in the mud. She said customers would constantly see her on every type of wheel they had access to, from strollers to tricycles to scooters to golf carts and finally their own cars.

"We would make jumps out of brooms to keep ourselves busy," she said. "All of my friends thought it was so cool when they would. get to come here after school."

The girls would spend time shadowing employees in different departments, gradually absorbing knowledge and a love for plants as they worked. The experience has come full circle with Mary Catherine and Ella now getting tasked with showing employees' young kids the nursery's features, including house plants, rare and non-native plants, trees, bushes, herbs and vegetables.

"I was really fortunate to have a situation where I could bring my kids to work. They grew up here and did all kinds of things they shouldn't have been doing, like riding a canoe into a pond, and in the snow, all of that. Those were some of the hardest years but probably some of the most memorable years. And now it's really fun to see both of them working in it, especially when we have a day when it's all of us," Jennifer said.

The women and their different interests have come together to help the nursery flourish. Mary Catherine and Jennifer attended school to study the sciences, and Mary Catherine even intended to work in a research lab after graduating college.

"When I was trying to decide if I wanted to work in a lab forever or work here, a part of me would have been lost if I worked in a lab forever because I would have lost the creativity that I get here most of my day. So I would say it's inspiring, and it's really hard, but it's beautiful," she said.

Though her sister and mother have an interest in science and business, Ella has found her role in creativity and art. She spends most of her time focusing on floral design, nursery layout, marketing, graphic design and photography. Her time at the nursery has taught her that the methodical process of producing plants and the creative mindset it takes to sell them are far from mutually exclusive.

"As I'm about to graduate, I'm realizing that they can come together quite nicely, actually," Ella said. "The design part and the agriculture can form something really cool, and I think now maybe I do have something to add to the company."

There are always new lessons for the women to learn about owning and operating a growing business. "The number one thing that I would tell a business owner, woman or not, would be that you control the finances. It doesn't mean that you do the finances, it's that you first and foremost understand the finances. You have to run a business from a financial perspective before anything—you can't take care of the people in your business if you're not taking care of the finances," Jennifer said.

Wilson Nurseries' flagship location in Frankfort, Ky. spans for 25 acres with four of those acres holding multiple different greenhouses. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Ella added that her mom has taught her to "dream big but be practical first." Ideas are easy, she claims, but the amount of time, focus and dedication that it takes to make those ideas blossom are what sets successful ones apart.

"Your work just becomes your life. It's your passion, too, your passion is plants, and your work is planting, so your plants become your life," Ella said. "When we go on vacation, we are going to plant places to get inspiration for when we go back to work."

On a recent trip to Florida, for example, the women returned home with a bay plant, a better alternative, they decided, to purchasing a bottle of bay leaves for a recipe.

The impact Wilson Nurseries has had on the Central Kentucky community, Jennifer believes, is crucial. "We're kind of this carved-out piece of green space for over 20 years that is not going to become a factory or building anytime soon, as long as we're there. That matters to us," she said.

The success of Wilson Nurseries means that Jennifer, Mary Catherine and Ella can stay incredibly close and continue to share their father's legacy with the world.

"This is the foundation of our family. Not only does it support us, but it's our passion, so everything in our family revolves around this place. All of us working together, we're just a unit. I think the significance would be how closely knit it's made us over the decades," Ella said.


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