When friends Sharon Lee Smith and Mary Wilhite used to get together after a long day’s work in the early days of their careers, they tended to grouse about their jobs and wondered what it would be like to run their own business.
"Well, come to find out, now we know," Wilhite says. "It’s hard work."
The hard work has paid off. They began with a wholesale herb nursery and it grew. Soon they were open to the public. This year marks their 25th anniversary as a retail garden center.
The entrepreneurs were still holding down their day jobs in Tyler when they started Blue Moon Gardens outside of Edom. Smith’s employer, Laura Miller at Thompson-Hills Nursery, a garden center of long standing in Tyler, encouraged them to consider growing herbs as it was a niche market that had no competition. Nurseries weren’t selling them, and there were no growers in Texas. Wilhite’s husband James invested $600 and the women began growing herbs in the Wilhite’s backyard.
They delivered their fledgling crop to independent garden centers in Austin, Dallas, Brenham, and Shreveport. Wilhite was the first to quit her day job. She made the delivery runs using Smith’s Datsun pickup truck. To make the Austin run they began loading the truck at 4:30 in the morning. Smith went to work and Wilhite got back to the greenhouses at 10 o’clock at night. Using the headlights of her car, she and Smith loaded up the truck for the next day’s deliveries.
Soon the business was able to support both of them and they graduated to a box van. The loading took longer, the hours were longer, and their delivery area enlarged.
Herbs were not an easy sell at first. They weren’t colorful. Martha Stewart wasn’t singing their praises nor were there any cable television cooking shows that kick-start foody trends.
Smith and Wilhite went to garden shows and hawked their herbs. They gave cooking and growing classes at the nurseries they supplied with herbs. They used the gardens on their property as their research and development laboratories to find plants that did well in the Texas climate.
Their wholesale customers were some of their first champions.
"They had an excellent product and they were growing for the Texas region," says John Allen, general manager of Nicholson-Hardie Nursery and Garden Centers in Dallas.
He invited them in to teach herb classes. "We’ve been interested in helping young growers since the beginning, but really it was self-serving. We needed plants that were healthy that customers could plant and were assured would grow. Theirs were the best out there."
The Blue Moon business grew and when a small frame house next door to their greenhouse property came up for sale, they bought it.
"I missed the retail clients," Smith says.
The house was turned into a gift shop and in March of 1993 they opened a retail garden center with a gift shop, display gardens, and 11 greenhouses. Blue Moon Gardens is still located on Farm to Market 279, four miles east of Edom and 15 miles west of Tyler.
Today they have craft and gardening classes that vary according to the interests of their customers. They began the classes just to inform their customers of the many uses for herbs but they were so popular they remain part of their ongoing calendar.
Herbs are still a large part of Blue Moon’s business and so are shade plants.
"It’s East Texas, there are a lot of big trees — we are always looking for new shade plants," Smith says.
Over the years they have seen gardening trends come and go. Water gardens and fountains were a hassle for the crew and for the customers so they are on the wane. Fairy gardens had a 10-year run. Smith suspects they were the first garden center in the area to sell the tiny houses and plants that make magical dioramas popular among grandmothers and their grandchildren.
Many of their customers have been with them for decades. Some of the older clients like dwarf shrubs that need less pruning and appreciate Blue Moon stocking up on those. Younger customers, new to gardening, want quick results, and for them completely planted container gardens in large colorful pots are ready to whisk home and plunk on the patio for instant pretty.
The gift shop mix has stayed fairly consistent with candles, lotions, hats, and jewelry, often from local resources. Outdoor rugs, garden furniture, and garden art are used as much to beautify Blue Moon’s gardens as they are staged to sell.
The garden center is so artfully arranged that there are times visitors come just to enjoy the lovely setting.
"We have people who come and just walk around for inspiration. Others come after the death of a pet or a loved one because they find it peaceful," Wilhite says. "We never expected that. It’s a lovely setting to work in but I’m sure we’re not getting the same peace of mind."
They both are surprised that the partnership has lasted.
"Most of the time I feel Mary and I try to impress each other with what we accomplish when the other is not around. We don’t want the other to think we are slacking. It’s a good impetus for surviving," Smith says.
They also credit their husbands for their patience and support as Wilhite and Smith each work weekdays and at least one day of the weekend. They have missed countless gatherings and family events.
"We are completely devoted to making Blue Moon work, and without them willing to put up with that it wouldn’t have happened," Smith says.
They have managed their business well and their track record with employees is impressive. Several of the women who work for them — and it is mostly women — have been there for more than 20 years.
"Our work is very particular and detailed — usually men are not as enamored of that as women," Smith says.
Pull their employees aside and ask about the working conditions and they begin to whine, just like Wilhite and Smith did about their old jobs, but they know they have a good thing going.
"We are family, it works like a family," says Chris Connell who has been on staff since the retail shop first opened and is now in charge of the greenhouses.
Debra Starr — who was hired, she says, to be "Chris’ grunt" 20 years ago — is another of the lifers, having graduated from grunt to indispensable. "I refuse to look for another job," she says.
Like their bosses, the employees are willing to put in the hard work.
"People will come and apply for a job saying how much they love to garden, but they do it in nice weather," Smith says. "Here, we garden every day, when it is really hot or cold or windy. You have to pot, you have to water and do lots of bending and lifting."
Last year Wilhite and Smith added a fiber studio to the grounds, an extension of their hobbies. Wilhite makes hats. Smith hooks rugs and dyes fibers for other needlecrafts. The studio draws in crafters and this brings in more customers who drive to Edom for the one-of-a-kind artworks available at the shops in town. "Now that they have opened the fiber art building it gives me more of a reason to send ladies down there if they are interested in hand-made," says Beth Brown of Potters Brown in downtown Edom.
Brown says often people who visit Edom are not aware of Blue Moon Gardens, and Wilhite and Smith admit they are horrible about self-promotion, although customers have found them from as far away as Kansas.
Blue Moon Gardens is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Days they are open differ depending on the season: March through June, seven days a week; July-August, Thursday through Sunday; September-December, seven days a week; and January-February, Thursday-Sunday. Their special events this year include a Spring Open House April 28, a Fall Open House October 20, and Illuminations (a holiday open house) December 1.
Blue Moon Gardens sponsors their own active garden club — the March meeting topic is easy gardening/downsizing and April’s topic is edible patio plants.
Times and dates for events, crafts and gardening classes, and garden club meetings and trips are on their website, www.bluemoongardens.com.
Gaile Robinson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.