In the small town of Vanleer, TN, there’s a beautiful horticulture business called Country Gardens Greenhouse. The land it is situated on was purchased in 2009 when the first owners moved to Tennessee. The couple decided they wanted to start incorporating greenhouses, and that was how it started, explained current owner Michael Hagerty. “They wanted to create a space that has a special feel to it.”

Although this greenhouse operation is in “the middle of nowhere,” the original owners created “a place that’s beautiful, that’s natural and they were maniacal in their care of the plants,” Hagerty said. He likes to think that the greenhouse being a destination is “a challenge and yet, it’s what makes the place special.”

After Hagerty worked in the corporate finance field for 35 years, he was looking for a change. He didn’t know much about horticulture at the time, but it’s what he loves, so he bought the greenhouse business in the third quarter of 2022.

He and his wife Jennifer dedicate their time at the greenhouse, working seven days a week for five months in a row. Hagerty explained, “This business is for people who love this business… It’s not for people who want to simply make money.”

He and Jennifer have a son that works with them in spring, and a daughter that handles their social media. Otherwise, they have eight part-time seasonal workers that are passionate, skilled and have strong work ethics.

Each year, they plant around 200,000 plants in their greenhouses and buy an additional 15,000 to 20,000 trees, shrubs and tropical plants from outside suppliers. They use traditional Gothic arch greenhouses, which they purchase from Scenic Acres in southern Kentucky.

Hagerty buys the largest size greenhouses the manufacturer offers, and his plant organization is based on temperature tolerance and “utilizing every square inch of space that we have to grow.”

With six greenhouses total, four are open to customers (two warm houses, one cold house and one vegetable house); the other two are used for overflow.

The greenhouse is a second career and a passion project for Michael Hagerty. Photo courtesy of Country Gardens Greenhouse

During spring, 100% of their sales are retail. They are open from March 15 to June 15, but 90% of their spring season business happens from April 1 to May 31. Hagerty looked at their sales records so far this spring and realized that 50% of the sales were from returning customers from last year.

In summertime, they plant 9,000 mums. Hagerty shuts down almost his entire parking lot, where the mums sit out and mature from September to October. In summer, one-third of their sales are retail and two-thirds are wholesale to local businesses or through auctions.

Hagerty focuses on a lot of eco-friendly practices that he considers a “foundation on what this business is based on… not just a preference.” When they buy their plugs from growers all over North America, they immerse the trays in a slurry of organic products (Bioceres, Tenet and packets of 50 million beneficial nematodes) to kill any bad bacteria from another nursery before transplanting and growing them in their greenhouse.

They also have a continuous program of introducing beneficial predatory insects into their greenhouses, such as using tiny wasps to kill aphid larvae, insects that eat adult aphids and mites that hunt for spider mites. They also collect rainwater in a pond, from which they gravity feed the water into their greenhouses for irrigation.

Although these eco-friendly practices were in place before he bought the greenhouse two years ago, he’s been expanding upon them to make them better.

Although Hagerty has only owned the greenhouse for a few years, he doesn’t plan to make any radical changes in the future. “The last thing we want to do is change the character of this place,” he said.

His main goal is to add a few greenhouses to increase capacity – and add more locations. At the end of the day, he doesn’t care about being a billion-dollar business. His motivation is to “create something beautiful in this community that all of the people in the community know about and have the opportunity to partake in.”

The Country Gardens Greenhouse is a destination location. Hagerty said, “The thing I love most about this business has nothing to do with the dirt, or the plants, or the fertilizer, or the biological stuff – it’s watching people walk into my greenhouse because almost without exception, they smile when they walk in the door because it’s just so beautiful.”

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by Kelsi Devolve