First of all, this is the important thing; we’re here. You’re here. I’m here. Let’s start there.
Ten years sounds like a long time, and maybe it is. It’s amazing to look at my life and marvel at how so much has stayed the same, and yet everything is different. My journey didn’t start ten years ago—it started when I was ten years old, actually, when I told a nice lady that when I grew up, I was going to own Royal City Nursery and become a horticulture apprenticeship instructor, just like my Dad.
She looked at my mother, who shrugged and said, “Yep, that’s what she wants.”
That was a lot longer than ten years ago. Ten years ago, my parents owned Royal City Nursery and I was the Operations Manager. My Dad was the face of the business, while my Mom determinedly worked in the background to make sure the quiet-yet-necessary details were taken care of. We were a family business. That never changed.
Ten years ago, I also started rock climbing. I remember arriving at my first climb, looking up, and promptly using some choice words I can’t repeat here. My friend Sean, who I had met when his wife became an employee of ours, heard me.
“Well, you’re here anyway,” he said. “You might as well go up.”
Lesson 1: Community is everything.
A few years prior to 2010, my Dad received a lung transplant. When your Dad gets a call that a pair of lungs are waiting for him, your family drops everything—but the business doesn’t wait.
This was when I first really learned what it meant to have a community behind you. We had friends volunteering to vault our fences to water the nursery yard at 4 a.m. We had long-standing team members offer to pick up anything they could to help us through. A vendor, who we still work with, even offered to drop by the nursery while we sat in the hospital to figure out what we needed and ensure it looked beautiful upon arrival. People all over the county came together to help us, and as the next several years brought new and bigger challenges, they never stopped showing up.
That’s community. There’s just no substitute for that.
Lesson 2: You have two options: do it, or don’t.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 B breast cancer. I got the call in the middle of a buying group meeting and, as I do, I wouldn’t let the nurse make me wait to see a doctor. To say the moment was overwhelming would be an understatement.
When I got home, I did what you’re not supposed to do; I started Googling. I kept reading over and over that I would discuss “options” with my doctor. That there would be “options” all through the process.
When I finally met with the medical oncologist, though, she handed me a piece of paper to sign. This paper, I found out, was the only option there was.
“By signing this, you authorize us to treat you,” she explained. “If you don’t sign, and you decide you want treatment later, you’ll have to wait at the back of the line.”
At that moment, I came to realize that there really was only one option. You do it, or you don’t. It’s clear and simple. Ultimately, in all aspects of life, our choices come down to whether or not we act.
Lesson 3: To get something done, you just have to do it.
It was April of 2014. I’d had a double mastectomy, therapy after therapy, and I was still in active radiation treatment while working full time at the garden centre. I was taking things day by day, and had started blogging about my recovery.
That August, we got a letter from the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario that felt like a punch to the gut. My parent’s business, the business that my grandparents started in 1962, was to close immediately. We were told to be out of there by the end of November.
It’s true, however, that you always have those two options; act, or don’t. We chose to act. We managed to convince the MTO to let us stay until March 2015 until we made sense of our path forward.
That October, I was called to the lawyer’s office. I was told that my parents would be retiring and closing the business. I had twelve hours to make a decision that would dictate how my life would go. I knew my decision before the law firm elevator hit ground level. (It took me longer to decide whether I would marry my husband, Dave!)
In truth, I had already made the decision years ago, when I was ten years old.
The road ahead would be long. So many people held the future of our business in their hands—from banks, to permit offices, the officials at the township. Yet, we just kept doing. We made it work. I think that, when people saw that we were getting it done, they wanted to help us keep going.
Lesson 4: Honour your parents.
It may not be possible to love your parents more than they love you, but you should damn well try.
In July of 2015, as we waited for our new property purchase to close and the permit process to open, my father entered hospice.
I sat with him, acutely aware of what this time meant for both of us. I looked at him, and told him that I would make sure his legacy would be okay.
My father had been a part time professor for 30 years at Humber College. Three generations of the community had the pleasure of knowing him and his passion for horticulture. At the end of a parent’s life, when you see the scope of the lives they’ve touched, you can truly appreciate them as more than your Dad, or your hero—both of which he certainly was to me.
Dad passed away at 4 a.m. the same morning we closed on our new permanent location. I picked up the keys at 5 p.m. He didn’t get to see it, but I know he believed in it. That kind of faith can’t be repaid; it can only be paid forward. Huddled together in my Mom’s kitchen, we decided to establish a scholarship program on behalf of my Dad.
Lesson 5: Blessed are the mistakes.
In the midst of my father’s passing, we were also transitioning our living arrangements. Early that same fall, Dave and I sold our house to make the business work, and the permanent location was to be our business and residence. Realtors, I discovered, do make mistakes, and in this case the mistake left us homeless for seven weeks. We moved in with my mother, and it was the best thing that could have happened. We needed each other, maybe more than we’d realized.
Lesson 6: Creativity makes anything possible.
The rest of 2015 was relentless. We had leased a temporary 1200-square-foot facility next to our old location, where we MacGyver’d our way through the transition to a permanent location.
Closing wasn’t an option, so we did what we could with the limited space and five parking spots. We struck deals with the land owners at neighbouring properties to set up parking, storage of live plants, and even an elaborate chit system for picking up large landscaping plants. We were storing goods in 20 foot containers, open fields, and our long time manager Erika’s crawlspace.
Meanwhile, Dave was working for a high-end landscape design build firm in Toronto, driving two-and-a-half hours both ways each day and spending his evenings doing what had to happen at the garden centre.
Our landscaping clients and loyal customer base got us through. The rest depended on our ability to think outside the box. We had no choice—that box was full!
Lesson 7: When you focus on the destination, the path reveals itself.
After we broke ground on the new location in late November, we set the soft open date for the new location for April 1, 2016. With an empty lot and our dream business to build, we were starting from zero—which, honestly, is my favourite place to start. There’s nothing to undo, and everything to conquer.
It was clear at that time that the deadline for everything was April 1, 2016. If something couldn’t be done by April 1, it was discarded and we moved on. Decision making was never easier than when we all had that clear goal in mind.
Lesson 8: Work with family, even if you’re not related.
All through this journey, our team never lost faith. Once the new location was preparing for its soft launch, this endeavour was no longer just an opportunity for me, or for Dave, or even for my family’s legacy. It was all of ours. It was for Erika, who has now been with us off and on for 25 years. It was for our team, who always had each other’s backs when the loads got heavy. It was for our buying group, the Garden Centre Group Co-op, who collectively decided to lend their support instead of taking the big-box approach and out-competing us. It was for our customers, who were crucial for us to survive this metamorphosis.
This is a family business because we’re all a family in this. We don’t have to share a last name. We just have to share a sense of purpose.
Lesson 9: We’ve always got more sh*t to do.
Thank goodness for that. Wouldn’t life be boring if there weren’t?
After our grand opening on Earth Day of 2016, which we now call our “Earth Day Birthday”, we never looked back—only forward. We’ve continued to grow and evolve our business, and this year, we’re expanding our outdoor space to accommodate our living inventory.
We also try to never forget the community that got us here. We started selling Gift of Giving ornaments to support the Guelph food bank to make sure no one goes without food at Christmas. We also continue to work community events, like Taste of Guelph and the Joy home Christmas Tour. This year, we hope to award the first two Peter Olsen Horticulture Apprenticeship Scholarship to students studying the program in Ontario.
Lesson 10: We’re here.
With the past decade behind us, we always have to come back to this. After the odds were against us, after it looked like we wouldn’t be, after the hardest realities of life stood in our way; we’re here.
Gratitude, to me, is a constant practise. Taking action is the easy part. You can go on that rock climb with a cancer diagnosis hanging over your head. You can even bring a business back from the brink. You can work with the people around you to keep accomplishing the tasks that, if you’re lucky, will never end.
However, all that isn’t worth much if you don’t just stop and take a look at where you are, what you’ve done, and where you came from.
We’re here. I’m here. You’re here—and I hope you’ll come again.