MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Mike and Gloria Parker took an unexpected path to becoming Cape May County greenhouse growers.
“We didn’t start out to be gardeners,” said Gloria Parker, of Middle Township, who runs the Country Greenery garden center off Route 9 in Swainton with her husband.
She was a Towson University graduate and a history teacher in Maryland. He was an electrical engineer who served as a navigator in the U.S. Navy during the Cuban missile crisis. He flew in bombers that were based on aircraft carriers.
Mike Parker’s family worked in the commercial fishing industry, which brought him to New Jersey to work at Lund’s Fisheries in Lower Township.
But he always liked gardening as a hobby. When the Middle Township nursery was put up for sale, he bought it.
“I was 45 when I bought this,” he said. “Everyone thinks your hobby is a wonderful place to work, but now it’s not really a hobby anymore.”
Mid-life career changes are the norm these days, said Hal Lugerner, of Egg Harbor City, a career counselor with Atlantic Cape Community College.
He counsels college students to expect three to five major career changes during their work lives. With rapid changes in technology, some studies have even suggested the average is seven.
“I think staying in the same profession your entire career is the exception in today’s economic situations,” he said.
After buying the business, Gloria Parker started teaching at Middle Township High School, retiring about six years ago after 30 years in education.
Today, the couple’s shop has about six seasonal employees. Their grown daughters, Karin Parker and Alicia Markle, work at the garden center and the family’s florist shop, Blooms at the Country Greenery, located nearby on Route 9 in Cape May Court House.
Blooms is open year-round and helps draw customers to the garden center and vice versa, Gloria Parker said.
“Having our daughters here has been a blessing for us. They know the business. We’ve been slowing down and they’ve been picking up the slack,” Gloria Parker said.
The tapestry of colorful flowers on display in April is a welcome sign after the browns and grays of winter. The center is busy helping customers get their flower beds, window boxes and hanging baskets ready for the season.
The 4-acre garden center has hundreds of varieties of flowers to suit all yards: drought-resistant ones for the sunny side of homes in Stone Harbor and Avalon and others that prefer a little shade for leafy subdivisions on the mainland.
The garden center appeals to people’s aesthetic interests — and their practical considerations, too.
“These things add value to the properties, especially on the barrier islands,” said Mike Parker, 72.
The garden center offers annuals and perennials, hanging baskets, potted plants and shrubs and a collection of statuary and lawn ornaments, including a large selection of ceramic, porcelain, bamboo and terra cotta pottery.
The flower business has been a difficult one since the 2007 recession, the couple said. This was evident in the store’s daily receipts.
“I call it the $100 bill syndrome,” he said. “When you don’t see as many $100 bills in the cash register at the end of the day, you know the economy isn’t doing as well.”
Back-to-back hurricanes in 2011 and 2012 that prompted evacuations in Cape May County did not help. After Hurricane Sandy, the couple kept the business closed through the remainder of the year.
“We’ve had to cede some of the market for the big-box retailers. Anything they can buy in bulk and get the price down,” he said.
But dark humor always helps get through the difficult times.
“If it rains on Memorial Day, you want to lie down in the middle of Route 9,” he said.
The key to surviving the recession has been to moderate the center’s inventory to reflect the changing customer tastes and budgets, he said.
Despite their best efforts, the business can be fickle. They had to place their Easter flower orders through their local growers in February, not knowing the holiday would be washed out with rain and cold.
“It was the worst Easter we’ve had,” he said.
But they remain upbeat. The business put their two daughters through college and the economy is showing signs of rebounding.
“We feel we’ve been very fortunate, even thought the last few years have been tougher than we’d like,” Gloria Parker said.
Customers are growing increasingly sophisticated about the types of plants they want, Mike Parker said.
But fewer of his customers have an interest in hands-on gardening. As a result, his company ends up working with landscapers or providing plants in decorative planters from their stock of pottery, he said. They carry a variety of styles, from Mediterranean to Italian.
They also provide the flowers for many of the county’s hotel lobbies and gardens. In the fall, they offer chrysanthemums, pumpkins and cornstalk decorations.
Gloria Parker said she watched her customer’s children grow up alongside hers. Now she has four grandchildren.
“We’ve got some nice customers. It’s really nice to see them every year,” she said.
And unlike a lot of businesses, customers are generally in a good mood when they come to the store, Mike Parker said.
“When people are gardening, they’re happy,” he said.
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