Tag Archives: the history of oak street garden shop

Celebrating 30 Years With A Look Back – A Decade Of Change 2000-2010

The first 10 years of Oak Street Garden Shop were marked by slow and steady growth. Of course, any successful business has to “go with the flow” and roll with the sometimes sucker punches of weather, employee turnover, and unforeseen expenses.

9/11Memorial

9/11 memorial

The decade of the 2000’s certainly held its share of surprises though. It began with the national tragedy of 9/11, a memory seared into the collective conscience of every one of us. No one would have dreamed in Oak Street Garden Shop’s beginnings in 1990 that a piece of New York City’s  World Trade Center would have a place directly across the street (many years after the tragedy, as part of a memorial in front of a newly constructed City Hall and fire station complex  in the next decade), or that a completely rebuilt 2-story library would be completed in the spring of 2001, or that a devastating drought would bring the business to its knees, simultaneously giving birth to a recognized and respected ‘green industry’.

Emmet O'Neal Library

Emmet O’Neal Library

Looking back, it just doesn’t seem possible we lived through all of that and more. The old Emmet O’Neal library came down quickly and went up just as fast, though it began with the incessant pounding day after day after day of the piledrivers, driving deep into the Mountain Brook bedrock.

My head had never hurt so badly as it did those weeks of that early construction. The pounding continued in our heads even after we left for the day and the next day and the day after…until finally, blessedly, it ended and the building began to rise and rise and rise across the corner from Oak Street Garden Shop.

The one-two punch of an historic drought of 2007 and a downturn in the economy in 2008 were the next big tests of the now established business. Until 2007, the shop had been running  like clockwork, and new customers continued to find our little shop across from the library.

Things were looking good. But then, in 2007, the rains stopped.  Birmingham received barely 29 inches of rainfall – well below normal rainfall of nearly 54.  A mere 31.85 inches fell in Atlanta, also well below the average, and Huntsville was just as bad. The entire southeast was going into a drought.

With such serious water shortages, the Birmingham Water Board directed the full force of its weight toward outdoor watering restrictions, and we found ourselves in the direct line of fire.  Because the BWW  publicly declared all garden related businesses “non-essential“, by their new rules  we were not allowed to water even any of the very few plants we were stocking.

Put in the bluntest terms, since they considered our work “non-essential”, it wouldn’t matter to them  if we went out of business.  Billy Angell knew right away that, if he couldn’t convince the Mountain Brook City Council to create a special ordinance allowing Oak Street Garden Shop to water its plant inventory, he might as well close his doors for good.

It was a very scary and depressing time for us all.  The stress was etched on Billy Angell’s face as he stood before the Mountain Brook city council that Tuesday evening.  He had totaled all the water bills for Oak Street Garden Shop from the previous year – a grand total of $500.  His personal home usage had been much more.  Thankfully, the city leaders at the time valued Oak Street Garden Shop enough to allow the hand watering with hoses of our plants, a practice which continues to this day. It still surprises people that the amount of water we use irrigating plants is not more significant.  In fact, we found hand irrigating to be even more efficient and  eventually completely  dismantled the irrigation system for good a few years later.

The battle certainly wasn’t over though, as the ripple effects of this historic drought were astounding. Many growers and nurseries, because of outright outdoor watering bans in surrounding areas and states, went out of business. We were witnessing the industry  we had worked in for years casually tossed off as not worth listening to, helping, or being of any value at all to the community or state.

It was a mind-numbing thought. Garden shops and wholesale nurseries  watched as car washes continued without restriction, though people were told they shouldn’t wash their cars so much. Large industrial plants continued to use enormous amounts of water unabated, and indoor usage of water was never threatened beyond suggestions of how to conserve water inside and the discussion of a tiered billing system.

In fact, by their rules, we could water with abandon inside the greenhouse. Of course, that hardly mattered since only a few were buying plants they’d have to water, be it inside or out.  And, while we understood that cutting back on outdoor water usage was absolutely necessary, it seemed to us that a more balanced approach, and one which included the monitoring of indoor water usage in homes and businesses, needed to be a more focused part of the discussion. Clearly, and most importantly, our industry needed to join forces to prove our worth.

So, at this critical  juncture in the shop’s history, Billy Angell found himself part of a small but determined group of nursery owners, growers, and industry leaders. They had watched with mounting concern the outright and complete water bans going into effect in the Atlanta area and in many other parts of Georgia and had seen the serious toll they were taking on the green industry in that state. They also remembered the outright water ban that had affected Birmingham during a drought in the fall of 2001. So, feeling as though they were fighting for their livelihoods, they persevered, going to and speaking out at many Birmingham Waterworks Board meetings, pushing for more even-handed  conservation measures.

In large part due to this pressure, the water restrictions imposed did not include an outright ban. The drought continued into 2008 and segued into the downturn in the economy, so we all breathed a sigh of relief when the rains finally came again. This crisis had energized the Alabama Landscape and Nurseryman’s Association, though, and an economic impact study was commissioned which showed the extent of the newly-coined ‘Green Industry’s’ worth to the state of Alabama. Now there were solid numbers to back up our words.

What a decade, indeed…

By Kris Blevons

For me, 2007 and 2008  were difficult years for other reasons too. In June 2008, following the summer of the southeast drought, the Rock River in Wisconsin, where my parents’ home is (and where I grew up), went through historic and devastating flooding. For weeks their home, in Fort Atkinson,  and many others were on the brink of  being lost as torrential rains continued non-stop on top of  soil saturated from more than 100″ of snowmelt. The stress was palpable for them, and  for me too, being at such a distance and feeling so helpless. At the height of the flooding, as the river crested, my sister and brother-in-law drove to my parents’ home from theirs in Milwaukee to evacuate them if necessary. They made it across the final bridge as swiftly moving river water crept over the road.  My parents’ home miraculously was spared, but thousands of people and many communities throughout the Midwest were severely impacted. Looking back now, the incredible juxtaposition of flood and drought and the effect both had on my life is still difficult to think about.  

Do you have a favorite memory of Oak Street Garden Shop? We’re compiling thoughts from customers and vendors and will print them in a future blog post. Send us your thoughts, either by mail to Oak Street Garden Shop 115 Oak St. Birmingham, Al 35213 or by email to oakstreetgardenshop@gmail.com  

We look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

 

 

Celebrating 30 Years With A Look Back – Build It And They Will Come…

There are many businesses in the surrounding areas that have celebrated more years than our 30, but I felt the need to mark the passing of time and the evolution of this small independent gardenshop in the Mountain Brook suburb of Birmingham, Alabama.

Billy and Jon Culver...building the shadehouse

Billy and Jon Culver…building the shadehouse

With the 2013 overhaul of our website by Rebecca Moody, this process has become as easy as writing a blog post, and events that might otherwise be forgotten or dismissed as unimportant can be recognized and remembered. And, whether these  words are read or not, it feels good to know they’re here and won’t be allowed to fade with faulty memory.

From Oak Street Garden Shop’s beginnings in 1990, with his construction of the first shade house and greenhouse, to the process of buying the lumber and saws necessary to put together the tables and erect the fences that would surround his nursery, it was obvious owner Billy Angell enjoyed woodworking and building.

It was a project...

It was a big project…

He knew that his flat-topped and quite ordinary shade house, covered with its simple shade cloth, wouldn’t do forever.

Wanting something more permanent and visually striking (and knowing this would be a big woodworking  project),  he was excited to get started and began to make his drawings for submission to Mountain Brook City Hall for design approval and a building permit.

With the city’s consent granted in the mid 90’s, Billy and employee Jon Culver began working on the new shade house after the busy holiday season had passed.  At this time of the year the nursery was relatively empty, so moving in the quantities of lumber needed was also easier, though the weather didn’t always cooperate.

Winter snow while building the shadehouse...

Winter snow while building the shadehouse…

In fact, you can see the snow in one of these pictures (Thankfully this wasn’t the year of the blizzard!). With additional help provided by Eddy Robinson (a friend and fellow carpenter), the new shade house slowly took shape, and its 25′  high A-frame, after completion, would become a prominent feature of his garden shop. It was a very exciting event!

An Early Container Plantings...Billy with Eun Joo Early 90s...

An Early Container Planting…

While Billy, Jon, and Eddy worked each day raising the shadehouse, the shop hummed steadily along.  Ellen had begun putting combinations of green and flowering plants in baskets the first year of business to give as gifts, and by now there were many people using these baskets to provide fresh plants in their homes too.

As a result we stayed very busy at the two work tables, situated at the time on either side of the entrance to the greenhouse. Most days of the week we worked evenings after closing to fill orders to be picked up the next day.

Because these tables were in plain sight on each side of the front doors, we tried to keep them as neat as possible. The original  plan had been to keep one clean for wrapping potted plants as gifts, while the other work space would be allowed to get “dirty”, the result of making basket combinations, planting, etc.

The sign being built...

The sign being built…

That arrangement didn’t last long though, since we were creating more plantings than wrapping flowers,  and potting soil and plants inevitably ended up all over both tables. This would eventually become quite a problem as more employees came and the design business grew. Where to put the finished baskets and container plantings would also need to be addressed soon, as there were more and more orders to find room for.

Confederate Jasmine had reached the top of the sign...it was killed the winter of 2013.

Confederate Jasmine had reached the top of the sign…it was killed the winter of 2013.

It was during the construction of the shadehouse that the distinctive Oak Street Garden Shop sign planter went up. It has, over these many years, become one of my favorite planting spaces, giving me opportunity to showcase those plants that will handle the brutal Alabama summer heat radiating off the asphalt in July and August (And has offered lessons on those that can’t too!).

I’ve also been able to combine many cool season plants in the winter months, have grown vines of Confederate jasmine, Mandevilla, Carolina Jasmine, and Moonvine up its length, and will try Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’ , a beautiful selection of our non-invasive Native American wisteria, in this, our 25th year. I’m so glad it’s a planter sign. It seems fitting for a garden shop. Unfortunately, in 2019 it came down in a wind storm. Nothing lasts forever…

This aerial view from 1997 shows the finished shadehouse...

This aerial view from 1997 shows the finished shadehouse in front of the greenhouse…

The aerial picture shown here was taken sometime in the fall of 1997 and shows off the shade house, which still looks new. It was in the spring of this year that a shy 20 year old named Jamie applied for a job.  Like me, she’d  gotten lost trying to find her way and tells of finally following a white unmarked delivery van that unbelievably led her to the shop. How happy we are she chose that particular white van to follow! It’s been a joy to see how she’s grown as a mother, an artist, and now as manager of the greenhouse.

Shadehouse completed...mid-90's

Shadehouse completed…mid-90’s

So the final physical framework of the building was completed, and there was a tightknit framework of employees as well.. Soon, though, this would change. By the turn of the new century, and the end of Oak Street Garden Shop’s first decade in business, Ellen has been wooed away to begin a writing career for Southern Living Magazine and Jon ventures out to open his own garden shop. In the next posts, a friend makes the perfect suggestion for changing the work table layout, we lived through the first construction across the street as the Emmit O’Neal library is razed and rebuilt, and a devastating drought threatens to end the business. 

Do you have a favorite memory of Oak Street Garden Shop? We’re compiling thoughts from customers and vendors and will print them in a future blog post. Send us your thoughts, either by mail to Oak Street Garden Shop 115 Oak St. Birmingham, Al 35213 or by email to oakstreetgardenshop@gmail.com  

We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted by Kris Blevons

Celebrating 30 Years With A Look Back…The Blizzard of ’93

The horticulture business is framed out of necessity by the weather and the vagaries of nature… heat, cold, storms, wind, drought. When Billy Angell built Oak Street Garden Shop’s first  shade house early in 1990 and finished the greenhouse at the end of that year, he knew that, even with these  protections for the plants, the weather would always be a factor in whether a year was exceptional or just average.

Blizzard of '93

The day after…

No one in horticulture ignores weather reports, and Billy was certainly no different. It’s a typical pattern: Rainy days are usually slow days, and a string of great weather makes any nurseryman smile. Snow in the south is definitely a recipe for a bad greenhouse day or, more likely, multiple days.  I know many of you remember Birmingham’s historic blizzard of March 12, 1993, and have your stories to tell. Here is Oak Street Garden Shop’s:

The local and national weathermen had been analyzing the forecast carefully for days, and, by all accounts, the conditions were ripe for a possible historic snow event. But how much? Just a week earlier multiple spring shipments had rolled in on large trucks, been unloaded, priced, and set out in the nursery. And, though this was only the third year of his fledgling start-up, Oak Street Garden Shop, Billy Angell had been in the nursery business for many years previous and knew this weather forecast had the potential to spell big trouble.image

Looking at the plant material, he saw with his practiced eye many shrubs with buds or open blooms just arrived from the warmer gulf coast, tropical blooming plants of plumbago, beautiful yellow “daisy trees” (euryops) from the west coast, and many, many more with tender new growth that would easily sustain foliage damage in temperatures near freezing, let alone below.

This was a constant worry each late winter/early spring. Shipments of plants arrived, and, inevitably, the Alabama winter temperatures would plummet. We’d shift pots close together and cover them with poly and frost cloth, moving other even more tender tropicals into the warmth of the greenhouse. This moving, covering, uncovering, and endless shifting would become a routine rhythm of early spring not only this year but each of the many years that followed.

image

An impassable road on the day after…

The morning of Friday, March 12th, I came in to work, expecting to begin the process of covering the many plants in the nursery and moving some inside. Billy had been watching the forecast, though, and told his small staff the decision he’d come to the night before. “I think we need to move everything in,” he said soberly.

“So you’ve changed your mind about covering?”, I asked. “I’ve been going round and round about it,”, he answered.  “But, if the totals they’re predicting come true, I’d rather have everything in the greenhouse than have the weight of that much snow collapse the poly over them.”

image

I think that was my car…

We all looked at each other. If we were going to be taking everything in, we needed to get to work, as it was going to take non-stop moving to get it done before the day was through. Billy had worked out a plan the night before between watching weather forecasts. The largest trees and shrubs would be moved first, loaded onto carts if they weren’t too large, walked in one by one if they were.

Back and forth, in and out we went, lining the large pots in straight lines and right up against each other, tight. There’d certainly be no getting to plants once they were in place. Starting on the far left side right up against the wall of the cool cell, slowly but steadily filling in and moving toward the middle and finally to the very opposite end of the greenhouse, it was becoming a solid patchwork of greens, yellows, pinks, blues. It seemed as though all the colors of spring were being safeguarded from the coming weather.

By that afternoon, finally finished, we looked over the sea of plants. Numbering in the hundreds, trees, tropicals, shrubs, perennials, herbs, and tender annuals, all side by side from one end of the greenhouse to the other with not an inch to spare between.

imageExhausted, we went next door to have a drink and relax a bit before heading to our respective homes and families.  Relieved we were through and enjoying a few laughs, we all suddenly noticed how heavily the large flakes were falling and began saying our goodbyes, heading  out into the rapidly falling snow.

By the time this historic snow storm was over, the totals were over 12″ in our southern city and thousands of people were without power. We all knew then that no one would forget where they were and what they were doing leading up to and through the Blizzard of ’93.

The next day Billy trekked through the foot-deep snow the mile from his house to Oak Street Garden Shop, relieved to see that the greenhouse had withstood the weight of the heavy, wet snow. And, though the generator refused to start to power the large heaters, the fact there were hundreds of plants packed so tightly together served to provide just enough protection from the cold to keep them from freezing, and, amazingly, only a very few were lost.Birdhouse in snow

So the weather, bad as it was, had not won this round since his nurseryman’s decision had been the right one. Less than a month later (after having moved every plant back to its proper place, then repeatedly covering and uncovering, moving others in and out and back again as temperatures still dipped down, then back up in the normal rhythm), we finally enjoyed the full and exuberant throes of spring, and the Blizzard of ’93 slowly and easily slid into distant memory.

This is the second post in a series celebrating Oak Street Garden Shop’s 30th year in business. For the first, highlighting Oak Street Garden Shop’s beginnings, take a look HERE.

Posted  by Kris Blevons

 

 

Celebrating 30 Years With a Look Back…(Part 1)

1991...The entrance - note the flat-topped shade house...

1991…The entrance – note the flat-topped shade house…

How do you describe the passage of  30 years in a blog post? That’s a tough question, and one I grappled with for quite some time before writing and rewriting this first post. The process would probably be easier for an outsider, dryly describing dates, events, and facts, I thought.

Billy

Billy and the yellow tent…

But, having worked at Oak Street Garden Shop for 29  of these 30 years, it’s so much more than the passage of time marked as dates on paper. It’s all of the wonderful customers we’ve known from the very beginning, many becoming friends, and, sadly, more than a few with us only in memory.

It’s the vendors we’ve created lasting relationships with, through the boom years and a few rocky spells, steady compatriots in a fickle, tough business. Though we saw a few of those fall by the wayside, too…greenhouse and nursery owners that finally gave up their dreams.  Nothing stays the same. In 30 years there have been so many changes. And the sturdy greenhouse itself, once shiny and new, also shows the passage of time, though it’s been well and truly loved.

1991...Inside the Greenhouse

1991…Inside the Greenhouse

It’s the employees that have come and gone through the years, each having brought their unique personalities, talents, and humor to their jobs, making each day one to look forward to.  The ones that have moved on and those that have stayed are all players in its history and have contributed so much.

Looking through various assorted pictures, it’s obvious there are gaps. 30 years ago we didn’t have ubiquitous cell phones out and ready to capture every moment. It took effort and thought to remember to bring the camera, get some photos, and hope our chosen shots turned out.

1991 - At the end of the nursery by what is now Dyron's.

1991 – At the end of the nursery by what is now Dyron’s.

So Billy Angell established Oak Street Garden Shop without any fanfare on a chilly day in March, 1990, by putting up a yellow tent and setting some flats of bedding plants on the table he’d set up under it. His greenhouse was nearing completion, and he was sitting in the middle of what used to be a parking lot in the center of Crestline Village, in his hometown of Mountain Brook, Alabama.

He had aptly named this new venture Billy Angell’s Oak Street Garden Shop. Outwardly he exuded confidence, but he also knew he had to succeed, since he had a mortgage, 2 children, and a wife to support. At the end of each day of business he rolled down the sides of the tent, picked up the cash drawer, loaded it into his car, and went home.

1991 - See the red lines outlining the "beds"? Shade house is flat...covered by shade cloth.

1991 – See the red lines outlining the “beds”? Shade house is flat…covered by shade cloth.

The first project on this site had actually begun earlier with the design and building of a shade house, constructed on weekends. This was a simple flat structure, with a shade cloth laid over it, to protect plants from the hot sun and scorching heat that radiated off the asphalt of the old parking lot.

He worked steadily, as curious people watched  and asked questions. One day two young women walking by stopped and asked him what he was building. “I’m going to open a nursery,” he replied. They smiled and walked on, then turned around and came back. “What ages children will you be accepting?”

Billy and Ellen.. 1991

Billy and Ellen.. 1991

That January, he left his other job for good and was ready to begin building his greenhouse. It would have just enough room for a tiny office and restroom tacked on to one end (Until it was completed, the  “facilities” consisted of a port-a-john and plants were watered with a hose hooked up to the restaurant next door). The greenhouse was finished that fall having been completely built by himself and a young boy, Tanner Broughton.

Oak Street Garden Shop was now officially in business with full time help from a former employee, Ellen Riley, and part time help from a neighbor. Having run a much larger nursery and landscape company previously, his smaller version was the perfect fit for him and the community,  nestled next door to a favorite local restaurant and situated  across the street from Mountain Brook’s City Hall and fire station and the much loved Emmet O’Neal Library. It was truly a neighborhood garden shop.

Vignette at the end of the nursery...early 90s

Vignette at the end of the nursery…early 90s

As that first year progressed, it seemed the local residents enjoyed having plants available in their community, and they supported their hometown entrepreneur. The Birmingham News even came out and took a picture. He outlined “beds” in paint to delineate where “paths” through the nursery should be, envisioning an English garden with perennials, shrubs, and planters eventually filling in the empty spaces…and, slowly, they did.

The next year it was apparent that business was going well, and the addition of a second full time employee was warranted. This was more than a little nerve-wracking for Billy, as he wanted to get just the right person for his brand new business. Many people applied for the job, including me.

1991...Kris at the first cash register...

1991…Kris at the first cash register…

The day I applied I had gotten lost and pulled into the Fire Department to ask where Oak Street Garden Shop was located. The fireman grinned and pointed across the street. “Over there,” he said. I looked, there was no sign yet, just a few plants and a greenhouse (How did I miss that?!).  I was the most persistent applicant it turns out,  and it paid off, as he wasn’t entirely sold on me, but gave me the job anyway. He tells me now that Ellen had to talk him into giving me a shot.

My first days at Oak Street Garden Shop were rocky. Asked to weed a pot in the nursery, I dutifully grabbed a handful of weeds and fire ants raced up my arm, stinging me to pieces. It also  took some  time  to acclimate to working virtually outside through the heat of summer in the south, as I was from the relatively cooler midwest. But I hung in and slowly but surely became hooked.

As the years progressed, we weathered the historic Birmingham blizzard of ’93, (We’ll explore that in a future post.) more employees came, a new shade house was built, customer’s tastes dictated more planted containers, a fresh produce area was added, and a garden came to life across the street. More on these developments in the next posts. 

Do you have a favorite memory of Oak Street Garden Shop? We’re compiling thoughts from customers and vendors and will print them in a future blog post. Send us your thoughts, either by mail to Oak Street Garden Shop 115 Oak St. Birmingham, Al 35213 or by email to oakstreetgardenshop@gmail.com  

We look forward to hearing from you!

By Kris Blevons