Southeast 3

BY CAROL BISHOP MILLER / Huntsville, Alabama, USDA Zone 7

Plants for Patients

LOCAL EVENT

Southeastern Flower Show

Explore the latest trends in garden design, meet hot new plants, hear authoritative and entertaining speakers, enjoy cooking demonstrations by well-known chefs, and browse the bookstore, flower shop, and the vendor-packed marketplace. February 18–22, Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta, GA; www.flowershow.org

“If anybody ever got into the greenhouse business accidentally, it was Dr. Bob,” notes Carroll Moore, one of the most dedicated of the 60 volunteers manning last spring’s benefit plant sale at Huntsville Garden Center.

Indeed, it started simply enough. An avid ornamental gardener and manager of northern Alabama’s kidney transplant and dialysis program, Huntsville nephrologist Robert H. Williams thought a plant sale would be a good way to involve patients, their families, social workers, and health-care professionals in building an emergency fund to help financially stressed patients pay for medications not covered by insurance or Medicare.

The first sale, held in the spring of 2002, made $5,200, but lots of plants were left over, so Williams started a small nursery to prevent the surplus from going to waste. Planning a second benefit sale for the fall, he contracted with a large, out-of-town nursery for a shipment of annuals and mums. When that nursery was purchased by a company that promptly went bankrupt, Williams found himself at an auction and, he claims, “obviously had no idea what I was doing.” Thinking to buy two or three truckloads of plants, he bought 13. Planning to acquire two or three greenhouses, he bought 14. Ultimately the bankruptcy court allowed him to buy 113 tractor-trailer loads of plants and 40 greenhouses. He now owned two new businesses, with 22 paid employees, and some 1,400,000 plants, from perennials, shrubs, and trees to grasses and tropicals. Huntsville Garden Center is now a retail nursery, while the adjoining Huntsville Wholesale Nursery caters primarily to landscapers. The businesses are not yet profitable, but Williams remains optimistic, and the twice-yearly charity plant sales, which last three to five days, have rapidly taken off, with last springs sale clearing $11,000. Williams hopes the emergency fund will eventually take in $30,000 to $40,000 a year—a goal that may be realized sooner than expected, since favorable publicity from the 2003 spring sale resulted in generous donations from a pair of major corporations and a prominent civic organization.

Overseen by social workers attached to the area’s nine dialysis facilities, the funds are dispersed on a case-by-case basis and are no longer used exclusively to pay for prescription drugs, but can be applied to any patient emergency. Often uninsured or too ill to work, dialysis patients are apt to find themselves and their families in harrowing financial predicaments. The fund has been tapped to replace broken dentures, broken eyeglasses, and even a door broken down by an intruder into a patient’s home. It has paid for taxi rides to dialysis facilities and transportation to Birmingham for transplants, for dietary supplements, and utility bills. “With this fund at our fingertips, we can access it quickly and keep a situation from becoming a crisis,” says renal social worker Melanie Barraza, one of the plant sale’s primary organizers. “You’re going to be buying plants anyway. Why not come to us? For the same dollar you’re going to get first-rate plants at competitive prices and benefit dialysis patients and their families.” The Huntsville Garden Center is located at 3252 Leeman Ferry Road, Huntsville, Alabama, 35801; 256-489-8092. H

RECOMMENDED READING

Though not without flashes of the trademark screwball humor that has won his Plant Delights Nursery catalog a cult following, Tony Avent’s So You Want to Start a Nursery (Timber Press; 340 pages; $24.95) takes a serious look at the countless perils and complexities of starting, running, and—eventually—disposing of a nursery. “The most prevalent problem in the nursery industry seems to be a lack of planning,” Avent observes early in this well-thought-out and conveniently organized manual. Covering every aspect of the industry from choosing land to selecting a CPA, from handling employees to purchasing and leasing equipment, from setting prices and controlling costs to obtaining credit and navigating persnickety government rules, So You Want to Start a Nursery is a sobering reality check—but also an invaluable guide—for the ambitious plantaholic with fantasies of turning a passionate hobby into a lucrative business.

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