Small Business Spotlight: Pemberton's Greenhouses
by Saraya Brewer and Kathie Stamps in Smiley Pete Pubishing
For a century and a half, a lush, green family-owned horticulture business has been discreetly tucked in the midst of an otherwise industrial and utilitarian corridor two miles north of the Distillery District. Known for many decades as W.P. Pemberton & Sons Greenhouses, the official company name became Pemberton’s Greenhouses in 2009, although it always has been commonly referred to as Pemberton’s. What began in 1871 as a family business with tobacco and vegetables continues as a thriving retail and wholesale garden center – still family-owned and operated.
Located on Keller Court, off Georgetown Street near New Circle Road, Pemberton’s occupies roughly three acres, with 22 greenhouses – one of which dates back to 1915.
“It’s a very old facility – the plants are in the exact spots where they were grown,” said co-owner Janna Pemberton Schmidt. The fact that the facility was “built for the plants, not for people to walk through” makes for some areas that some might consider somewhat difficult to browse, she added.
Both loyal longtime patrons and new customers alike, however, are likely to shrug off that assessment. Perusing the historic greenhouses’ narrow, rambling aisles lined with thousands of plants and flowers is akin to having stumbled upon a secret and wild labyrinthine world. Begonias, geraniums, impatiens, ferns, white velvet tradescantia, potted tulips and succulent gardens mingle with garden supplies and sundries. From the
greenhouse structures themselves to the charming,
weathered shelving, the entire venue seems to be
coated with a century-old patina you just don’t find
in newer or big box garden centers.
The family members and their staff of 11 full-time employees work closely together on a day-to-day basis, answering ringing phones, running the cash register, building terrariums and container gardens, managing deliveries and plant storage, and overseeing the growing operations.
Herndon admitted that keeping such a long-running family business alive can be stressful due to the pressures of “worrying that we do the right things [and] make the right decisions, in order to persevere and succeed to see the seventh generation step in.” But, she says the rewards are incomparable.
“[Inheriting] a generational business such as ours is a tremendous honor due to a strong and loyal customer base continuing their support throughout the generations,”
As for that next generation, Herndon’s son, Mack Herndon, is the seventh generation to be working in the 150-year-old family business. With a chemical license to help combat insects, he also oversees plant storage – a significant aspect of the family business – and is often Pemberton’s presence on social media, rattling off intricate horticulture facts and descriptions as he enthusiastically shows off the different plants and flowers growing in the greenhouses
As for the plants, all of the seasonal and bedding plants are grown on the premises from plugs or from cuttings. About half are sold wholesale to landscapers and churches, and the other half are retail sales for homeowners, farms and other properties. Some of the tropical plants are grown from plugs; others come from Canada and Florida. On the perennial side, Pemberton’s brings in hostas and coral bells, hydrangea shrubs and roses.
Pemberton’s will deliver throughout Central Kentucky and “up to Cincinnati, over to Louisville and down to London,” Schmidt said, adding that 75 percent of their customers are in Lexington and surrounding counties, with the rest falling within that 80-or-so-mile radius.
Other services Pemberton’s offers include renting plants for weddings, funerals and other events, and creating unique centerpieces consisting of succulents or ivy instead of cut flowers.
Container gardens are another Pemberton’s specialty, with Herndon serving as the in-house container-garden expert. The first step for customers who want to have a container garden professionally designed, she said, is for them to determine where they intend to put it and how much sun it will get.
“My job is to find a container that suits their needs, if they don’t have one already, then ascertain the sunlight it gets and maintenance level the customer is comfortable with,” Herndon said. She has seen people bring in everything from small silver bowls for a dining room centerpiece to large ceramic containers to beautify their outdoor living spaces. In addition to providing her expertise on sunlight and soil, Herndon has an eye for design, so she asks about general color preferences and other surrounding elements with which she could coordinate.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t like yellow,” she said with a laugh.
Apparently, Pemberton’s has a knack for figuring out what people do like – a knack that has fueled the business for a century and a half and counting.
Janna Pemberton Schmidt
Easy indoor gardening tips
For indoor houseplants, use a potting soil with a fluffy mix instead of a moisture-control soil. “It should have lots of little white molecules that are perlite,” she said.
Avoid the discoloration of leaves caused by spider mites by mixing a teaspoon of dish soap in a gallon of water and spraying it on the leaves, leaving it on for about an hour and then rinsing it off. “If you can do that once every month or so, that usually keeps your plants bug-free during the winter.”