It’s a testament to the fine design and good vibes of a plant nursery when it appears lovely even on a dreary, cold afternoon in soggy midwinter. My visit to Goodness Grows nursery in Lexington found neatly laid gravel paths glistening with rainwater and a color palette that was mostly green and brown, with occasional glimpses of silver from the undersides of various evergreens bowing their heads in the cold.
Goodness Grows is beautiful any time of year because it is an authentic nursery. In winter, life teems in the roots of healthy plants, tiny blossoms appear on the native witch hazels and sasanquas surprise the visitor with subtle splashes of pink. As every gardener knows, the garden, especially one loved as keenly by its gardeners as this one is, is never truly lifeless, even in the depths of winter. And by the time this article goes to press, the thousands of perennials and shrubs and trees will be waking up for another season, the crowns of potted plants will be pushing up green shoots, maples will bloom their deep burgundy and redbuds will begin their purple show. From March until December each year, Goodness Grows remains a mecca for plant lovers.
Rick Berry has been at the helm of this special place for over 40 years. He and his partner Marc Richardson got their start in Athens back in the 1970s, when they were students at UGA. Rick was a math education major and Marc was a plant biology major, but the two had a common love of plants and plant propagation.
Marc was deeply influenced by his grandparents. His grandmother loved all the traditional plants of Southern gardens, such as azaleas and camellias, and his grandfather was fascinated by their propagation. Rick’s passion was houseplants, especially succulents, cacti and bromeliads, which he grew in a makeshift greenhouse in his rental home in Athens.
The two met in 1976, and in the spring of 1977, they started a small landscape business and rented out indoor plants for weddings and special events. Their shared fascination with plant propagation turned into a lifelong career of growing seeds, cultivating cuttings and dividing roots of all sorts of native and ornamental plants. Marc worked at the greenhouses at UGA before there was a trial garden, and he and Rick enjoyed participating in seed trials for seed companies. They also enjoyed collecting seeds from along roadsides and encouraged people to try the native perennials they propagated.
In 1979, they decided to make their passion for plants a true business and moved to Crawford, where they set up a nursery in their backyard. The horticulturalists at UGA discouraged them at first, claiming it was too hot in our area, that people considered a lot of the plants they were interested in to be weeds, and that there just wasn’t a market for them. But the idea of going to a retail plant outlet and seeing nothing but geraniums, begonias and pansies did not appeal to this adventurous duo. Eventually the world of academic floriculture would see the light that these two shined on the plant world.
Essentially self-taught since there were no books or manuals on propagating perennials (or what few there were were published in England), Marc and Rick also began to cultivate a network of friends and enthusiasts throughout the Southeast. Rick would take plants in their truck to a flea market in Atlanta and was surprised by the response he got. After a few months, he found lines of people waiting for him when he got there on Fridays, and he often sold out before he got in the door. Ryan Gainey, legendary designer and gardener, encouraged him to sell plants at his store and hooked him up with the early efforts to establish the Atlanta Botanical Garden near Piedmont Park. “People started talking about us,” says Rick, describing the situation by 1984. “We could tell we were at the beginning of something big, but we weren’t really sure where it would take us.” He was asked to speak at garden clubs and respected garden estates such as Callaway Gardens along with well-known garden writers. He was taken aback the first time he walked onto a stage to speak to a crowd of over 600 people.
In 1990, after they had established themselves in their present location in Lexington, the effect of their influence on the gardening world in the Southeast was confirmed when they were visited by 500 people as part of a bus tour of local nurseries, including Athens’ Classic Groundcovers and Piccadilly Nursery near Watkinsville. The 1990s turned out to be good for independent garden centers, whose staff knew plants and welcomed the exploding market. Marc and Rick were at the forefront. “I displayed plants like creeping Jenny, blooming phlox and creeping thyme at the Southern Nurserymen’s Association show in Atlanta, and our plants were an island of color in a sea of green,” he remembers. “People were just thirsty for new plants to try in their gardens, and we gave them a new way to garden.”
Today, Goodness Grows remains one of the most respected nurseries in the U.S. Marc passed away a few years ago, but Rick remains optimistic and dedicated to the enterprise. He works seven days a week and employs many young aspiring gardeners and landscape designers from the Athens area. (He is also currently serving as Lexington’s mayor.) The business survived the Great Recession, the seemingly endless drought of a few years back and the competition from big box stores. On any given day in spring, you’ll find dedicated fans from South Carolina, North Carolina and all over Georgia strolling along winding paths bounded by a host of plants. Each beckoning plant seems to be saying “Try me” and to be encouraging you to lose yourself in the joy of gardening with healthy, carefully cultivated perennials.
Goodness Grows is located at 332 Elberton Road in Lexington. The phone number is 706-743-5055. A handy retail catalog and price list is published each year and is full of well-tested information about each plant for sale. Prepare to spend several hours when you visit; it’s impossible not to.