Although he grew up immersed in a Virginia-based landscaping business that his father started in 1956, Greenbrier Nurseries, Jim Monroe’s passion for plants wasn’t fully ignited until he took horticulture classes at Virginia Tech in the ’80s. “I grew up around it and really didn’t want to do what I’m doing now, but I didn’t really know much,” Jim recounts. His summers were spent working at Greenbrier Nurseries with landscape crews, but he thought his path would lead him to a different career. However, after completing several horticulture courses at Virginia Tech, “I got impassioned with the plants,” he says.
Jim says that he credits a lot of that interest in plants to a professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Horticulture, Dr. James (Jim) Coartney, who taught a course on woody plant identification. In that class, Dr. Coartney used the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” (what Jim dubbed the “Dirr Bible”) teaching them how to identify plants and cultivars, and “everything from maples to rhododendrons,” he says.
“I just went overboard. I totally loved it and I think that was the moment in time, that class, where I had a dynamic shift of really being in love with horticulture,” Jim remembers. In 2012, Jim would receive the Outstanding Alumnus award for the School of Agriculture from Dr. Coartney, who Jim says commented that he’d “never had a kid that was so impassioned with plants” as Jim was. “I don’t [always] love the business and all [the challenges that] come with it, but I really do love the plants,” Jim says.
One Christmas, Jim received another book that further cemented his plant obsession, “Japanese Maples” by J.D. Vertrees. “After I got that book, I was totally obsessive-compulsive to have all these different varieties of Japanese maples,” he says. “Japanese maples is what got me hooked on the industry more than anything else.”
Around 1986, Jim convinced his father to build three production greenhouses to start a growing division in the business. Each year, Greenbrier built a few more greenhouses, and the expansion continued after Jim’s graduation in 1989. “By the time we got to 1993 or 1994, we had about 50 or 60 houses,” Jim says. In 1997, Greenbrier Nurseries purchased another farm on which they built another 60 or 70 greenhouses. By that point, Greenbrier Nurseries had 20 acres of container nursery stock and five or six acres of greenhouse space.
Jim now owns Greenbrier Nurseries, a grower-retailer that produces annuals, perennials, edibles and woody plants. In 2016, Greenbrier won the Small Business of the Year award from the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce. Jim says that the competition was fierce, and they were incredibly honored to beat out the other candidates. “We were up against this tech firm that had all these amazing projects going on all over the world, and a company here that does software for pharmaceutical companies,” he remembers. “We were up against these companies and we’re a garden center selling food [at our CSA and farmers market], and we won. That was a big deal.”
Jim also founded and leads Hort Couture Plants, a plant brand that “brings innovative annual flowers, vegetables and herbs to the marketplace with style and fashion,” according to its mission statement. Since its launch in 2008, Jim has limited the plant sales to independent growers and garden center retailers so that they could “have proprietary new plant genetics to help them compete with the big box growth in the marketplace.” That means coleus with unique foliage, tomatoes with golden leaves, Monarch butterfly-supporting asclepias, and other interesting plants that appeal to consumers’ desire for something different and growing their own food. Jim depends on his strong relationships with breeders as he seeks out new and interesting plants to bring into the brand.
Jim has remained steadfast in this strategy and belief in supporting the independents, which has been noted across the industry. “Jim always said Hort Couture is for independent garden centers only,” industry colleague and owner of Peace Tree Farm Lloyd Traven says. “‘It will not go into any chains. It will not go into any groceries. I won’t do it.’”
Another significant way Jim has been a leader for independent businesses has been through the creation of IGC Talk, a private Facebook group exclusively for independent garden center retailers. Jim, Lloyd Traven, Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University Charlie Hall, retail garden center consultant John Stanley, and green industry consultant Sid Raisch co-founded it about six years ago as a community group and forum for independent retailers. “It seems like it’s a silly thing that it’s a Facebook page, but we are really impacting the industry,” Jim says. “That thing is like the social conscience of the industry.”
The topics of conversation on the IGC Talk page, which has a couple thousand members, can range from discussions about employee health benefits to product sourcing to problems with suppliers to simply sharing funny customer stories, Jim says. Lloyd describes IGC Talk as a “safe place to talk, to unload, to ask a question, to get information.” Jim founded it with one purpose — to push IGCs to communicate, innovate and improve their businesses. “To me it’s remarkable that he created that [safe space] and has kept that going for all this time,” Lloyd says. “[Jim] never gives up. He has a vision. And 99 percent of this industry simply repeats what they do over, and over, and over again. And he’s trying to change it up. Congratulations to him for doing it.”
There have been many examples of the real-life impact that this digital forum has had, Jim says. Earlier this year Sid started a discussion about spring pricing strategies that many retailers participated in, Jim says. In the spring, many of the retailers implemented those strategies and were able to increase their bottom line in a significant way. “I think it’s the most powerful voice in the industry,” Jim says. “The people on there are willing to say what they think, and they know that it’s not going to go back out into the industry.”
Jack of all trades
Throughout the years, Jim has gained experience through a variety of roles and responsibilities at Greenbrier Nurseries and Hort Couture, including greenhouse and nursery production, garden center retail, distribution, landscaping and plant genetics. “I have a unique, different perspective than most people because I’ve spent my whole life dealing with nearly every single facet of ornamental horticulture from growing food to garden center retail,” Jim says. He says that he has been able to carry out both the creative and the business-related tasks because he’s always been “pretty well-balanced between right brain and left brain.”
Jim says he’s lucky in that he loves what he does and is willing to work hard to accomplish his goals. “It’s not a job for me,” he says. “It’s who I am.”
Lloyd says that Jim is intelligent, charismatic and driven. “He has always had a vision of what he wants to do, and he’s willing to work incredibly hard to make that happen,” Lloyd says. “He’s relentless. He does not give up, ever, and he doesn’t stop. I have a lot of respect for that.” Jim doesn’t shy away from having difficult discussions and addressing sensitive topics. “He makes a difference because he talks about things that need to be said that are uncomfortable,” Lloyd says. “There are times when he gets on a roll and won’t let it go. And that’s exactly what we need. We need somebody who says the stuff that has to be said as an industry.”
When Jim’s not hunting for the next big plant for Hort Couture or running Greenbrier Nurseries, he enjoys golfing and playing the piano. “I guess at one point I thought I wanted to be a professional golfer,” Jim says. He had college scholarships to “two or three pretty good schools” to major in piano, and others to play golf. “I could’ve picked either one of those passions,” he says. While he may have pursued a career in horticulture, as his father did before him, instead of golf or piano, “Those two hobbies are things that I still love and still do.”
Looking for the next generation of plant people
Having been in the industry for his entire life in various roles, Jim has plenty of advice for young professionals, but says that the key advice he gives is, “Be ready to have a long day with a lot of different things going on.”
Greenbrier Nurseries works with Virginia Tech’s horticulture students, and Jim tells students to follow their passion. “If you are just sitting there in a major because this is what you maybe thought you wanted to do, and when you are closing the plant books you’re not thinking about plants at night or want to go out and look at plants when you’re not in school, you’re wasting your time,” he says. “Go do what you love.”
Although it can be a challenge to find and identify people like this, Jim says his best employees are those who share that same passion for plants and horticulture. It’s this passion that gets him through the chaotic moments. He may briefly question what he’s doing, but he loves horticulture and that “why” always brings him back to center.