Growing plants & people

2020 Horticultural Industry Leadership Awards - Advertorial

At Millcreek Gardens, George Pealer, along with his late wife Lynda, spent a career growing top-quality plants and trying to empower those around them to reach their potential.

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Fred Higginbotham III, growing operations manager, left, George Pealer, owner and general manager, Doug Heindel, sales, business development, and marketing manager, and Megan Armstrong, assistant general manager and business office manager

Growing up with his two brothers in Mount Vernon, Ohio, near Columbus, gardening was a chance for George Pealer to spend time with his dad.

“It wasn’t a huge garden, but that wasn’t the point,” George says. “He spent a few hours a week out there and he let me tag along.” When he got to high school, the Pealers moved to Bexley — a larger Columbus suburb — where George worked at Connell’s Flowers. At the time, it was one of the largest florists in Ohio.

“It was a bit of shock, but it was probably the best thing for me, moving away from a small town,” he says. “Connell’s had a greenhouse and a plant retail business, so I was able to work in the greenhouses and help out in the flower shop and receive flower shipments. It really got me interested in growing flowers.”

Today, George runs Millcreek Gardens, an annual, perennial and herb operation in Ostrander, Ohio — within driving distance of where he grew up. George founded the business in 1978 with his late wife Lynda.

In his career, George has served on the board of directors of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association and as the president of the Perennial Plant Association while Millcreek became one of the first nurseries in the Ohio Valley region to sell herbs on a wholesale basis. Today, he is still at the business every day, trying to help it grow and help every employee succeed.

“He’s at the forefront,” says Fred Higginbotham, Millcreek’s growing operations manager. “He will just come up and say, ‘Tell me where I can pitch in; tell me where I can help out.’ No job is too big or too small for George. People see that commitment he has.”

The defining relationship

In George’s last quarter at Ohio State, he met his future wife, Lynda, in a greenhouse management course. They started dating soon after.

“She was a very strong woman,” George says. “She went to Purdue University and had a degree in microbiology, and when she graduated, she worked at a medical center in Indianapolis doing cancer research. She realized after a year or two that she didn’t want to spend her life in a lab. She had been married, had children and got divorced.” George says Lynda came to Columbus with an interest in horticulture and knew Ohio State was a good opportunity for her to begin doing the kind of work she wanted. Ultimately, she got a horticulture degree from Ohio State.

The two married in 1977 and founded Millcreek Gardens a year later in February. Before starting the business, the two traveled together, visiting operations such as White Flower Farm, a nursery in Connecticut, and Gilbertie’s Organics, an herb farm in Connecticut, and thought the operations set a blueprint for them to found a business together.

At the beginning, George returned to work at Connell’s for three more years as the business got going. At Millcreek, they combined two passions — George’s for perennials and Lynda’s for herbs — into one combined vision. They settled down in Ostrander, located just outside of Columbus, and for a long time, Lynda grew the herbs day in and day out. When she took a step back from growing, she still helped behind the scenes.

“The thing that always impressed me about Lynda was that she loved herbs, and loved to cook with them, but couldn’t find them anywhere,” George says. “But we saw them [on our trip] and she thought it would be great to do them here. She was really a pioneer in our area for growing herbs in pots like you see now. It’s such an integral part of our company now. People know us for our perennials and our herbs.”

Lynda died on Christmas Eve in 2018, leaving behind George, six children and 12 grandchildren. She made an impact on everyone she met.

“She had extremely high standards,” says Nathan Pealer, George and Lynda’s son, who works in real estate. “She pushed everybody to be better. And since she had such high standards, everybody tried their best around her, be it her family or someone at work. She held herself to those same high standards, too.”

“She was only here for a couple of years when I started here,” says Higginbotham, “But I’d never seen a man have as much love for his wife as George had for her.”.

A potrait of George and his late wife, Lynda

Helping others grow

Higginbotham first visited the company in the early 2000s during an open house, recalling thathe was “blown away” by the facility even back then. After interning at Millcreek one summer and graduating from Ohio State the next spring, he joined the company in 2005. He started out as an assistant grower, became a head grower, and then was finally promoted to his current role as growing operations manager about five years ago.

From the time he first visited Millcreek, Higginbotham saw that George went out of his way to help him however he could.

“Throughout the years, the thing I can stay about George is that he’s the nicest guy ever,” Higginbotham says. “He treats everybody from seasonal employees to somebody who’s been here for 25 years exactly the same, always with a smile on his face. It’s one thing that sets George apart.” Higginbotham says that it is not uncommon for George to hop in and help with shipping, putting stickers on pots or bringing out cold Gatorades for the workers in the greenhouse.

Higginbotham adds that the culture George has created is the major reason he has stayed at the business and cannot imagine himself leaving any time soon.

“It’s about the people,” he says. “We have people that have been here 20, 25 years plus. Like any good organization, the good starts at the top and works its way down. And while George is very involved, he lets a lot of us on the management team have the freedom to do what we do and do our jobs. I’ve always appreciated that there’s a lot of trust involved here.”

Another employee George helped empower is Megan Armstrong, the company’s assistant general manager and business office manager. For the first part of her career, Armstrong was a grower working with gallon-size perennials and, in 2004, was named the Perennial Plant Association’s Young Professional of the Year. In 2012, she was promoted to assistant general manager, taking on responsibilities outside of growing like budgeting, staffing and overall company management.

According to Armstrong, it was a change she wanted, and one that George encouraged her to seek out.

“One of the biggest things is the trust George places in people,” she says. “He may challenge you for an idea, like developing a new product line for the slow season, but he’s not going to pigeonhole you. He wants your input, wants your ideas and is willing to go for it.”

Both Armstrong and Higginbotham both say that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, George has been essential in keeping the company connected while also prioritizing employee safety while working and trying to keep business as normal as possible.

For George, at the end of the day, empowering employees is part of the ethos he and Lynda set out to create when they founded Millcreek. To him, along with quality and profitability, values like integrity, leadership and teamwork are part of Millcreek’s DNA. Ultimately, a significant part of his legacy is helping people find their passion, just as his dad, his Ohio State professors, and his first employer did for him.

“Our mission statement is ‘growing high quality plants, people and relationships,’” George says. “For us, that says it all.”