In 1971, two friends started a gardening business on a half acre of land in Merrifield. This year, the Merrifield Garden Center will be celebrating its 40th Anniversary, and the four decades that have seen the business expand to a hundred-acre, multi-store leader in Northern Virginia gardening and landscape design.
“It’s been a great ride,” said Kevin Warhurst, a manger at the garden center and son of its owner and founder, Bob Warhurst. The garden center found its proverbial roots in Bob’s trash collection business, which expanded into his second-hand store The Trading Post when Bob began selling the valuables found on his route.
The wares sold at The Trading Post diversified, and Bob found the most joy in selling plants, which set into motion his plan to open a garden center. Enlisting the help of his neighbor, Buddy Williams, then a Fairfax County fireman, and their wives, Billie Jean and Doris, Bob opened shop in a little red barn at the corner of Lee Highway and Gallows Road on April 9, 1971.
“It’s been a labor of love for them and our families for a number of years,” Kevin said.
Kevin, the youngest of five children, said he grew up in the business, recalling his early career track in the company – from coming into the store to help his mother price products for the reward of a slurpee from the 7-Eleven across the street, to helping out after high school let out and during his summers home from college. After three years working for the U.S. Senate upon graduating from college, Kevin returned to the company and has been there ever since.
While Bob has stayed on as the company’s president, management has been passed down to the next generation of the Warhurst and Williams family.
“We’ve each found our own path,” Kevin said, “but we’re all here.”
Bob and Billie Jean’s five children – Debbie, Rob, Larry, Donny and Kevin – and Buddy and Doris’ three children – Wanda, Hal and Kim – all work for the company, as well as dozens of other members of the family, whom Kevin says have all found tasks to perform suited to their diverse interests.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Kevin said of working with so many of his family members. “But with the different locations and divisions, sometimes you can go days or weeks without seeing a sibling.”
While all of the company’s nearly 800 employees may not bear the Warhurst or Williams name, Kevin says they have become part of family, with about 25 having served the company for more than 25 years.
David Watkins, an operations manager at the garden center, is celebrating his 35th year with the company as it celebrates its 40th. He took a job with the garden center as a loader while in high school to earn money from college, and with an economics degree in hand found himself returning to the expanding company, where he would find a wife in a fellow employee, Joyce, and move up to a management position.
“I’ve met a lot of friends here,” Watkins said. “These are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to know. And, I get to put on jeans every day and be outside in the sun.”
“We’re proud of having so many wonderful people on our team,” Kevin said. “That’s what makes it work, having a good team of people.”
Kevin also attributes the business’ success to the leadership and drive of its founders.
“They were determined that we would be the best we could be, and that set a good example,” Kevin said.
For Merrifield Garden Center employees, that means anything from traveling to growers across the nation to hand-pick trees to learning as much as they can about the plants they carry. Kevin stressed the importance of this knowledge in the company and his staff’s willingness to educate customers on caring for the plants they purchase – be it through fielding their questions when they come into the store, hosting free seminars and workshops on topics ranging from proper pruning techniques to cooking with garden-grown herbs, or through their long-running weekly Saturday morning gardening advice TV show on Channel 8.
“If you love what you do, hard work comes naturally,” Kevin said. “You want to improve.”
Since starting the company at its original Merrifield location, the business has expanded to include stores in Fairfax and, most recently, in Gainesville, and additions like in-store cafes at Merrifield and Gainesville, and a dog park and a 37,000-square foot greenhouse in Gainesville.
While the past 40 years have seen the business grow from a four-person operation to one of the largest nurseries in the country, in looking to the future of the company, Kevin called upon his father’s motto: “As Dad always says, we don’t rest on past accomplishments.”