Surf and Turf
Oliver Gardner's roots run deep in an agricultural section of northern Maine known for potato farming. With a faint Yankee accent, he pronounces it po-da-do. But the 55-year-old Charlotte resident is as much a man of the sea as he is of the soil. Red pins dot a world map in his Williston office to indicate the many far-flung places he's visited aboard his 38-foot sailboat. Now docked in Hawaii, the Panacea carried him 24,000 nautical miles between 1984 and 2001. These voyages took place during 17 of the 25 years he's owned the Four Seasons Garden Center, which recently moved to new digs near the town's "big boxes."
An earthy aroma permeates the 10-acre site, thanks to the plants flourishing in 9,600 square feet of glass -- not plastic -- greenhouses. The business, which is in the final stages of construction, also accommodates 17,000 square feet of retail space for the tools, pots and doodads that appeal to those who fancy their thumbs green. Although he's too busy now to get down and dirty with the store's vegetation, Gardner grows more than 100 rose bushes in 25 varieties each summer at the home he shares with his wife Gayle, the entrepreneur of a Williston tile company. He has no children of his own but says, "I enjoy gathering up the neighborhood kids on my golf cart so they can cut roses for their parents."
SEVEN DAYS: I have a silly question. Did being born a Gardner destine you for a career in gardening?
OLIVER GARDNER: I'm reminded quite often of the link between my name and my profession. When I graduated from the University of Maine at Fort Kent in 1970, I wanted to be a teacher. And I did that at the Lawton School in Essex, with sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
SD: Why did you choose Vermont?
OG: I followed a summer romance with a UVM student here.
SD: How long did you teach?
OG: Four years. I became interested in Christmas tree farming, which seemed like an opportunity to make money. In 1973 I bought 52 acres of abandoned land in New Brunswick for $2,500. That included a five-bedroom farmhouse, a hay barn, an apple orchard and a trout stream. The idea was to cultivate an existing stand of balsam firs. The Canadian government subsidized us and provided technical support.
OG: My business partner was [Burlington Mayor] Peter Clavelle's brother, Ray.
SD: Where did you sell your trees?
OG: We didn't stay there long enough to actually bring any trees to market. It was too much to handle. By 1978 we had dropped our efforts and let the place go wild.
SD: What was your next step?
OG: I took courses -- ornamental horticulture and landscape architecture at UVM and business at Champlain College -- while working at a local nursery. Then I purchased Four Seasons, which was 10 years old at the time.
SD: Did you know how to run it?
OG: I had little retail experience, so I learned everything by the seat of my pants. There were several advantages: Gardening is a very healthy industry; the location was excellent; the economy of the Burlington area has remained strong; and I was always fortunate to employ people with wonderful work ethics. Those things, plus a low overhead, allowed me to make mistakes and recover from them.
SD: What kinds of mistakes?
OG: It took me a while to develop my focus. At first, I had a landscape division and sold power equipment, like lawnmowers, tractors and chainsaws. Also another greenhouse in Waterbury Center. By 1988, I had pared that down to just my retail operation and what's called re-wholesaling -- supplying landscapers, contractors, schools and municipalities who buy at a high volume with a discount.
SD: How has the company changed in a quarter-century?
OG: We went from eight employees to 60. And our sales volume improved: On a typical May weekend in 2002, it was as much as an entire year in 1978.
SD: Are your responsibilities different now?
OG: I became more disabled in the early 1980s. I have a nerve disease in my spinal cord that is undiagnosed; there's no name for it. That's why I use a wheelchair. I can get where I need to with a walker, but I'm just not as graceful as I used to be. So that has meant less manual labor and more office work.
SD: Do you have a daily routine?
OG: I get to the pool to exercise by 7 a.m. I'm at work by 8:30 or 9. Then I try to visit most of our departments. I rarely leave before 7 or 8 p.m. I always work at least a 10-hour day. And I'm on the job to some extent seven days a week.
SD: That's intense.
OG: Well, nobody around here has much sympathy for my long days. For 16 years, I left each fall to sail the South Pacific or French Polynesia, returning in March or April.
SD: Are you blessed or plagued with wanderlust?
OG: I do have a sense of adventure. Because of my disability, I had to give up skiing, racket-ball and other sports. Sailing was one thing I could keep doing. It's not always safe, though. In 1996, I passed through the Panama Canal, spent two weeks in the Galapagos, then 26 days to get to French Polynesia, where I fell on the boat and fractured my hip.
SD: Were you stranded?
OG: A chartered plane flew me to Tahiti. After surgery, I was in the hospital for 17 days. A friend brought me the boat. Three days later, I fractured my femur a second time. Another operation, another 11 days to recover. I came back to Vermont for rehab. After seven weeks, I fell and broke my femur for the third time. Ten months go by. I return to the Panacea and experience two cyclones on the island of Raiatea.
SD: That would be enough to make me a landlubber forever.
OG: I haven't gone anywhere since November 2001 because of the construction. I've been consumed with what to build, who would build it and how I was going to pay for it. Sailing is still an important part of my life, but I doubt I'll ever be gone all winter again.
SD: Why not?
OG: Because the workload has increased and because it's too much fun to be here. My only disappointment is that the growth of the business prevents me from being hands-on with the product and meeting the customers.
SD: Is that an autographed poster of Ernest Hemingway on the wall?
OG: Yes. It might be a lithograph. I bought it in Havana for 50 cents in about 1995. Who knows if the signature is real? But Hemingway's my man.
SD: Your Old Man and the Sea?