90 years of Hemmings and hoeing
EASTON, Md. — You’ll likely find it difficult to narrow down your choices from among nearly 30,000 beautiful plants at Eastern Shore Nurseries in Easton.
The last retail nursery in Talbot County, Eastern Shore Nurseries has been serving gardeners in Maryland’s Middle Eastern Shore for 90 years.
Ernest Hemming and his son, Sam, started what was then strictly an English boxwood nursery in January 1929. Nine months later, on Oct. 29, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression.
Ernest, who was trained at the Royal Botantic Gardens at Kew, in London, had immigrated from England and worked at nurseries in Colorado and Philadelphia before moving to Easton. Sam earned a degree in botany from the University of Maryland.
To survive, the nursery diversified into a landscape nursery, doing anything and everything.
Fortunately, in the summer of 1930, the new owner of an estate in Easton came in who wanted trees on the property moved.
The Hemmings arranged for their eight to 10 employees to work for her from January through March for $1,000 a month.
Out of that, the employees were paid wages of about 25 cents an hour. That got them through the winter in a period when the liners they had planted in the ground were not yet ready to sell.
Mike, born in 1943, started in the nursery — “getting in the way” — at age 5. He was working unpaid with a hoe in summers at the age of 7, 8 and 9. He graduated to driving tractors at age 12.
“My first paying job was to pick up Chinese chestnuts to be planted,” Mike said. “Later in my teens, I planted the chestnuts.”
The USDA distributed Chinese chestnut seedlings in 1930, 25 to a grower, in an effort to replace the nut production of American chestnut trees lost to the chestnut blight, a lethal fungus infection.
The effort replenished the nut supply, but not the lumber industry, which had depended on some 4 billion trees growing on 200 million acres in the eastern half of the nation.
Whereas the American chestnut grows tall and straight, Chinese chestnut trees grow crooked. “They’re picturesque, but not good for lumber,” Mike said.
The Hemmings developed a special way of planting the nuts so that shoots grew straight. Consequently, they became big producers of Chinese chestnut trees.
“When you look today at producers of Chinese chestnuts you may find that they are ‘Hemming Strain’ because they came from here,” Mike said.
Signs at the nursery today warn of falling chestnuts from the aged trees that shade the parking lot.
Mike spent six years on a submarine with the U.S. Navy.
He had plenty of time to decide whether he wanted to enter the family business.
With a degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland, he returned to the nursery in 1973, when the firm was still an in-ground, landscape nursery.
“We had very few containers except for pyracantha, which is difficult to dig up,” he said. “I started growing more in containers, and the more containers we had, the more I liked the results and the ease of harvest. So I planted more containers.”
Sam retired from full-time work at the nursery in 1975, but kept his hand in until his death in 1984.
Mike took over the helm and in 1980, he changed the business from a landscape nursery to a container-grown operation.
The plants are overwintered in 19 plastic-covered greenhouses and a propagation house.
The landscaping ended for a variety of reasons, including complaints from Mike’s wife, Florence Birge Hemming, that landscaping took too much time away from the nursery.
Mike and Flo’s only offspring, Larry, started “getting in the way” in the nursery at age 6 or 7.
He started work officially at 14.
After high school, he went away to the University of Maryland to study ornamental horticulture, then studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Photography.
He returned to the nursery some 30 years ago, joining the company full-time in 1990. Larry is a Certified Professional Horticulturist and is also certified in plant identification and IPM and pest control.
Flo runs the office and passed her Certified Professional Horticulture test in 1995. Larry’s wife of 29 years, Lori, helps out in the office part-time.
Most of the employees are long-term. The foreman — or forewoman — is Shawan Lake, who started in 2007. Jason Boyd has worked for the nursery a total of 6 years, returning recently after a few years’ absence.
The fifth generation, Larry’s children, Rosalie and Robert, worked at the nursery during summers. Rosalie and her husband, Ben, and daughter, Everly, now live in Salisbury. Robert is now a full-time employee.
The nursery carries mostly shrubs and trees, a full range of Encore azaleas, crape myrtles, English boxwood, forsythia, Endless Summer and Blushing Bride hydrangea, Knock Out roses, nandina, Kaleidoscope abelia, lilacs and many perennials. Hollies include English, American, Japanese and hybrids. Flo also has developed quite a selection of hostas.
Sales are about 30 percent wholesale, 70 percent retail, drawing customers from mostly Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester and Queen Anne’s counties.
“A lot of local landscapers use us as a one-stop shop. We will order special plants for them,” Mike said.
For more than 40 years, Sam wrote a bimonthly column for the American Nurseryman Magazine called “This Business of Ours.” Mike uses the same title for his quarterly column in the Freestate News, a magazine of the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association Inc.
Both Mike and Larry invest time in the nursery industry, following the example of Mike’s grandfather, father and uncle, who were all presidents of the association.
Mike, Ernest and Sam all were given professional achievement awards. Larry is now first vice president of MNLGA and will be president for a two-year term starting in January.
Meanwhile, he will gradually ease into taking control of the nursery.
“I don’t intend to stop working,” Mike said, “but it’s time for him to run it. I preach that ’the gray beards’ need to make sure their children have handled all facets of the business before they drop dead,” he said bluntly. “I’ve seen businesses where the old generation did not do that, and it’s not good.
“Pop retired a little quickly on me. He was still there for advice, but it was uncomfortable for me for a while.”
One problem was that both men were scheduling landscape jobs, sometimes on the same day. Even recently, Mike ordered 50 gold mop cypress; Flo ordered 50, and Larry ordered 25. Things worked out well, fortunately.
The mass of gold mops “made a statement” and they sold well.
Mike told Larry, “I’m not leaving. I’ll let you be the boss.”
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925