Strong Roots Grow a Century-old Business

By Ann Thelen

When a seed is planted, you never know exactly how far that seed will go or how much it will grow. It’s a metaphor for life, but also true of the plants, flowers and trees all around us. A century later, the seeds that Earl May planted for his company are still vividly blooming today.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Earl May Seed & Nursery and Garden Centers. At a time when many brick and mortar retailers are being replaced with point and click online transactions, this Shenandoah-based business is thriving and just opened its newest store in Grimes.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Earl May Seed & Nursery and Garden Centers. At a time when many brick and mortar retailers are being replaced with point and click online transactions, this Shenandoah-based business is thriving and just opened its newest store in Grimes. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Earl May Seed & Nursery and Garden Centers. At a time when many brick and mortar retailers are being replaced with point and click online transactions, this Shenandoah-based business is thriving and just opened its newest store in Grimes. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association

Deanna Anderson, director of marketing for the company, says that Earl May’s success is grounded in a straightforward approach.

“Since our humble beginnings a century ago, we’ve stayed true to our mission and philosophy. We value being part of the communities we’re in and develop long-term relationships,” she explains. “With a 100% satisfaction guarantee on our plants, flowers, bushes and trees, we offer trustworthiness that sets us apart from other similar businesses.”

Those relationships don’t stop in the community. Anderson has worked for family-owned company for 17 years and likes that every employee is known on a first-name basis. Four generations of the May family, including those managing the organization today, lead a team of 150 full-time employees and in the spring, the busiest season of the year, that number grows to 650. The business has 29 retail locations in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas and a corporate office in Shenandoah.

Strong Roots

Earl May has always evolved around its founder and namesake, Earl E. May. Born and raised on a farm in Nebraska, Earl was passionate for education. He graduated from the University of Michigan and from the School of Law at the University of Nebraska. While at the University of Nebraska, he met Gertrude Welch of Shenandoah. Earl and Gertrude were married, and he went to work for his father-in-law, E.S. Welch, at the Mount Arbor Nurseries. In 1919, with the financial help of E.S. Welch, the May Seed & Nursery Company was born.

“The company’s ability to grow and expand were because of Earl’s dynamic personality. He surrounded himself with many capable individuals, who helped build the company into a successful mail order and retail business,” Anderson explains.

In the early 1920s, Earl was intrigued by the value radio presented to the company. After gaining broadcasting experience at a radio station in Omaha, he built his own radio station. In 1925, radio station KMA hit the airwaves – a perfect medium to build name recognition of his young company.

Radio blossomed quickly. Soon KMA, Earl May and the community of Shenandoah were household words throughout a large portion of the U.S. In 1926, Earl was named the world’s most popular radio announcer by Radio Digest. Two decades later, his son Edward would go on to create KMTV in Omaha – making the May family pioneers in both radio and television in the Midwest.

Growing the Business

During the early years, the May Seed & Nursery Company grew, and the first retail outlet outside of Shenandoah opened in Lincoln, Nebraska. By the spring of 1932, more stores opened, including those in Omaha; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Fort Dodge.

“These stores were not “Garden Centers” as we know them today, but instead carried primarily garden seed and nursery stock – all in downtown storefront locations. Some locations were open year-round, with others just in the spring, Anderson says.

“In 1938, and as significantly more stores were added, Earl decided to operate all the stores year-round. Fertilizer, insecticides and related items were added to the existing lines of merchandise creating the full array of a lawn and garden product selection that are visible in stores today.”

The company’s earliest successes were both in the mail-order seed business and in-store retail locations. Ironically, when purchases today are made online many also come via the U.S. Postal Service. In many ways, Earl was far ahead of his time with the finesse in which he navigated both aspects of the business.

Carrying on the Green Thumb

Today, Gordon Sherman and Melinda Driskell, great grandchildren of Earl May are fourth-generation owners of the company.

Each Earl May carries a complete line of lawn and garden supplies, including seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and tools. Specialty items are private label lawn seeds, lawn and turf fertilizers, garden insecticides and fungicides. In the nursery line, there is a complete selection of trees, shrubs and evergreens. During the spring there is an almost unlimited selection of annual and perennial plants from which to choose.

“We do a lot of our own private labeling on lawn and garden supplies. We want to know exactly what is going into the products we sell. It’s another reason our customers trust us, Deanna says.

“The younger generation is more focused on where their food comes from, how it’s grown and with what products. There’s a resurgence of people wanting to do their own gardening. Container gardening, to accommodate gardening in smaller areas and urban properties, is popular.”

Part of the success of Earl May is growing and adapting to what customers want in planted items. In the 1930s and 1940s, food gardening was hearty but took a downturn in the 1980s when both parents in the household started having full-time jobs outside the home.

Time also eroded the catalog effectiveness, which once had an annual print run of 2 million copies. The spring catalog was last issued in 1991, and the company concentrated solely on the physical locations of its nursery and garden centers.

Today, shoppers can buy everything from rock and mulch to novelties and gifts through Earl May’s website and have the items ready to pick up in-store. Plus, the gifts and garden décor areas – where there’s an assortment of items to support Iowa’s college teams, girlfriend gifts, wind chimes, bird feeders and more – have expanded to offer a complete shopping experience.

Century Celebrations

Throughout 2019, the company has been celebrating its monumental anniversary, all with a focus on communities.

“True to our beginnings, we’re focused on community betterment and giving back,” Anderson says. “One initiative was a campaign to donate one tree for every 10 trees sold in each respective community. We’ll be planting 100 trees this fall at city parks and other public spaces where we have garden center locations.”

On Friday, June 21 to coincide with the summer solstice – the official start of summer – the company will host a territory-wide celebration in four states. The events are meant to be a nod to the Depression-era Jubilee Days the company once hosted. On that day, from 4-8 p.m. at each of the 29 locations, there will be promotions, special treats, make-and-take containers, kids’ games, live music and more.

Earlier in the year as part of its 100th-anniversary celebration, Earl May held a contest for the best salsa recipe. Paulette Marsh of Shenandoah submitted the following winning recipe.

Winning Freezer Salsa

Yield: 10 cups

INGREDIENTS:

  • 8 cups tomatoes – peeled, diced and seeded (Variety pick: Roma)

  • 2 medium green peppers, diced (Variety pick: Cal Wonder)

  • 2 large onions, diced (Variety pick: Red Onion)

  • 2 jalapeno peppers – seeded and chopped (for spicier salsa, do not seed)

  • ¾ cup tomato paste

  • ⅔ cup condensed tomato soup, undiluted

  • ½ cup white vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 2 tablespoons salt

  • 4 ½ tablespoons garlic powder

  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

DIRECTIONS:

In a Dutch oven or large saucepan combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir often.

Pour into small freezer containers or freezer bags. Cool to room temperature, about one hour. Cover or seal and freeze for up to three months.

Farming and gardening have a lot in common! Let's Grow Together – is a collaboration between the Iowa Food & Family Project and Earl May Nursery & Garden Center –encouraging Iowans to try their hand at food and flower gardening while learning firsthand the many similarities gardening has with farming. Both farming and gardening take hard work, spark ingenuity and inspire an intense appreciation for where food really comes from. Learn more about the Let’s Grow Together campaign.

Ann Thelen