It’s the short pause before the holiday season in mid-September at Yankton Nurseries, LLC. Staff have a moment to explore a new project or take a breather before the poinsettias growing in the greenhouse are ready for the holidays, shipment of Fraser fir Christmas trees arrive, fresh décor greenery is ready, and the garden store is stocked with gifts. For Yankton Nurseries, a significant change is that son Mike is back fulltime in the business.

“I am a sixth-generation nurseryman and grower. I was born and raised in Yankton. My parents, Tracy and Jay Gurney, have been in business for over 40 years. I have come off a three-year stint at Gilmore’s Greenhouse in Warren, Ohio to return to the family business,” Mike Gurney said. He assumes the role of greenhouse manager. Cathy Weiss is nursery manager. Jay is co-owner with Tracy and head grower.

“I’m back, but what that means precisely, is in the future,” he said. He’s worked here at the nursery in fulltime stints the past six years since graduation from University of South Dakota, where he double-majored in history and native studies.

One of Mike’s jobs as a kid at the nursery was watering the easy plants. He had no idea of how much goes into watering until he became a mindful adult.

“Watering is an important skill to master as a grower or nurseryman,” Mike said. “Plants need water and it takes a lot of time and energy. When you’re watering, you’re making thousands of decisions; plant to plant, flat to flat, and from one greenhouse to another. When you wake up, you try to determine what the weather will be that day. That impacts time management the rest of the day. You decide where you water first, and if you fertilize as well. It’s a face-to-face with plants.” He lifts baskets to determine the water needed by relative weight. He looks for signs of ill health in all the crops of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs that he tends.

When he worked at the Ohio greenhouse, it was a bigger operation, so the ones who helped customers in front didn’t have the direct care with plants.

“At Yankton Nurseries, the grower is the person watering. We’re a tight-knit family — all of us who work here. (He includes Cathy Weiss.) We have a direct relationship with plants we are growing,” he said. When discussing plants, the customer has access to the grower.

The Ohio greenhouse where Mike worked is also a USDA Zone 5 region, but is a little warmer and receives twice as much rain as here on the edge of the Great Plains. Today is sunny and windy, a reminder of the drying conditions that account for water evaporation here. He sees aspects that are alike and different to that greenhouse which may benefit him here.

The Ohio greenhouse is also a generational family business, but is larger due to its urban market near Youngstown and Cleveland. As a new worker there, Mike saw how having clear communication of duties helps the worker understand and do a better job. For seasonal workers, it saves time and effort.

“How deep do you plant seeds? Do you water soil before adding seed? How do you label flats? Which temperature greenhouse for plants?” he said. Lots of details impact the plant. Experience is also good teacher and sometimes one learns by mistakes if he can see he is wrong.

“If you never push boundaries of what you can accomplish, then you stagnate,” he said. He has experienced automation for repetitive tasks such as filling flats and seedling transplanters, and ways of bookkeeping and organizing tasks he’d like to try.

 

Mike’s Gurney Legacy

“People say this all the time: ‘I must really like plants.’ Well, I like to think it goes deeper than that, and maybe for me it’s not so much the plants, per se, as it is something else,” Mike said. Stay tuned.

“I never knew my grandfather Sid, let alone my Great Grandfather George, Jay’s father and grandfather. If I’m being considered a 6th generation nurseryman, then the first generation in this region was C.W. Gurney,” he said. C.W. served in the Civil War and later moved to Northeast Nebraska. His father, Alanzo Gurney was an orchardist in Ohio. C.W. was interested in the science of how to grow apple orchards and other fruit trees this far north and west where early settlers wanted fresh fruit to eat and were proving land claims. He wrote a book about his growing methods that was published in the 1890’s. Jay has a copy that Mike has read.

C.W. founded a company that became Gurney Seed Company in Yankton. His son George was considered a nurseryman. That company left family hands in the 1940’s. George had his own separate nursery for a while in the 1930’s.

“Jay’s grandfather George, Dad knew him well,” Mike said. “He worked at his house pulling weeds and trimming shrubs. Jay did gardening at a young age. He probably didn’t appreciate it yet, but George had started to train him. Sid, Jay’s dad, was one of the marketing people at Gurney Seed Company. Sid knew about the plant world, but the nurseryman knowledge about plants went from George to Jay.”

“Propagating shrubs, for example, you need to learn from someone who has done it,” Mike said. “From Jay, he taught, and continues to teach me. We continue to learn things together. C.W.’s book is not a hand-me-down rule book. It tells about how to graft apple trees. We don’t do that here. C.W. thought pruning trees was to the detriment of a tree. Now we think that pruning may help branches grow better naturally.”

C.W. had a preferred lawn grass seed formula that included white clover. Now that might not be acceptable,” he said. Turf specialists at University of Minnesota recently recommended adding clover to grass seed for sustainability in lawns that are not irrigated.

“An orchardist who wants to maximize trees in a small space keeps trees pruned for vigor and produce. For growing an apple tree in the backyard, you don’t need all that information,” Mike said.

“But, do I love plants? I like plants and have knowledge about them and can troubleshoot problems about them,” he said. “I feel like me, my father, and best I can tell, his parents liked to help people. Plants are the means. I am doing this as a trade. Jay and I are doing this as our life work. I like to talk with people and help them figure out problems with plants. Trees will not mark our accomplishments. If I were sappy, I’d say it’s the people we help along the way.”

“In a greenhouse, you grow plants from start to finish; from seed that you saved years ago. In a small town like Yankton, you get to see the results of that. If it’s a tree or shrub, Jay can show me the plants that came from us. It takes years or decades to see what plays out. Some trees will live longer than me. When you have responsibility for the plants, it makes you do a better job,” he said.

 

Why Yankton?

“Connection with all the parts of work is important to me and my dad and probably further back,” Mike said. “I like the challenges of the business; being hands-on with the product. I like being face to face with people and helping them out. I could do that in some other line of work, but I haven’t learned how to do something else.” He and Jay are open to trying new ideas.

“That’s why we are so diversified. We recently found a market for some of our seedless watermelons with school districts in the region. We want to test the waters with other projects in other directions too,” he said.

“We’re the family anchor here on both sides for generations,” he said. “It’s a sense of belonging.” Mike’s partner, Emily Lundgren, lived in Yankton as a child. “I am blessed to have a wonderful relationship with my family. Family businesses are difficult on many levels, because you are family. Hopefully we won’t drive each other crazy.”

“I see a lot of potential for Yankton and the surrounding communities. What makes any place special is what they can accomplish there. I see excellent opportunity here. We could go elsewhere to find opportunity, but I think it’s here. I like living here, too. It’s my connection with family and friends, people and geography. I think I’ve got the best shot here,” Mike said.

Thank you, readers, for your interest in the “Plant Exchange” topics this past year. The diversity of subjects come from the gardeners and plant professionals of this region. Thanks to all who have shared their skills and garden experiences with the rest of us.

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