Who is Mike McGroarty?
This is my story:
(It’s a little on the ugly side.)
I grew up in the small town of Perry, Ohio. Not much in Perry except plant nurseries, and we have about 130 wholesale growers within about a 10 mile radius of my house. I still live within a mile of where I grew up. I find that very comforting.
I met Pam in 1970 while still in high school. We graduated high school in 1974 and were married in 1976. Our oldest was born in 1982 and he and his wife have now blessed us with two beautiful grandchildren whom we love to death. Our second son was born in 1987 and he is now in his second year at the University of Cincinnati.
In 1970 I landed a job in one of the local nurseries. I had no interest in plants, but I needed a job!
This was a large wholesale nursery so in my two years there I learned a lot and I think I did every job in the nursery at least once.
First two days I pulled weeds for 8 hours. Actually I had to work two days before the boss would he tell me that I was hired. He said; “Work Saturday and Sunday then come and see me on Monday afternoon. If you’re any good you’ll have a job.”
I wanted that job bad so I bent over at 7:30 am and never stood up until the end of the day. I’d never seen so many weeds!
In those two years I:
Pulled weeds, built mini hoop houses, pulled orders, loaded semi trucks, picked up balled plants in the field, made cuttings, worked on crews machine digging balled trees, worked on bare root crews, packed bare roots plants into packages during the winter, made cuttings, potted thousands of plants and last but not least shoveled chicken stuff.
I also spent some time driving truck and picking up plants from other nurseries. I met a lot of people who would later be important in my business life.
I couldn’t wait to get out of that nursery and after high school graduation I went to work for a landscape contractor. I liked landscaping and quickly realized that while working in the nursery I learned a lot more about plants than I had realized. In 1976 I started doing some landscaping on my own, on a part-time basis.
I needed a winter job so I took a job delivering gasoline and fuel oil to homes and small businesses. This job took me into even more nurseries. Since it was winter they weren’t that busy and I’d visit with them in their greenhouses, picking their brains as I watched them make cuttings, all the while making mental notes. I had no idea that I’d ever use that information, but it was compiling in my head.
In 1979 I took the plunge and went “whole hog” as they say into the landscaping business on a full time basis. I bought a lot of equipment and took on a lot of debt. I also started growing nursery stock, and had two fields full of plants.
By late 1979 the economy took a huge downturn and the entire country was in a major recession. By this time I had only been in business about six months.
Home interest rates shot up to 14%, so you can imagine what the interest rate was on credit cards and other debt.
I was in serious financial trouble, but I didn’t know it yet.
I hung on kicking and scraping trying to find enough landscape work to pay my enormous monthly bills, but it was getting more difficult by the day.
In the fall of 1980 I had landscaped the home of a local nursery owner who had a very large bare root operation so I went to work for him in the late fall helping to get all of the bare root plants dug and into the barns. Then we’d spend the winter working in the barn grading plants and making hundreds of thousands of hardwood cuttings.
I spent two winters working in those barns and learned a lot. Of course by then I was very active in the landscaping business so I spent a great deal of time at wholesale nurseries buying plants, and of course picking their brains all I could.
By August of 1983 things had really gotten difficult for me, and I just couldn’t see how I could hang on any longer. I was desperate and depressed.
But one day while driving to a landscape job I got an idea . . . a way to sell “really easy to do” landscape jobs. You know, those quick and easy jobs where you can make a few hundred dollars in just a matter of hours.
It was a long shot, and huge gamble, but I was desperate.
So I took the grocery money, the last $150 I had to my name, and bought an advertisement in a small coupon book, hoping and praying that it would work. The coupon book was scheduled for mid September, but the guy selling the ads didn’t pay the printer so the coupon book did not get printed. Eventually they got it worked out and the coupon book was mailed in mid October, but it was already too late in the season to sell any landscaping.
I least that’s what I thought.
All of a sudden the phone started ringing and within days I sold $5,000 worth of really easy to do landscape jobs.
I couldn’t believe it! The ad actually worked! I was excited.
Meanwhile they had turned off my electricity at home, but at least now I had the money to get it turned back on.
I also had a little problem with the IRS and now I was going to be able take care of it.
Actually it wasn’t that little, I owed them about $5,600 and they were piling on the interest and penalties. That was a lot of money in 1983.
But they told me that if I brought them $1,200 by November 1st they’d reinstate my re-payment agreement. Since I was busy I was letting the money build up in my checking account so I could pay them as promised on November 1st.
On October 21st it all hit the fan. All of a sudden my checks started bouncing like crazy from everywhere. I had been doing a lot of landscaping so I was writing a lot of checks for plants, topsoil, mulch, labor and past-due bills.
All of sudden all of those checks bounced, and it seemed like it all happened on the same day. My bank was calling, my suppliers were calling, and I had no idea what was wrong, so I went to the post office to get my mail.
The IRS had attached my bank accounts. Despite the fact that the woman in the IRS office told me I had until November 1st to catch up my payments, which would have been a total of $1,200, she decided to help herself to all of my money nine days early.
When she asked me these two questions I should have seen it coming:
“How are you going to make that payment?”
and . . .
“What bank will you draw that check on?”
We agreed to a payment of $1,200.
She took all the money that we had, which amounted to $2,200. And she took it 9 days sooner than we agreed to. Because they took all of the money in all of my accounts and I had already written checks on close to half of that money, many of my checks bounced.
The check I had written for my commercial business insurance bounced. The next day one of my employees rear-ended a car with my dump truck pushing that car into another and injuring and hospitalizing one person.
This was getting uglier by the second.
The girl at the bank called out of a courtesy to me and said two of my checks were returned NSF and offered to hold them for a few days until I could make them good. I’d been banking there for years and had never bounced a check. I had to tell her that I could not make them good and to do what she had to do.
They cleaned out my business checking account, Pam’s personal checking account, and we had exactly $1.79 in our personal savings account. They actually wrote out a cashier’s check for $1.79 to the Internal Revenue Service with me as the remitter.
At the time I was devastated and couldn’t even think straight. But today I wish I’d kept the receipt they mailed me for that $1.79 cashier’s check made payable to the IRS. I’d hang it on the wall of my office as a reminder of how far we’ve come.
Soon it was December 1983 and I was as broke as you could get.
I had no money, no credit, no job, and a wife and a baby. And I was now mentally defeated.
I realize that I owed the IRS the money because in those 4 years in business we had one fairly profitable year and I had no idea that I was supposed to be making estimated tax payments. I was very young, but I was smart enough to hire an accountant.
Just not smart enough to hire a good one.
I went to see an attorney and he told me I had no choice but to file bankruptcy.
That hurt more than you can ever know.
I just couldn’t understand how you could work so hard, treat people fairly, run an honest business, and end up in this much trouble. But it happened, and it’s difficult to even write about it today.
I’ve decided to share this painful story because it’s part of my life, and it was pivotal in how I ended up doing what I do today. I want people to know that I didn’t learn this business by reading books written by others. I learned it crawling around on my hands and knees in the dirt, trying to feed my family after my first business failed.
The attorney told me that once he filed the papers the creditors would have to leave us alone and we could start rebuilding our lives and using our bank accounts again.
A year earlier I had started doing residential furnace repairs during the winter to offset the seasonal landscaping business, so in December we got a cold snap and I managed to earn $500 in a few days. I put the money in the bank so we could pay some bills and the IRS took it!
I called my attorney and he just shrugged it off. Finally he agreed to give them a call and they immediately put the money back in my account. That made me feel better. The next day the bank took my $500 and refused to give it back because I owed them money. They suggested that I could sue them.
There went my $500. I was broke again.
By spring of 1984 I decided that despite all of the setbacks, I was going to start my business all over again because I knew when I ran that little ad the previous fall, right before it all hit the fan, that I was onto something.
But this time I had no money nor credit to get started again. I’d have to start with absolutely nothing. And I did.
Nobody supported my decision to start back up. And I mean nobody. This time I was on my own.
1984 and 1985 went okay. I made some money and managed to keep my bills paid. But by mid 1985 I was tired of constantly hustling a buck anywhere I could to make ends meet, so in the fall of 1985 I took a job as a meter reader.
At least I now had benefits and a paycheck every week. I was 29 years old and we had a three year old son.
I kept landscaping and repairing furnaces in my spare time. Of course it really wasn’t “spare” time because I was working non-stop, day and night.
For the next 11 years I worked at my day job and worked evenings and Saturdays re-landscaping three homes a week from April through September. Trust me, re-landscaping three homes a week is no easy task. It took every once of energy that I had.
During the fall, spring and winter I repaired hundreds of furnaces at all hours of the night. Often going days with very little sleep.
We managed to pay all of our bills, and I went back and repaid all of the nurseries and other suppliers that I owed money to when my business failed. Three years later we bought our first house. By that time we’d been married 12 years.
For those first 12 years we had rented this little tiny, not-so-nice of a house. But the elderly lady we rented from turned out to be a great friend. At first she was very stern and businesslike, but when we got into trouble and were late with the rent she was very kind and most considerate of our situation. When I attended her funeral I couldn’t help but think about how kind to us she had been. There’s still a special place in my heart for her.
By then it was 1988 and the house we bought was the little brick ranch you see in the photos on the Backyard Nursery Page.
In 1989 I started growing some plants in the backyard as more of an investment than anything else. I bought 1,000 Rhododendron for $1.00 each, and 1,000 Dwarf Alberta Spruce for $1.00 each. My plan was to just grow them for a few years and sell them to one of the local wholesalers, which is what I did.
But I just kept adding 500 of this and 500 of that, then we filled my buddy’s backyard with plants, then another friend owned an empty lot down the road and we filled that with plants as well. Pretty soon we had quite the nursery going.
After several years of that I decided that I was tired of digging balled trees and carrying them out of the field and onto the truck. I had been doing that kind of work since 1970 and I’d had enough.
So I started growing plants in small containers and selling them to retail customers at our own plant sales. First for $4.00, then we raised the price to $4.97.
They sold like hotcakes and each year we’d sell out completely so the next year we’d grow more. We’d sell all of those so I’d up the numbers.
In 1994 I decided to write a gardening book. I tried not to let many people know that I was writing a book, because those that knew just sort of rolled their eyes at me. I sat on my book for a year afraid to publish it.
Then in 1996 I did something really crazy and spent $4,000 to have 3,000 copies of the book printed. I didn’t have $4,000 dollars so I put it on a credit card. A bold move I know, but I had done the math a hundred times and I knew I could make it work.
Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself and take some chances if you want your life to change.
I’ve now sold them all and that book is now out of print and has been replaced with my new book, “Easy Plant Propagation”.
It wasn’t until I got on the internet in 1999 that the books really started to sell, then shortly after that we started teaching others how to Start Their Own Backyard Nurseries.
The website kept getting busier and busier and each year we sold more and more small plants right out of our backyard.
Then in 2002 something surreal happened. At least in my world it was surreal. I had sent Mother Earth News Magazine a news release in October 1999 hoping they would publish a little tidbit about my website and our nursery. Nothing happened.
Then in May of 2002, out of the blue I get a call from the editor of the magazine asking me to write an article for the magazine. “Me write the article?”
For the next couple of months we played Email tag with my article with light editing here and there. Then I get another phone call. They want to fly their graphic artist and a professional photographer from the Big Apple to take photos of me, the family and the backyard!
“Okay. I guess we can do that.”
When she gets there she is talking about the cover of the magazine! Now I’m nervous and they’ve got me posing like a centerfold for this photo. Five hours of picture taking later they are gone.
For a “Dumb Ole Dirt Farmer”, this is the equivalent of getting your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. They gave us four pages inside the magazine with more photos of me, Pam and the kids. Even the dog made the magazine.
Shortly after this issue came out Pam and I took a weekend trip up to Niagara Falls and went into a shopping mall in Canada and right there on the magazine rack were about six issues starring me in the face.
Let me tell ya, that will get your attention and stop you in your tracks. At that moment I knew it was real.
Meanwhile I was still working full time, Pam was working full time, we were running the Backyard Nursery, and now I was Really working more and more hours on the internet end of the business.
Things were getting hectic, but we were also quickly paying off all of our debts thanks to some secrets that I learned from my “new good friend” Leo Quinn. Leo is the “Get Out of Debt Expert” and a dear friend of mine.
Then my parents started having more and more health issues and I was spending more time helping my dad with his yard. By the end of 2001 he wasn’t able to do much at all, and my mom was also having a lot of problems.
Taking care of two yards, a nursery, an internet business and a full time job was getting to be a challenge. Not to mention the many late night trips to the emergency room. And of course still trying to have a normal life and watch Kevin play baseball several nights a week.
In February of 2003 we lost my dad on a Thursday evening. On that Saturday my brother and Pam and I were at the funeral home making arrangements when my mother called us up and she was hysterical. The poor thing was already stressed, but she decided to call the family doctor and tell him that my father had passed away. While on the phone she managed to get him to give her the results of a biopsy that had been done on her earlier that week.
It came back positive, she had lung cancer. And he told her so over the phone!
We buried our father on Monday, took mom to the oncologist on Tuesday and she started chemotherapy on Wednesday. She wasn’t strong enough for chemotherapy so that did not go well at all. She was very, very sick.
Soon it was spring and we had a backyard full of plants that had to be sold. Just before we started our spring plant sales my sister announced that she was moving to Yuma, Arizona. They had been planning this move for a long time. That left my brother and I to take care of mom who was very, very ill.
Needless to say, life was more than a little bit crazy. We had more plants than we’d ever sold before, and the internet business just kept getting busier and busier.
Pam and I had planned on moving to a different home as soon as Kevin graduated high school. I planned on running the Backyard Nursery until then. But with the death of my father, and Mom in very poor health, a full time job, and a busy internet business, Pam wanted to have just one last plant sale. I wanted to go at least one more year because I had at least 8,000 Rooted Cuttings that we could pot up and sell.
Common sense prevailed and Pam was right. There was just no way I could keep going at the pace that I was going. We decided that we would hold our Last Plant Sale.
With every plant priced at only $4.97, in just about 4 weeks time we sold $25,783. worth of small plants from our driveway.
That plant sale was significant.
We paid off our house, and every other debt we had. With the money from the plant sales each year we were methodically getting rid of all of our debts and that last sale made us debt free.
By then I was physically and mentally exhausted. My mom wasn’t doing well at all, and she died exactly 363 days after my father. It was a very emotional time for everybody. That would have been late winter, 2004.
After Mom’s death life was starting to look a little bit normal. The internet business was getting busier all the time, and I was and still am working a full time job.
Sometime in early December of 2005 a house right around the corner from us went up for sale. We weren’t in the market for a house at the time, but Pam suggested we go look at it just to see how it was laid out.
I called my brother the realtor and told him we wanted to see this house, and to run comparisons on a few other houses in the area just so I’d know if the price was fair.
We decided to look at the four houses that day. Since we really weren’t serious about buying a house we were pretty much in and out of the houses in a few minutes.
. . .until we got to the fourth house.
Pam fell in love with the place and 60 minutes into our little Sunday outing we bought a house on the spot.
Two weeks later Pam was diagnosed with cancer.
Here it is two weeks before Christmas, and our world has been turned completely upside down. I have a very sick wife, a house to sell, a house to get moved into, a busy internet business, a full time job, and a high school senior searching for a college.
This was another very difficult time for all of us.
I am very happy to report that more than three years and a great deal of medical treatment, Pam is doing fine and cancer free. Kevin is in his 3rd year at the University of Cincinnati and I have hired Kathy to help me with the internet business.
I’m still working that full time job because I’ve put 23 years into a pension and health care and I refuse to let that slip away. I’m still as busy as ever, but it’s manageable.
And we love the new house!
I now live on the property that I played on as a child. I couldn’t feel more at home in this house.
Do I miss growing plants?
Absolutely I do, and there is always retirement in a few years if I want to start back up.
But in reality I’m still in the nursery business. I talk the nursery business every day on the Backyard Growers Message Board. And I enjoy every minute of it.
Words cannot explain the great deal of satisfaction I get when I view the photos of all of the Backyard Nurseries all over the country that I’ve helped spawn.
I am so very proud of all of those people, and they consider me a part of their dream.
That’s our story. Some nursery people get mad at me for teaching this business to others. But I’ve earned the right to do what I do, and most of my friends in this business admire what I’ve achieved.
In the Backyard Growers Group we truly are a very large family, but we get along better than most families.
At different times of the year we get together just so we can meet one another in person.
So yes, I really am still in the nursery business watching others live their dreams!
Thanks for reading my story.
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P.S. Way back in 1983 when I was in so much financial trouble it was interesting to see how some people responded to my problems.
One small nursery had two of my checks returned to her for insufficient funds. She called and when I told her what was going on this is what she said; “Mike, you just forget about us. You take care of your family. I know you’ll make it right when you can.”
Another guy, practically a perfect stranger said just about the same thing.
I still remember how kind they were.
Another longtime, so-called friend, decided to pile on and did everything he could to make things more miserable.
I remember him too.