Growing plants and people

2020 Horticultural Industry Leadership Awards - George & Lynda Pealer

At Millcreek Gardens, George Pealer, along with his late wife Lynda, spent a career growing top-quality plants and trying to empower those around them to reach their potential.

Subscribe
George Pealer, Millcreek Gardens

Growing up with his two brothers in Mount Vernon, Ohio, near Columbus, gardening was a chance for George Pealer to spend time with his dad.

“It wasn’t a huge garden, but that wasn’t the point,” George says. “He spent a few hours a week out there and he let me tag along.” When he got to high school, the Pealers moved to Bexley, Ohio — a larger Columbus suburb — where George worked at Connell’s Flowers. At the time, it was one of the largest florists in Ohio.

“It was a bit of shock, but it was probably the best thing for me, moving away from a small town,” he says. “Connell’s had a greenhouse and a plant retail business, so I was able to work in the greenhouses and help out in the flower shop and receive flower shipments. It really got me interested in growing flowers.”

After high school, George attended The Ohio State University and planned to study botany. He thought he might end up as a teacher before a class put him on the path of being a grower. Today, George runs Millcreek Gardens, an annual, perennial and herb growers in Ostrander, Ohio — within driving distance of where George grew up and attended school. George founded the business in 1978 with his late wife Lynda.

“I went to a horticulture class for freshman and that really made an impression,” he says. “That was all it took. I realized from then I wanted to be in horticulture. I didn’t know exactly what part, but I loved the flower part of it and Ohio State had wonderful floriculture faculty. It was really easy to get immersed in it.”

In his career, George has served on the board of directors of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association and as the president of the Perennial Plant Association while Millcreek became one of the first nurseries in the Ohio Valley region to sell herbs on a wholesale basis. Today, he is still at the business every day, trying to help it grow and help every employee succeed.

“He’s at the forefront,” says Fred Higginbotham, Millcreek’s growing operations manager. “He will just come up and say, ‘Tell me where I can pitch in; tell me where I can help out.’ No job is too big or too small for George. People see that commitment he has.”

Different kinds of education

During his time studying horticulture at Ohio State, George met three professors who had a major influence on him.

“There was Dr. Fred Hartman and he was the professor of pomology — the study of fruit production,” George says. “He actually taught that Horticulture 101 class and he ended up being my advisor the whole time I was at Ohio State. Another teacher was Dr. George Staby. He taught the perennials identification class and he also taught perishables research. His class was one of the things that solidified my career choice.” Jokingly, George says he liked Staby despite him being a graduate of longtime OSU rival Michigan State.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was well-known floriculture and greenhouse professor Dr. D.C. Kiplinger, whom everyone called Kip.

“He was also very instrumental in founding the Ohio Florists Association, which is now AmericanHort,” George says. “When I could have graduated with a degree in pomology, I decided to stay on a couple of extra quarters to take the greenhouse management class with Dr. Kiplinger, which turned out to be a life-changing thing because I knew I could be a grower and it’s where I met my wife, in one of his classes.”

Throughout his college career, George continued to work at Connell’s to pay his way through school. It is a decision he says only bolstered his education.

“I would take horticulture classes all day and then almost have a lab afterwards,” he says, “because I was using my hands and doing the stuff I was learning about.”

At Connell’s, George started out by cutting flowers. At the time, the business would receive large shipments of roses, carnations and other flowers from growers in California and Oregon. The in-house flower designers had different ways of using each kind of flower, so they each had to be cut in a certain way before being placed in buckets and coolers. Around the holidays, George also started helping out with deliveries and packaging shipments.

“The diversity of the plants we worked with was amazing,” he says. “Being the biggest florist in Ohio, we’d get in flowers that other people didn’t have, and we’d get them directly from another grower. We’d get them shipped in these massive boxes and you’d never know what exactly would be in there.”

George holds a portrait of him and his late wife Lynda
George next to a ginko tree Millcreek employees bought and planted in Lynda's honor
Lynda Pealer
Lynda and George in fall 1979;
Photo OF LYNDA AND George in 1979 AND PORTRAIT OF LYNDA COURTESY OF GEORGE PEALER

The defining relationship

In George’s last quarter at Ohio State, he met his future wife, Lynda, in a greenhouse management course taught by Kiplinger. They started dating soon after.

“She was a very strong woman,” George says. “She went to Purdue University and had a degree in microbiology, and when she graduated, she worked at a medical center in Indianapolis doing cancer research. She realized after a year or two of doing that she didn’t want to spend her life in a lab. She had been married, had children and got divorced.” George says Lynda came to Columbus with an interest in horticulture and knew Ohio State was a good opportunity for her to begin doing the kind of work she wanted. Ultimately, she got a horticulture degree from Ohio State.

Soon after he met her, though, George moved three hours away to Salem, Ohio, to work at a friend’s orchard. He had spent some college breaks working at orchards and thought that was the kind of work he wanted to spend this life doing.

“But I realized I really wanted to grow flowers and not apples and peaches,” he says. “When I left college, I really first thought I’d grow fruit and own a farm market. Plus, I missed my future wife and when I moved back to Columbus, we were able to spend time together, which was a good thing.”

The two married in 1977 and founded Millcreek Gardens a year later in February 1978. Before starting the business, the two traveled together, visiting operations such as White Flower Farm, a nursery in Connecticut, and Gilbertie’s Organics, an herb farm in Connecticut, and thought the operations set a blueprint for them to found a business together.

At the beginning, George returned to work at Connell’s for three more years as the business got going. At Millcreek, they combined two passions — George’s for perennials and Lynda’s for herbs — into one combined vision. They settled down in Ostrander, located just outside of Columbus, and for a long time, Lynda grew the herbs day in and day out. When she took a step back from growing, she still helped behind the scenes.

“The thing that always impressed me about Lynda was that she loved herbs, and loved to cook with them, but couldn’t find them anywhere,” George says. “But we saw them [on our trip] and she thought it would be great to do them here. She was really a pioneer in our area for growing herbs in pots like you see now. It’s such an integral part of our company now. People know us for our perennials and our herbs.”

Lynda died on Christmas Eve in 2018, leaving behind George, six children and 12 grandchildren. She made an impact on everyone she met.

“She had extremely high standards,” says Nathan Pealer, George and Lynda’s son, who works in real estate. “She pushed everybody to be better. And since she had such high standards, everybody tried their best around her, be it her family or someone at work. She held herself to those same high standards, too.”

“She was only here for a couple of years when I started here,” says Higginbotham, “but I’d never seen a man have as much love for his wife as George had for her,” Higginbotham says.

TOP: George has made team connectivity and safety a priority amid the COVID-19 pandemic. BOTTOM: Herbs, perennials and succulents are some of Millcreek's lush offerings.

Helping others grow

Higginbotham first visited the company in the early 2000s during an open house and says he was “blown away” by the facility even back then. After interning at Millcreek one summer and graduating from Ohio State the next spring, he joined the company “basically after graduating” in 2005. He started out as an assistant grower, became a head grower, and then was finally promoted to his current role as growing operations manager about five years ago.

From the time he first visited Millcreek, Higginbotham saw that George went out of his way to help him however he could.

“Throughout the years, the thing I can stay about George is that he’s the nicest guy ever,” Higginbotham says. “He treats everybody from seasonal employees to somebody who’s been here for 25 years exactly the same, always with a smile on his face. It’s one thing that sets George apart.” Higginbotham says that it is not uncommon for George to hop in and help with shipping, putting stickers on pots or bringing out cold Gatorades for the workers in the greenhouse.

Higginbotham adds that the culture George has created is the major reason he has stayed at the business and cannot imagine himself leaving any time soon.

“It’s about the people,” he says. “We have people that have been here 20, 25-years plus. Like any good organization, the good starts at the top and works its way down. And while George is very involved, he lets a lot of us on the management team have the freedom to do what we do and do our jobs. I’ve always appreciated that there’s a lot of trust involved here.”

One other way George has empowered employees over the years is by consulting with HR firms to help develop best practices and help employees develop skills. A coach George brought in helped Higginbotham develop confidence in himself and challenged him to set goals for what he wanted to accomplish in his career. At the time, Higginbotham says he was one of the newest employees at Millcreek and was having trouble finding his niche.

“At times, it was uncomfortable,” he says. “But it’s truly one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”

Another employee George helped empower is Megan Armstrong, the company’s assistant general manager and business office manager. Armstrong came to Millcreek in 1998 after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in environmental and plant biology. Her father knew George from business they had done together and encouraged Megan to visit him at the university job fair. She started working at Millcreek full-time the following summer.

“I’ve been here ever since,” she says. “This is an overall great atmosphere. It came from him and Lynda.”

Fred Higginbotham III, growing operations manager, left, George Pealer, owner and general manager, Doug Heindel, sales, business development, and marketing manager, and Megan Armstrong, assistant general manager and business office manager
George with his son Nathan Pealer, who works as a commercial realtor in Columbus

For the first part of her career, Armstrong was a grower working with gallon-size perennials and, in 2004, was named the Perennial Plant Association’s Young Professional of the Year. In 2012, she was promoted to assistant general manager, taking on responsibilities outside of growing like budgeting, staffing and overall company management.

According to Armstrong, it was a change she wanted, and one that George encouraged her to seek out. And like Higginbotham’s improvement, it came after an HR firm George hired helped do some necessary restructuring.

“The company was at a point where we needed to have more structure than we had, so [George] hired an HR firm to assess our company and help formalize people’s responsibilities,” she says. “Out of that, we got the growing side and the office side. I applied for that office position, as I’d already naturally been taking on a lot of office responsibilities like availability lists and customer communication and our website. I was naturally inclined to do those kinds of things and was bolstered by the plant knowledge.”

“One of the biggest things is the trust George places in people,” she continues. “He may challenge you for an idea, like developing a new product line for the slow season, but he’s not going to pigeonhole you. He wants your input, wants your ideas and is willing to go for it.” Both Armstrong and Higginbotham both say that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, George has been essential in keeping the company connected while also prioritizing employee safety while working and trying to keep business as normal as possible.

George’s knack for empowerment extends to Nathan and his other children, too.

“For my entire life, I’ve talked to him almost every day and he’s been a constant source of positivity and support and a steady force as far as someone I can always talk to,” Nathan says. “Each and every day, even now when I’m almost 40 years old, I love talking to him about anything I have going in. It could be business, home renovations, gardening or Buckeye football. He’s a big part of my life.”

For George, at the end of the day, empowering employees is part of the ethos he and Lynda set out to create when they founded Millcreek back in 1978. To him, along with quality and profitability, values like integrity, leadership and teamwork are part of Millcreek’s DNA. Ultimately, a significant part of his legacy is helping people find their passion just like his dad, his Ohio State professors and first employer did for him when he was just starting out.

“Our mission statement is ‘growing high quality plants, people and relationships,’” George says. “For us, that says it all.”