Gracious grower

Features - Cover Feature

The industry honors Don McCorkle for his selfless dedication.

August 23, 2010

The 2010 Nursery Management & Production Grower of the Year is Don McCorkle, chairman of the board at McCorkle Nurseries. Photo by Paul De JongDon McCorkle does not live for himself, but for his family, neighbors and peers. The second-generation nurseryman upholds an intense commitment to McCorkle Nurseries, while constantly maintaining a strong sense of community. Don is quick to appreciate his blessings.

“I’m blessed to be part of this industry, to have a family business and to have made so many friends over the years,” he said.

This true southern gentleman credits others for his success. And it’s his humility that’s helped build a successful business. “In any organization, it’s the people that make it work, and our people are super,” he said. “We have employees that have spent decades here and have given this company their very best.”

McCorkle Nurseries has grown from a small retail, landscape and growing operation in 1942 to a large production nursery shipping some 4 million plants each year. Don’s parents started the business near Augusta, Ga., after his father got a taste for horticulture working in a peach orchard during the Great Depression. The housing boom after World War II helped boost the business. When Don finished school, he joined his father in the family business, followed soon by his brother Jack.

A New Focus
By 1977, Don and Jack sold the retail operation and focused on expanding the growing enterprise. The brothers concentrated on good genetics, efficient growing practices and providing top-notch customer service. A year later Don’s son Skeetter joined the family business, gleaning not only his father’s plant knowledge, but also learning about the dedication it takes to run a successful business.

“Not many guys in today’s world have the privilege of working alongside their dads, but I do,” Skeetter said. “It is so neat to have the wealth of experience, the deep reserve of time-taught lessons and the wisdom of gray hair just a few feet away.”

Don’s daughter Beverly joined the company in 1983, and Jack’s son Chris came on board in 1990 as vice president of operations. In 1997, Skeetter was named CEO.

McCorkle Nurseries
Founded: In 1942 by C.S. and Avice McCorkle.

Dearing and Marietta, Ga.

Woody ornamentals, perennials and ornamental grasses. Liners and finished material

Customer base:
Independent garden centers, landscape contractors, rewholesalers and growers.

Sales area: Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

“It’s sometimes challenging to work in a family business, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Don said.
The McCorkles consider their employees and their peers part of the family.

“Working with family is just one of the many great things about our green industry,” Skeetter said. “Many, perhaps even the majority, of our small businesses are also family businesses -- in our case going back three generations and almost 70 years. I understand that the legendary evangelist Billy Graham once commented that the best way to build an organization is to find the right people to work with and grow old together. What solid advice. In our case, that involves a lot of family plus many ‘adopted’ family members who have joined our work team.”

Reaching Out
In the ‘90s, the University of Georgia asked for help from the green industry to donate property and facilities for a new research center. County extensions were the victims of cutbacks and growers needed up-to-date research to improve crops and production practices.

“We saw a vast need for research, and when Skeetter approached me about donating the land and facilities, I said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Don said. “And the Center for Applied Nursery Research was born, and it’s such a bright spot in the industry.

“The purpose is to provide managed funding and facilities for horticulture research based on grower needs. This is so very important, and research here is more like it is in a nursery — with fields and beds. This really gives us an upper hand in research. Our goal is to generate information to keep our growers in Georgia and the Southeast in the forefront of ornamental plant breeding, evaluations and production techniques.”

The Center for Applied Nursery Research (CANR) has been providing funds and facilities for projects since 1997.
“CANR belongs to the industry. Research is the life’s blood of our industry, and if research falters, the industry will falter,” Don said.

Environmental Stewardship
Don’s interest in research also led him to ANLA’s Horticultural Research Institute, where he’s currently on the board of trustees.

“I really enjoy seeing our industry work toward solutions, like the biodegradable pot made from chicken feathers,” Don said. “There’s a lot of merit in that project, an it’s part of the sustainability movement, which I highly prescribe to.”

Environmental stewardship has been an important task at McCorkle Nurseries for many years. The grower uses ponds to reclaim runoff, which is used to irrigate containers, and much of the nursery is on drip irrigation. McCorkle also practices integrated pest management for pest and disease control.

Green industry research
The Center for Applied Nursery Research (CANR) operates on property donated by the McCorkle family. Since its inception in 1997, CANR is charged with funding and providing a managed facility for ornamental horticulture research. The key to the center’s research is choosing projects based on grower needs and conducted under commercial growing conditions.
A multitude of projects have been tested at the facility, including:
  • Developing sterile plants
  • Creating a pest-management calendar
  • Investigating new irrigation tools
  • Evaluating new plants
  • Analyzing crop nutrient deficiencies 
To view current and past projects, or to apply for funding for a project, visit
“If our industry is going to move forward, we have to be in a position to change with the times. We’ve got to set the example, and I think our industry has done this,” Don said. “Most nurserymen are environmentalists — you have to be — and our jobs tie in to all the attention being placed on sustainability. Growers need to support sustainable growing practices with their words and their dollars. It takes a combined effort to make it successful.”

A New Economy
Don has been in the industry long enough to go through a few recessions. He’s seen, and helped shape, changes in the market.

“You have to adapt and change, and our industry is experiencing that in a big way right now,” Don said. “And this won’t be the last change.”

A couple of years before the recession hit, McCorkle Nurseries recognized an emerging trend and stepped up its color offerings.

“Consumers want color, something that works well in a container and something that’s as effortless as possible,” Don said. “You’ll always have some die-hard gardeners, but the generation coming up now thinks differently and spends their time differently.”

The nursery is reaching consumers with improved genetics and beautiful color through the Gardener’s Confidence Collection, its in-house brand. Plants in this collection are trialed for years and chosen for excellent disease resistance, prolific blooms, beautiful foliage and interesting forms. These include Cherry Dazzle crape myrtle, Mini Penny hydrangea and Heaven Scent gardenia.

“We’re so pleased with this line. We’re putting some high-quality plants in the market,” Don said. 

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