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ROCK CITY GARDENS HAS BECOME A DESTINATION OF A DIFFERENT NATURE

SEE ROCK CITY


Rock City Gardens has become a destination of a different nature.

SEE ROCK CITY

WRITTEN BY MELISSA KAREN SANCES PHOTOGRAPHY BY DENISE RITCHIE

Tom and Rhonda Lowe have managed Rock City Gardens in Wabasso, Fla. for 35 years. They have been the sole owners for more than three decades.

“S

ee Rock City.” In the 1930s, those three little words nearly shouted from the rooftops. Painted on barns as part of an unorthodox ad campaign, they directed drivers to an up-and-coming mountaintop attraction: 14 acres of rock formations, caves and woodland gardens known as Rock City. The black-and-white REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION ©VERO BEACH MAGAZINE

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In the 1960s Ralph Ruhl, the original owner of the property, ingeniously installed an artesian well, allowing water to irrigate from the pond.


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The Lowes created shaded, comfortable areas where browsers could simply relax.

billboards directed travelers as far north as Michigan and as far west as Texas toward the gardens’ home on Lookout Mountain just outside of Chattanooga, Tenn. By the end of the decade, Rock City had certainly been seen. In 1978 Ed and Hilda Chapin, second-generation owners of Rock City – who also lived part-time on John’s Island – visited what was then known as the Wabasso Nursery, just north of town. At Hilda’s insistence, the two purchased the seven-acre property from Ralph Ruhl, who had established it in the mid-1960s. The Chapins immediately changed the name to “Rock City Gardens,” but it wouldn’t become a local destination until current owners Tom and Rhonda Lowe came into the picture in 1980. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION ©VERO BEACH MAGAZINE

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According to Rhonda Lowe, the beautiful trees that now serve as a backdrop for weddings and fundraisers were once “twigs.”


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6 In only three years, the Lowes transformed a weed-laden nursery into lush gardens.


When Tom and Rhonda arrived on July 1, 1980, “the weeds were higher than the plants,” says Rhonda. “But we jumped in feet first.”

In 1979, the Lowes started researching plant nurseries in Florida. Both teachers in Chicago, Ill., neither particularly liked their profession or the cold winter season. Already avid gardeners, they longed to live somewhere they could pursue their passion year-round. Tom’s parents had recently retired to Melbourne, Fla., and his brother had opened a business there. In February of 1980, Tom’s brother called and said, “You know, there’s a town south of here I think you guys would really like. It’s called Vero Beach.” Serendipitously, the next day a realtor telephoned with a lead: the Chapins were looking for someone to run Rock City Gardens in Wabasso, Fla. “Rhonda and I had all these dreams, like we wanted a nursery with a house on it, and we wanted to be able to buy it,” says Tom. When they flew to Wabasso to meet with Ed Chapin’s son, Bill, they found exactly that. The original owner, Ruhl, had built a single-story house on the property where he had lived during his tenure. And it turned out that Ed Chapin was willing to sell the nursery. Bill Chapin, third-generation owner of the Lookout Mountain attraction, was immediately impressed by the Lowes. “When I met Tom and Rhonda, I knew they were the right people to take the nursery to the highest levels of quality horticulture and customer service,” says Bill. “They have worked long and smart to make it a great success.”

After meeting with Bill, Tom and Rhonda made a deal with Ed Chapin to go into partnership with him for three years. Ed sold the Lowes half of the nursery for the amount of their savings. At the end of three years he would refund their money or they could buy the entire garden center for its current value less the deposit. At the time, the nursery was in the red and the property had been neglected, so the Lowes had their work cut out for them. When the Chapins bought the garden center from Ralph Ruhl, his health was failing and the once well-manicured grounds had suffered as a result. According to Tom Lowe, Ruhl – a “true nurseryman” from south Florida – was known for his work with the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami and bought the Wabasso-based property when he’d reached retirement age, intending it to be his “swan song.” Ruhl had a passion for crotons, and he sold many to the Disney Resort on A1A, which was being developed at the time. He put plants before people, refusing to sell to customers who wouldn’t tend to them properly. “Once a lady bought about a thousand dollars’ worth of crotons,” one of Ruhl’s former employees told Tom, “and he told her how much peat moss she would need to plant them, because our soil is so sandy you need to amend it with peat. She said she didn’t need any peat moss, and he said, ‘Well you don’t need the plants!’” While Ruhl’s customer service may have left much to be desired, Rhonda says he was a genius who was ahead of his time. In the 1960s, he installed an artesian well that allowed water to irrigate from the pond on the property. In the winter months, valves would divert the water to prevent the pipes from freezing.

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hen the Chapins purchased the nursery in 1978, they had hired a young couple to manage it. According to the Lowes, more often than not the nursery was closed and a “Gone Fishing” sign was posted on the door. When Tom and Rhonda arrived on July 1, 1980, “the weeds were higher than the plants,” says Rhonda. “But we jumped in feet first.” First they made themselves at home, moving into Ruhl’s former house with their then 1-year-old daughter, Katie. The Lowes moved off-property in 1996, and today that building is an administration office out of which the general manager, Wade Baxley, and the Lowes work. “Our bedroom is Wade’s office,” recalls Rhonda “and Katie’s bedroom is my office.” “Living there was awful,” says Tom, half-serious. “The place had shag carpeting but it was four tufts per inch and chartreuse green.” The beginning certainly wasn’t pretty. The Lowes inherited about eight employees, one of whom was a young cashier who dressed in hot pink shorts and sold every item for $1. “She spent most of her time sitting under a tree reading romance novels,” says Rhonda. “So we’ve come a long way since then.” There were many days with no sales. First-time customers would often say, “We’ve lived here all our lives and we didn’t even know this was here” about Rock City Gardens, even after the Lowes had proudly installed a colorful new awning. They made customer service their top priority, and short of a hurricane, the Lowes never compromised their business hours. Rhonda had hands-on experience in gardening, and Tom held a master’s degree in biology, but neither was familiar with Florida plants. They were never without a reference book called Florida Landscape Plants, and their customers were often unsuspecting teachers. “Remember, we were from Chicago!” says Rhonda

with a laugh. “So I’d walk around with someone and they’d ask for an areca palm, and I’d say, ‘Let’s take a walk. If you see one, let me know.’” The Lowes were always seeking to learn more about horticulture, joining the American Association of Nurserymen and the Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association. With no prior business experience, they talked numbers with Ed Chapin, who held a degree in economics from Princeton University and flew down once a month to advise the Lowes. “He was my mentor,” says Tom. “One of the things he would say was, ‘Collect your receivables as quickly as you can, and pay your payables as slowly as you can.’ He was a wonderful person to work for.” Ed Chapin also introduced the Lowes to the community service they are still known for today. In the early 1980s, Ed’s next-door neighbor, Sterling Adams, held a Sadie Hawkins dance every February on the stage of the Riverside Theatre. He asked the Lowes if they would place brightly lit ficus trees along the stage’s edge to prevent dancers from losing their bearings. “From that meager beginning at Riverside we went on to host weddings and events like the Land Trust’s annual benefit,” says Tom. When the Lowes bought Rock City Gardens on July 1, 1983, they were in the black and business was starting to take off. It wasn’t long before the nursery was known for its unique products. “Once we knew what things were,” says Rhonda, “we craved finding new plants and a lot of different types of plants so people could see how they grow and how they could use them in their own landscaping. People come here and say, ‘If anybody’s going to have it, we know you will.’” Over the years Tom and Rhonda continued to develop the nursery, adding more greenhouses and building the existing garden center in 1985. To create shaded areas for customers

to browse and relax, they also planted towering live oaks that Rhonda says were once “twigs.” Along the edge of the property, lofty trees serve as the backdrop for wedding receptions and other events. This will be the 12th year that Rock City Gardens has hosted the Land Trust’s annual benefit. In March they will host The Arc of Indian River County gala, Starlight & Sneakers. Each year they also take flowers to Windsor for May Pops, the annual benefit for the Indian River Medical Center Foundation. In 2008 the Lowes were one of the “early hatchers” for the Mental Health Association, installing a fiberglass sea turtle designed by a close friend for the Turtle Trax fundraiser in front of the gift shop. Over the past three years, General Manager Wade Baxley has initiated several changes, including the creation of a hardscaping and outdoor living area where outdoor kitchens, fountains, fireplaces and patios are displayed. Baxley oversees more than 50 employees, and Rhonda estimates that in season hundreds of customers come through the nursery in one day. She still works fulltime from September to May, and Tom is in Florida from December to March.

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s the Lowes enter their 35th year with Rock City Gardens, they say that while success was never a sure thing, there was never discussion of failure. “I think we had a deep belief in ourselves and the nursery from the very beginning,” says Tom. A few years after the Lowes took over, Ralph Ruhl made a surprise visit to Rock City Gardens, giving the couple the highest compliment they have ever received. “This is exactly what I hoped it would grow into,” said the founder of the nursery. After 35 years in business, the Lowes can safely say that Rock City Gardens has certainly been seen. `

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