It’s easy to get so used to seeing our downtown that you stop really seeing it. Little subtleties or perhaps even special qualities you once valued slip from your conscious view and fade to the background. Sometimes it’s helpful to make a concerted effort to see again, what we’ve become blind to.
It can be that way with our downtown flowers. I’m not a big flower person as a rule, but I’ve certainly visited cities which I thought were beautiful, only to realize that a large part of my perception was based on the flowers I’d subconsciously enjoyed. Gatlinburg comes to mind as a town which spares no expense on flowers – and it pays dividends in dressing up and diverting attention from the less attractive features on a given street.
Our downtown flowers have improved in appearance in recent months. If you’ve tuned into them, you might have wondered what happened and who was behind the change. The shift came when the city allowed Greg Blankenship, of Gregory’s Greenhouse Productions (FB) to begin servicing the large cement planters. Generally unremarkable, some of the planters had remained empty as the seasons passed. Meanwhile Mr. Blankenship quietly helped make the 100 block of Gay Street into an even more beautiful spot than was already the case. Eventually, the city awarded him the contract to expand his influence.
I met with him recently and found a person who was an entrepreneur from be the start and who continually strives for improvement in whatever he undertakes. His first job as a teenager was selling lightning bugs to the scientists at the labs in Oak Ridge. Instead of simply hunting down the fireflies for the two cent bounty, he hired other boys to hunt them and paid a penny each, selling them for double that amount.
His interest in plants, horticulture and floriculture dates back to his childhood in which his father maintained greenhouses. Greg and his brother naturally helped and at one point drew the attention of Carson Brewer who wrote a piece on the family business.
After finishing high school in just two years, he attended Walter State before transferring to the University of Tennessee where he studied horticulture. He worked for Dick Ott at his Botony Center where he was the Interior Plant/Greenhouse manager. From Mr. Ott he says he learned to be, “neat, clean and organized.” He would later expand this list of core values to include being creative. While there he helped install the original plants at both West Town Mall and Hamilton Place.
While in college, and after seeing his brother awarded an internship to Longwood, he pursued and was awarded an internship at Calloway Gardens. While there he says he learned the “right way to do things and the wrong way to do things,” as well as practical skills like how to climb a tree with spikes and a belt. He learned the importance of creativity and formed his opinions about over-use of chemicals. His current work would be termed “sustainable,” and he simply says he doesn’t use a lot of fungicides because he knows, “how to control threats environmentally.
Soon after leaving UT, he realized he wanted to work for himself and he started a landscaping company and Gregory’s Dogwood Nursery where he grew multiple varieties of dogwoods. He started building greenhouses and eventually stopped the landscaping portion of the business to focus on wholesale delivery of plants. His goal then and now, he says, “is to inspire others to reach their potential.” When he cultivates a portion of downtown, for example, and then notices others following his lead, he’s as satisfied as if he’d done it directly, himself.
As his wholesale deliveries grew, he had an idea for an innovative delivery truck from which he could unload via the sides of the truck rather than making multiple trips into the back. Equipment Innovators in Marietta, Georgia designed it for him and as the business grew he added a second truck and eventually began using them for retail at farmers’ markets, such as the Market Square Farmers’ Market where you’ll see him each Saturday. Lauren Schaab joined him as a full-time employee and he added another half-time position.
A quarter of his business is in downtown Knoxville in the form of his sales at the Market Square Farmers’ Market, his contract with the Central Business Improvement District and several private contracts. He also works with Blowing Rock, North Carolina and several Knoxville apartment complexes including The Grove at Deane Hill, which recently won the Apartment Association of Greater Knoxville’s first place beautification award in their division.
Eventually he built up to his current eight greenhouses located in north Knox County. He continues to wholesale flowers and plants to Mayo Home and Garden Center, Pratt’s Country Store and Willow Ridge Garden Center in Oak Ridge.
As for observations as we walked around downtown, we noted the odd placements of many of the cement planters. Large areas have none while small areas, such as behind the Gay Street Garage have several. He pointed out the work he’s done on Gay Street and around the corner on Jackson. On Market Square he does the hanging plants at Oodles uncorked and the flowers at Trio. He doesn’t do the flowers at Tupelo Honey or at Scruffy City Hall, though he was very complimentary of each, particularly Paula’s work at Scruffy City Hall.
He had me look down Gay Street for color and note that none can be seen. He’d love to see larger plants on the street there, as well as plants hanging from the street lamps. He’d like to see more color and ground cover in the fences around the trees on Market Square. He’d like to see more done with Country Music Park. He pictures color lining the streets of his hometown and hopes he can be a part of that going forward.
Greg says he has a “passion to beautify Knoxville and would love Knoxville to be a floraculture mecca of color and design.” He’s adamant as he states that Knoxville is becoming a bigger city day by day and “we need to look like one.” He adds, “I don’t ever want to be satisfied to the point of settling. There is always something more. I love what I do and feel very blessed and try to enjoy life everyday.”