Blooming Where She's Planted

Student cultivates thriving business out of rough patch

In spite of her name and her line of work Karen Gardner isn’t your garden-variety entrepreneur. Yes, she is a gardener, and yes, she owns a nursery and landscaping business, but Karen Gardnerthe success of this determined young woman, along with that of her business --Roses Inc. Green Country, by any other name, would still be as sweet.

Only a few months old, Roses Inc. Green Country, located at the intersection of 131st street and 129th in Broken Arrow, has more than 500 rose varieties and more than 5,000 rose bushes. Gardner and her team specialize in designing, constructing, planting and maintaining rose scapes throughout Northeastern Oklahoma. The business currently boasts of multiple wholesale clients; contracts signed with Keep Broken Arrow Beautiful and Bringing Back the Roses; a design and consulting position with the City of Broken Arrow for the revitalization of downtown as The Rose District; and more than 100 monthly maintenance customers whose roses are serviced throughout the growing season.

Gardner’s life has not always been sunshine and roses. In fact, she has experienced her share of dark days. After completing an International Baccalaureate diploma program in the south of France, Gardner was pursuing an art degree from New York University when, at the age of 20, she suffered a debilitating stroke that left her needing medical care for months.

The young woman who had accomplished so much thought she had lost everything. She returned to Oklahoma to live with her mother and recover. At the time of her return, she had lost most of her ability to read, write and think like she had prior to the stroke.

As Gardner’s health slowly returned, she took the advice of her mother, went to work for a local nursery where she could work outdoors and rebuild her strength. Gardner went to work for Mark Stelljes, owner of a 13-year-old nursery, Roses, Inc., and it was there, where she worked long days carrying five-gallon buckets of water and pouring fertilizer on customer’s lawns that Gardner’s health and spirits really began to blossom.

After months of dedication and intense labor, Gardner worked her way up to operations manager of Roses, Inc. When the owner became disabled she had to make a decision: return to New York University to continue her degree in studio art, or withdraw to keep his nursery up and running. Choosing the latter, she took Accounting as well as Nursery and Greenhouse Management at Tulsa Community College, but soon realized that she required a more holistic understanding of what running a business entailed.

“When I read about the Launch Program in the Tulsa World, I knew that it was the opportunity that could facilitate the growth I required to not only continue running Mark’s nursery, but later create a career for myself,” explained Gardner.

roseTulsa Community College’s Launch program takes entrepreneurs with an idea through the critical steps of creating a start-up business in 16 weeks. The results are the groundwork to launch their businesses and build relationships with some of Tulsa’s most well known business startup leaders.

Gardner had concerns when she applied for the Launch Program.  

“I was so worried that I would not be accepted as my situation was an anomaly: I wasn’t launching my own brainchild start-up, but fixing a pre-existing (and crumbling) business,” said Gardner.

Roses Inc. Green Country is the outgrowth of Gardner purchasing Roses Inc. Tulsa from her former employer, and Gardner credits TCC’s Launch Program for equipping her with the business tools to make such an enterprising decision.

“The people that I met and the advice that was given is absolutely invaluable,” said Gardner. 

During the program, Gardner pitched her business model to a group of “Thought Leaders.” After the pitch, she was approached by a local real-estate investor who recommended “the perfect property” for her nursery. Within two months, Gardner made the big decision and purchased a 7-acre property at the entrance of Broken Arrow’s Rose District (91st and Lynn Lane). She plans to transplant the entire business operation to the new location by this coming fall.

“Everything about being an entrepreneur is very intense: when you run a business, the buck stops with you. That means that you enjoy the benefits of working for yourself, but you are also forced to face and solve every problem that arises in day-to-day operations,” said Gardner.

 The, now 23-year-old, nursery owner feels she has gained both personally and professionally by participating in the Launch Program.

“When I got a taste of working outside with my hands, sweating, creating total awe-astounding beauty from a little tiny stick, I knew that this was something I could do for a long time. Then upon running the business (Roses Inc.), I found the administrative side to be just as exciting: learning something new every single day; people relying on me for my hard work and precision,” said Gardner.  

Gardner also said that the Launch Program taught her that anything -- even an obstacle -- could become something invigorating and conducive to happiness. She now understands how to recognize opportunity and proactively pursue it. In addition, Gardner found the Launch Program helpful in building her business acumen and business confidence.

“There were moments of realization that absolutely made me want to throw in the towel, like realizing it was completely up to me to create a sustainable financial model for a seasonal, niche business... but I said to myself that as long as I still woke up totally jazzed about continuing the journey, I would push myself to keep going,” Gardner said. “It was arduous mentally, emotionally and in my industry, even physically!”

She explains further that “in the Launch Program you are always with a crowd of supportive peers who learn fromrose your mistakes as much as they do your successes, and vice versa.       

“Every single class we had to make a three-minute pitch and every class someone messed up, someone froze, someone totally nailed it. You could absolutely tell who was working hard, or hardly working. It was intense -- there was a standard to live up to,” said Gardner.

Gardner is recently engaged to Stuart Barrett who helps her run the nursery. The couple has big plans and several long-term goals for their business.  They intend to turn the new property into a destination location where people come from around the world to visit Broken Arrow’s Rose District before stopping in to see their display gardens, bouquet arrangements, potted roses and boutique. In addition, there is a small grove of trees on the property that they would like to turn into something like the Osage Forest of Peace in Sand Springs. Gardner envisions it as a spot where visitors can escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives to find tranquility in the wonder of nature. A “bark park” is also in the plans, as the nursery is known for being dog friendly.

Also, Gardner has plans to branch out from the traditional retail nursery business by contributing to the cultural practices in growing rose bushes. She intends to create a research-based facility to study rose pathology, propagation and common pests.

“Within the next five years, Roses Inc. Green Country will become a premier, niche nursery that upon visiting creates a memorable experience,” enthused Gardner. “Think ‘Yoga in the Roses,’ bouquet arrangement classes, general rose care seminars, weddings, tea parties... my biggest goal is continued customer participation, satisfaction and fun!”