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If you take a drive through the city of Spartanburg and its surrounding areas, you will notice a city full of horticultural beauty. There are many people who have worked hard to make this happen.
Ricky McAbee, owner of Roebuck Wholesale Nursery and Landscaping, is one of those who has helped improve the landscape. I recently sat down and talked to him about his love for plants and his landscaping business.
The business started with McAbee and two employees. He now employs more than 100 people. By 1990, 80 percent of his work was residential and 20 percent was commercial. Today, 70 percent of his work is commercial and 30 percent is residential.
McAbee began his career working at his parents’ business Roebuck Greenhouses when he was 8 years old. He worked in the greenhouses for years after school and college. His parents inherited the business from his maternal grandfather, Sid Miller, who created Miller’s nursery.
After the death of his grandfather, his parents moved the business to Roebuck and changed the name to Roebuck Greenhouses. McAbee got his love for woody plants and woody ornamentals from his grandfather.
“Getting my start in the greenhouse business was good groundwork and helped me learn the business well. As I grew up, I came to love the woody ornamental and that’s the direction I went in,” he said.
In 1978, McAbee started doing landscaping after school and after his greenhouse work. He spent a large amount of his time planting live oaks and hollies for residential clients. From there he moved on to planting annual beds for Milliken & Co. And at the same time, he was putting together his nursery. He leased land from his father and began to build his nursery.
Things changed when Roger Milliken, Rick Webel, Stewart Winslow and Mike Dirr began The Nobel Tree Organization. They included McAbee on the team and started teaching Spartanburg residents about Noble trees. A Nobel tree is a tree whose shade you will never sit under because it is for future generations. McAbee said the effort grew rapidly. McAbee went to every nursery in the state to look at their inventory to see what was available. That is when his passion grew to include conifers.
Milliken tasked Dirr to come up with a good list of conifers that would grow well in the South. During the Nobel Tree event that year, McAbee lined the tent with amazing conifers that grew well in the South. One attendee bought every conifer in the tent and donated them to the University of South Carolina Upstate for its arboretum. People saw these conifers, loved them, and wanted to be a part of it. After that, the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport planted one of the best collections of conifers in the region.
In addition, Roebuck Wholesale Nursery’s projects grew. One of the projects that McAbee is most proud of is the garden at the Gibbs Cancer Center.
“People want to be in a green space. They work all day inside at computers and they want to be surrounded by Nature during their breaks, lunch, and off time,” he said.
In his spare time, McAbee planted more than 1,000 trees in Converse Heights and only a few died. The rest are forming a beautiful canopy in the neighborhood.
McAbee has worked very hard to make his business successful. It wasn’t luck. He credits many people for his success, along with his own team of employees. In addition, he credits Kevin Parris (a former Roebuck Wholesale employee), Nobel Tree, Hans Balmer, Webel, Dirr, and Milliken.
As far as the future goes, McAbee said, “I would like to see Spartanburg do a large green space within the city that will draw people to it. They will play in it, relax in it, and enjoy themselves in it.”
This year, he completed the replanting of Gibbs Stadium at Wofford College, where the Carolina Panthers hold their NFL training camp.
When McAbee thinks back to his parents and the way they ran their business, he said his mother knew everything about plants and growing, while his father knew marketing and selling. In the process, each was vital to the success of the whole business. Their three children, McAbee and his sisters Vickie and Debbie have set up a scholarship in their mother’s name Jean Miller McAbee at Spartanburg Community College’s School of Horticulture.
Linda Cobb is a master gardener who lectures, teaches, and does garden design in South Carolina. She can be reached at 864-574-8493 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.mygardenersguide.com.