Ken Matthews Garden Center
Cultivating Community for 50 Years
Ken Matthews Garden Center grows landscapes, relationships and its business
By Melissa James, York County Contributor
Ken Matthews has been growing his landscape business since York County was literally a one-light town.
“Back then, there were no garden centers to serve all the people moving to York County from Hampton and Newport News. Route 17 was a two-lane road, and there was only one traffic light between the Newport News line and the Coleman Bridge—at the Grafton Shopping Center intersection, where the county fair was held each year,” recalled Matthews.
Although the County has undergone many transformations since that time, Ken Matthews Garden Center has remained relatively unchanged for the last 38 of its 50 years.
“I started my business in 1972 in my back yard in Wythe but quickly outgrew the space,” Matthews said.
In 1976, Matthews moved to York County, leasing outdoor space at the offices of an architectural firm on Cardinal Lane. But in just six years, the business would again outgrow its space. Matthews knew he needed more room to expand and he wanted frontage on Route 17, so he enlisted the help of Bill Monroe—an architect with Rancorn, Wildman & Krauss, and Harry Watson—a local real estate guru, to help find a new spot.
Around that same time, York County took off as a bedroom community, joined quickly by James City County and the City of Williamsburg.
“It was clear that York County was THE place to be,” Matthews said. “With the huge influx of people moving to the area, we knew we needed a place close by to serve them. Harry Watson found our current property for us in 1982. He said from here we could serve all three of the growing residential communities, and he was right!”
Unfortunately, the development process took a bit longer than anticipated. The property had to be rezoned, which added time and cost to the project, and the rainy weather held up construction for many months.
“Bill Monroe, Harry Watson and our banker and longtime friend John Lunsford were all good friends of mine and were extremely helpful in the development of our property. They helped get this land rezoned for outdoor sales, assisted with financing and much more. If not for them and many others, we would have really struggled,” Matthews said.
Finally, in the spring of 1984, the new Ken Matthews Garden Center building opened to the public. From this location, they have been providing top-notch landscaping, design and installation services to customers on the Virginia Peninsula and Middle Peninsula ever since. Matthews said there are more plants and varieties at his nursery than anywhere east of Richmond.
While many plant stores in the area have come and gone—and others have shifted business models and added amenities such as restaurants and mini golf, Ken Matthews Garden Center has stayed true to its roots. Plants are its central business, accompanied by a garden-themed gift shop.
Looking back on what makes him feel most fulfilled about his business, Matthews says the word permanence comes to mind.
“We’ve been one of those businesses people can depend on for many years. We have longevity with a good number of customers who have stuck with us, sometimes for generations. Our loyal clients mean a lot to us, and it’s rewarding seeing their landscapes develop over the years.”
Although he’s been in the business for half a century, Matthews didn’t always know he wanted to work in the landscaping industry. He calls himself an “accidental horticulturalist.”
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, family finances were stretched thin with his brother already in college. When he learned about scholarships being offered through the horticulture department at Virginia Tech, he quickly applied and was awarded funds.
“I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of guy, so it just fit,” Matthews said. He thought he would eventually go into pre-med, but Uncle Sam had other plans. Matthews was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and served a year in South Korea.
“I got out of the Army when I was 27 and just didn’t have it in me to go back to school. So, I bought a truck, a wheelbarrow and a Golden Retriever, and the dog and I went into business,” Matthews said.
Years later, when working on a landscaping job at Hampton General Hospital, Matthews said he realized that he wouldn’t have been a very good doctor after all, because he simply prefers being outside.
“I looked up, and there was a guy with a stethoscope looking out of a window watching me! I got to thinking, I wish I was in there where he was, in the air conditioning, but quickly realized that he might well have been thinking that he wished he was outside where I was, enjoying the fresh air!”
Now semi-retired, Matthews has mostly turned the reins over to his two partners and “leading ladies:” Sandy, his wife of over 49 years, and Heather Klose, his business partner of over 32 years.
Sandy Matthews manages and oversees the accounting, gift shop and the marketing efforts for the business. She’s been an integral part of the garden center’s success since the very beginning. When not raising the couple’s three children, Cary, Lindsey and Reid Sandy Matthews could always be found onsite, hard at work. With the kids now grown and Ken in the back seat, she’s busier than ever, working with Klose to keep the business going strong.
Klose, who is now co-owner and managing partner of the business, started with the company in 1983, when she was still in high school. Although it was just a side job mowing lawns, after Klose finished college, it would turn into a career she adores.
“I had known Ken and Sandy a long time through church, and our families grew up together,” she said. “Since I’m an outdoor girl, I thought maybe Ken would give me my old job back. In 1990 I started back with him again, and it was such a great fit! We’ve now worked together for more than 32 years!”
Klose is now the chief operating officer of the business, taking care of everything from helping customers and designing gardens, to seeing that paperwork is done and scheduling projects. She brings an art background and graphic design degree, which is what sets Ken Matthews Garden Center apart from its competitors. Her innovative layouts and perspectives are well-known and loved in the area, and many clients return again and again for her assistance and expertise.
Amazing landscape designs aren’t the company’s only local impact. Ken Matthews served on the York County Industrial Development Authority for 10 years, working closely with County Economic Development Director Jim Noel on important projects like Riverwalk Landing, the Fuel Farm property and the Route 17 Revitalization initiative.
“Ken Matthews Garden Center has been one of the most beautiful businesses on Rt. 17 for as long as I can remember,” said Noel. “They are an iconic York County business that has consistently provided quality goods and services throughout their existence. They have been steadfast in supporting York County schools and small business development for many years. Ken’s service on the Economic Development Authority and Sandy’s tenure on the York Foundation for Public Education board are indicative of their commitment to this community. York County and our region are a more attractive and bucolic place because of Ken Matthew’s many contributions.”
The garden center partnered with York County and the school division for many years to offer pruning and gardening classes for the Cooperative Extension office. Its staff has also been involved with the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, hosting networking and other events on site. Sandy Matthews even started the area’s first French market—a mix between farmers' markets and traders' markets—after visiting Yorktown’s sister city, Port-Vendres, France.
“We started an Art in the Garden French Market event here in the outdoor space, but it grew so much, so fast, that we had to call Don Willis of Village Events and ask if he or the County could take it over. Now it’s held at Riverwalk Landing each year and is one of the most-attended markets down at the waterfront,” Sandy Matthews said.
The business has won many Best of Hampton Roads awards over the years from the Daily Press and Coastal Living Magazine. In 1990, the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce named Ken Matthews Small Business Person of the Year for his contributions to the community. These days though, life is a bit slower for him.
“Now that I’m semi-retired, I have gotten into wood working, and I’ve also taken up playing the five-string banjo,” he said. “I’ve been a scuba diver and a sailor all my adult life, and I’m looking forward to enjoying more time for these two activities in the Caribbean. Knowing that the business is in such good hands gives me peace of mind.”