MOUNT OLIVE — Watching Marvin Taylor slowly navigate the football field-length rows of dense shrubbery and brightly flowered trees at his farm near Mount Olive, one could be forgiven for thinking that his working days are far behind him. Dressed in worn blue coveralls, Taylor leans unsteadily on a cane and squints out from beneath a dusty New Holland Agriculture cap at the land he’s worked for over four decades, pausing to catch his breath before he speaks.
“I’m wore slam out,” admits Taylor, just shy of his 84th birthday, as he tucks a strand of white hair behind his ear.
“Wore out” is a description passing motorists may have used over the last several years to describe Taylor’s once bustling business, Taylor’s Nursery and Plant Farm, located on Garner Chapel Road in Mount Olive. The lingering effects of the economic downturn that began in 2008 followed by the death of his wife, Annie May, in 2012 have taken both an emotional and financial toll on Taylor and his family, culminating in the business closing its gates to the public two years ago.
From the road, Taylor’s business appears abandoned, with vines creeping up over the bright yellow sign next to the entrance gate and collapsing sheds clearly visible through the overgrown weeds.
But according to Taylor’s son, Shelton, there is still plenty of life left in both his father and the approximately 100 acres of land that he’s continued to maintain in defiance of both age and heartbreak.
“He’s the toughest man I know; there’s nobody like him. When he can’t stand up, he’ll sit down and work,” comments Shelton, as he looks over the land his father cultivated almost single handedly.
Since the death of his mother, Shelton and his wife, Elizabeth, have been driving the 185-mile round trip from their home in Cameron to 1984 Garner Chapel Road each Monday, helping to keep the weeds down, the seeds planted, and the few and infrequent customers satisfied.
“It’s hurt me economically some, but when it comes to family, you do what you have to do,” says Shelton, who works full-time running a mulch yard back home.
“Marvin closed the doors when his wife got sick and never reopened them,” explains Elizabeth. “Now he’s trying to get back into it, but it’s hard.”
According to Shelton, he and his father would both like to see the business return to something resembling its former glory, a state of affairs that seems improbable until Shelton provides a tour of a small portion of the farmland’s abundant bounty of plant life.
Crepe myrtle, river birch, live oak and dogwood trees peer out from around every corner of the hard–packed dirt roads that wind through the property. In a corner of a field, rows of neatly aligned Japanese boxwood shrubs stand at attention, as if awaiting the appraising eye of a buyer. While many of the blooming plants and trees are still bare of flowers after a particularly trying winter, the land still carries an almost surreal sense of life run riot, of a once controlled and ordered system on the brink of overflowing its domesticated boundaries and returning to the wild.
According to both Marvin and Shelton, the true jewels of Taylor’s Nursery and Plant Farm are the approximately 1,500 camellia japonica trees planted throughout its fields and hidden deep in the canopy of woods that surround them. Shelton explained that many of the camellia trees date back at least 15 years and can grow as tall as nine to 10 feet, with a spread of four feet.
Having attended nursery trade shows with representatives from all over the United States, Shelton says he is convinced that his father’s camellias are some of the oldest and biggest in the country.
“We’ve been charging $300-$400 for the big ones, and I’ve been told that that’s too little, by about half. The market is there. We’re the only one’s who can fill it as far as the really big camellias. I mean, how many people are crazy enough to work with something for 15 years?”
As if to answer that question, Marvin describes the years of hard work it took to turn the land into a successful plant farm and nursery. Having purchased the farm from the Dale family in the early 1970s, Marvin, Annie May, Shelton and his brothers spent a few years raising tobacco before deciding on a different line of work.
Building the business from the ground up took years of nearly non-stop labor, leaving little time for rest or family, says Marvin. “I’ve put a lot into it. I would work from sunup to sunset and then come in and rest a few hours and get up the next morning and do it again. The work never stops.”
According to Shelton, the land once belonged to his maternal grandparents, Betsy and Mark Summerlin, whose small white house can still be seen sitting at the front of the property near the road.
“We lived there for a couple of years when we moved back here,” remembers Shelton, marveling at the height of a camellia tree towering above the house. “Dad planted that not long after we got here. It was just a tiny thing.”
To gain a better understanding of his father’s business, after graduating from high school, Shelton attended Lenoir Community College, where he received a two-year horticulture degree. “It runs in the family. I just love to grow stuff.”
That’s right,” agrees Marvin. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was four years old, by the time I was old enough to do anything.”
Through Marvin’s tenacity and the help of his family, by the mid-1980s Taylor’s Nursery and Plant Farm had all the business it could handle, selling to customers up and down the East Coast, it’s reputation spread mainly by word of mouth.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” says Marvin. “When we were going strong we were pretty well known. I met a lot of people I would not have met otherwise.”
That fortune continued until the recession of the late 2000s and the illness that would eventually claim Annie May.
“The economy hit us hard,” said Shelton. “Dad just wasn’t prepared.”
Currently, business can be done with Taylor’s by appointment only.
Following the death of his mother, Shelton, who had drifted away from the nursery business after moving west, returned to Mount Olive each week to help restore the land where he spent so many hot childhood summers digging the soil and tending to the growing acres of new plant life.
According to Shelton, getting the business back on its feet will be a slow process, at best.
“We’ve talked about maybe opening a retail business by the road, but I just don’t know about that right now,” he admits. “At this point we just need to get the word out that we’re still here and have plants for sale.”
Even in the best of times, says Shelton, the plant farm was never a significant moneymaking proposition, and advertising was low on the priority list.
“Dad was never a marketing man. Back then he didn’t have to be, because everyone came to him. Now, things are different.”
Shelton says his short-term goal is to bring in enough revenue to hire a few workers to help his father work the land. Weeds need to be cut; some of the plants could stand to be thinned out to make room for new growth. And digging up and replanting the 700-800 pound camellia trees so prized by plant lovers is a job that requires a team of men.
“To plant the big camellias for someone requires several people plus myself and hydraulic equipment. Plus, I’d just like someone here with dad, not just to help with the nursery, but just with everyday things.”
Though he recently had a number of cancerous growths removed from his face, Marvin still spends hours each day working in the greenhouse he built for Annie May, planting row after row of camellia cuttings that will eventually be transplanted to the fields.
“At this point, he just wants to be able to do what he wants to do until he dies; and that’s what I want for him,” says Shelton. “He began this business with nothing more than cuttings from neighbors yards and built it up into one of the best farms in the state. This has been hard on us, but he’s not going to stop, and neither am I.”
Anyone interested in purchasing plants from Taylor’s Plant Farm and Nursery can call 910-690-9056 or 919-658-4062. Currently plants are sold by appointment only.