By Emily Ford
RICHFIELD - Trained as a nurse, Judy Matthews spent five years in the operating room before leaving medicine to take care of another kind of living thing - plants.
Matthews left nursing in 1975 and turned her gardening hobby into a retail business so she could stay home with her three children.
She grew and sold plants and flowers from her sprawling acreage at 2620 Reeves Island Road, just off Stokes Ferry Road.
Then, in the 1980s, Matthews shut down her garden shop and went into business servicing the flora at commercial and residential locations throughout the Charlotte region.
After more than 36 years as owner of Matthews Greenhouses, Matthews has returned to her roots, so to speak, and opened a retail garden center in Richfield, about 17 miles from Salisbury.
"I just love beautiful things and plants," Matthews said. "My father-in-law used to say, 'You can't eat plants.' Well, I showed him."
Matthews' business shifted from retail to commercial in 1984 after she walked into Wachovia Bank in downtown Salisbury, now Wells Fargo, and noticed the pitiful plants.
"No one took care of them," Matthews said. "I talked them into letting me help them for one month."
She watered, cleaned and pruned the plants, which began to thrive.
The contrast was so stark after Matthews' one-month trial, the local branch manager not only hired her but recommended her to Wachovia in Charlotte.
She ended up landing the contract for all 38 Wachovia branches.
Thus blossomed a career in landscape and plantscape creation and management. At one point, Matthews had 16 employees and serviced more than 300 locations.
Now, at age 63, Matthews is happy to let her nine employees run between 110 locations throughout the Charlotte region while she cares for the plants in Richfield and creates seasonal displays with silk flowers, bows, berries and more.
For the first time in more than 25 years, Matthews has opened her business to the public. She and husband Jerry Matthews, 71, have refurbished their horse barn and transformed it into a retail garden center filled with seasonal decor, wreaths, ribbon and gifts.
They took the barn floor down to clean dirt, then filled it with gravel. They removed the doors to all six stalls and used them as display tables that run down the center of the barn.
The building where they kept two horses has become an enchanting retail shop filled with handmade treasures for yard, home and garden. Matthews creates custom silk displays using a pillow or photo to match colors.
Customers can wander throughout the rest of the property, which includes a vast warehouse stocked with hundreds of tropical houseplants and two covered outdoor display areas with bedding plants, potted mums, hanging baskets and more.
The Matthews still live in the home they built in 1970 from timber harvested on their acreage.
Their lavish back deck, filled with artfully designed plants and flowers, may serve as inspiration for customers, but it ultimately provides a sanctuary for the couple at the end of the day.
"That's for me," Judy Matthews joked. "That's not for you."
At its peak, Matthews Greenhouses earned $600,000 in annual sales. That's down to about $350,000 now.
When business was booming, Matthews bought a new van every six months.
"At one time, everything was great," she said. "You didn't need to worry about anything."
But the past few years have been tough on greenhouses. During the economic downturn, Matthews lost many clients who had to cut back.
"We are a luxury," Matthews said. "We are one of the first things to go."
She hasn't bought a new van for several years.
While many small businesses have shut their doors, Matthews Greenhouses has persevered.
"I feel real fortunate that we've hung on as we have," Matthews said.
That's probably largely attributable to Matthews herself.
She makes a strong case for plants and the curb appeal they provide, and she's a good saleswoman. She also has nearly four decades of expertise that's hard to match, not counting a lifetime of experience growing plants to eat or display.
Matthews grew up with her hands in the dirt, helping her father, Allen "Cooter" Kirk, in his garden. He sold fresh produce to area restaurants.
Matthews has little formal training and learned most of what she needed to know about plants from her father, mother Jenny Kirk and books."You can do everything you want if you read," she said.
Judy and Jerry Matthews have a daughter, Tanya Gearhart, who followed in her mother's initial footsteps and became an operating room nurse.
They lost son Jason Matthews in a motorcycle accident when he was 20 years old.
"It's still hard," Judy Matthews said.
Another son, Daryl Matthews, now lives in the house Matthews grew up in. He has taken over from Jerry Matthews as co-owner of the business.
In Salisbury, people can view the Matthews' work at Bank of North Carolina, Trinity Oaks, Rowan Regional Medical Center and Gerry Wood Auto Group, among other locations.
Judy Matthews is preparing to unfurl more than 100 Christmas trees she has stored. She will use them, along with dozens of swags and wreaths, to decorate 48 locations throughout the Charlotte region, including one home with seven trees.
She will offer wreath-making classes in October, demonstrating both autumn and Christmas designs.
"The best thing about this job is the public," Matthews said.
Matthews Greenhouses and Garden Center
Where: 2620 Reeves Island Road in Richfield, just off Stokes Ferry Road. From Salisbury, 17 miles.
When: March 1 through Oct. 31. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Extended hours until 3 p.m. on Saturdays during wreath-making classes.
What: Plants and trees from 4 inches to 30 feet. Fall flowers. Silk displays and gifts. Seasonal decor.
How: 704-377-5268, 704-279-5464,
www.matthewsgreenhouses.com and on Facebook