Updated: Feb 28
Saunoris Garden Center in Chicago Ridge is closing its doors and greenhouses after eighty years of being in business. Eighty years. Out of those eighty years, I worked there for ten of them.
I remember my first day as if it were yesterday. I was a junior in high school, and I had been looking for a job for a couple of weeks – Sears, Home Depot, Jewel. The people at the local Sid’s Nursery in Palos Hills said I would even be getting a call back, but I never heard anything. Luckily, a family friend of ours, Ozzy, knew people at Saunoris’ Garden Center in Chicago Ridge. I didn’t know the first thing about gardening, but I was ready to work hard and save for my first car.
Here's a picture of me at 19 in 2005 working in the "New Greenhouse" at Saunoris Garden Center in Chicago Ridge.
My friend Chris had already been working at the time, and when I got off my first day, I eagerly called him to tell him of all the things they had me do.
“We drove back and forth to Alsip Self Storage,” I recall telling him this for some reason. Perhaps it was because I drove in the Saunoris’ van with one of the hardest working and friendliest employees I would come to know, Smalls, as we called him. “These Eyes” by The Guess Who played on the radio, and he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel each time the keyboards preluded the chorus. I remember doing a lot of physical labor that day, and by the end of it, fellow employees talked about how hard I worked. It was a good omen for what was to come.
I learned the value of hard work there. On any given day, I may have watered the entire place – the nursery stock, the store’s four greenhouses, and any plants on display in the front of the store. You’d want to do this in the morning as the temps climbed and “fill the pot,” as my boss would say. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from everyone. They told me what flowers needed more water – hibiscus, for example – or which needed less – dusty miller. The same day I was watering, I may have needed to empty a truck full of sod or nursery stock, and sometimes it was raining while I did it. I always kept a radio on me for carry-outs. “Can I get four bags of red mulch and six bags of white marble,” they’d say. That was why Saunoris was a natural gym. It got to the point where I could carry eighty pounds of topsoil on one shoulder.
As I worked there longer, my responsibilities grew. I trained others; I sold nursery stock; I learned the intricacies of pH levels on Poinsetta plants. I went on landscaping trips. I took pride in helping customers make decisions to beautify their homes or pick out the perfect wreath for their loved one’s graves.
However, what really made the place special was that we were a family. Employees helped each other out and picked each other up. Managers taught you and respected you when you worked hard. That has to be rare in American workplaces these days. There are so many moments there that will forever bring a smile to my face. The quotes below are just some things that stand out in my mind that I will always take with me.
“Sometimes fast is just fast” – An employee who worked there one summer said this. I was still pretty new there, and I always felt that the faster I worked, the better I worked. While it’s good to be efficient, it’s always good to know what you’re doing.
“If you have confidence, you can do anything.” – A friend of mine told me this. I was shy at one point in my life, and this was kind of a turning point for my social skills. I don’t think I ever thanked him for this.
“That’s innovative.” – This isn’t really a quote, but it was a compliment that stands out to me. I found a way to make wreath production more streamlined by taking a movable bench and producing the wreaths on a table rather than assembling them on the floor. When the veteran employee saw this, he made this comment. It made my day.
“90% percent of a problem with a plant is a watering issue” – This is very true. My boss shed light on how the most straightforward problem can result in horrific results. Just as a flower or a tree can die from receiving too little or too much water, we can add stress to our lives from not meeting our own necessary life needs.
“Always use a wet brush” – This may seem like common sense now, but it wasn’t to a 16-year-old kid. While painting signs, my boss told me to keep my paintbrush wet. These essential life lessons aren’t taught in schools but are very necessary.
“You have the patience of a saint.” – Why did I include this? My boss told me this. That’s why. It’s always comforting to hear bosses compliment their employees. When you deal in customer service, you have to learn patience, and that skill benefitted me as I became a high school teacher later in life.
There are many more I could include here. I oftentimes came home covered in dirt from handling several rolls of sod after working an 8-6. I’d eat, take a little break, or work on homework, and then go right back to work the next day. I worked all my weekends. I worked every holiday except Christmas, and I didn’t mind. I saved all my checks. The money I raised by working there helped me purchase my first car and put me through college. They always took me back on my breaks from school. They were always there for me, and I was always there for them. In my ten years at Saunoris, there is not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for what they did for me and what I learned from my time there.
There were bad days, sure. Who likes standing with an indecisive customer in a tree lot in five-degree weather? Or watering rows and rows of annuals on the Fourth of July in the greenhouse? Some days were so hot that I couldn’t stay outside for more than ten minutes. Some days were so cold that I could feel it through ten layers. But I’ll always cherish the good times, the happy times.
A lot of people are going to miss that place. I’m just one of many. And many others have their stories too. My family’s friend Ozzy had his. He helped pass it on to me. If you weren’t lucky enough to stop there, I hope that my words have some kind of impact on you. Thank you for all you’ve done for me. I won’t forget it.