For a welder from Michigan, Hickory Hill Nursery in Sebring is a dream come true.
Owner Mark Montreuil was an unlikely candidate for a nurseryman. Born and raised just outside of Detroit, Montreuil's father worked for General Motors and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. After graduating high school, and with some welding training under his belt, Montreuil moved down to Ft. Lauderdale to work with his uncle.
Montreuil worked in many shops across south Florida, gaining expertise in welding everything from aluminum railings to aircraft and marine exhaust systems to skylights. But after getting married and having a child, Montreuil wanted to get away from "the rat race" and moved his family to Sebring.
He landed a job working for Lesco, an equipment manufacturing company in Sebring, but outside of work his surroundings went from gray metal to green foliage.
"I loved plants ever since I was a kid," said Montreuil. "It's just what I like to do," he added.
The smiling man with long hair under a baseball cap said he never had any formal training in horticulture, but has "a green thumb." For a short while he helped a friend in Ft. Lauderdale run a mowing and landscaping business.
I helped him on one landscaping job, Montreuil recalled. "I said, 'One day I am gonna have me a nice nursery.'"
That opportunity appeared when Lesco suddenly moved its operations to Ohio and the experienced welder lost his job. Montreuil had been growing plants and putting them out in his front yard for sale. "People started knocking at the door all hours of the morning and all hours of the night," he said.
Montreuil approached a friend to partner with him, and the two rented the property where a failed nursery sat overgrown and neglected on Highway 98.
Nothing worked except the pump and irrigation, and even those needed a lot of work. "Day and night we worked on it for weeks until we had it cleared out enough to bring a few of our own plants in," said Montreuil.
That was in 1998. Fast forward 15 years to today. Montreuil now runs Hickory Hill Nursery & Landscaping on his own. He bought the location he had been renting and now lives and works on the 10 acres, three of which are currently devoted to his business.
Montreuil stocks all kinds of plants from native Florida grasses and landscaping favorites like lantana, ixora, and azalea to tropicals like plumeria and hibiscus. He has oaks, palms, citrus trees and holly. He even carries two varieties of apple tree engineered by scientists at the University of Florida to grow in Florida.
Montreuil said he may not be as big as some other nurseries, but he doesn't want to be big. He works mostly alone or with help from his teenage son, making his way down shady, winding paths to weed and fertilize plants of all types.
A stroll through the property unearths fun finds like the "shampoo ginger" that produces a natural lotion from its cone-shaped flower, thousands of ripe purple beauty berries, and star anise plants just beginning to bloom.
When he needs a break, Montreuil sits on a chair shaded by mature trees with his back to a virtual bamboo forest - a spot where the temperature miraculously seems to drop a handful of degrees.
Montreuil's office is in a wooden building at the front of the property, painted a tropical blue and studded with huge pieces of driftwood he brought back from the Peace River.
While growing is his passion, Montreuil said he also enjoys customer relations and landscaping. He's careful to properly fertilize his plants so that they stay healthy once they go home, he said. He also teaches his customers how to properly fertilize and care for their plants, which is why they keep coming back, he said.
In his free time, Montreuil enjoys airboating on Lake Istokpoga. He's a member of the Garden Club of Sebring and provides tours for the group. He is also a member of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries and regularly donates plants to the Humane Society, local churches and other "good causes."
According to Montreuil, life as a nurseryman and landscaper is busy, but good. "I love it," grinned Montreuil, "I ain't going nowhere."