Our Story2020-03-20T10:35:14-05:00

Growing Since 1919

Earl May Garden Centers are your “local” lawn and garden experts. Our stores sell Midwest-hardy plants that are appropriately rated for the local climates. In addition, each Earl May Garden Center employs company-certified professionals. They train to assist customers with all aspects of the lawn and garden. Total customer service is a company commitment. We strive to go above and beyond what customers normally expect.

We operate 28 family owned and operated stores throughout Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. At your neighborhood Earl May Nursery & Garden Center, you’ll find more than just plants. You’ll find friendly, helpful staff and everything you need to enhance your outdoor living space.

Earl May

The Early Years

Earl E. May founded his company in 1919 in the small southwest Iowa town of Shenandoah. As a “natural born” salesman, he quickly attracted a number of capable individuals to work with him. Together, they built a successful mail-order and retail seed and nursery business. Though he died in 1946, his legendary expertise lives on today at the garden centers which bear his name.

Born on a farm near Hayes Center, Nebraska, Earl discovered his knack for selling by earning money to go to college. He started his career after earning a certificate to teach school at $50 per month. He then attended law school at the University of Michigan, and worked his way through by selling garden seed on horseback for the D.M. Ferry Seed Company.

Earl May showing off roses

Earl moved to Nebraska to finish his law degree at the University of Nebraska. There, he met his future wife, Gertrude Welch, the daughter of E.S. Welch, prominent nurseryman and owner of Mount Arbor Nurseries in Shenandoah, Iowa.

Drawn by the intriguing catalogs and mail order merchandising by the southwestern Iowa nurseries, Earl shucked his law degree, married Gertrude and moved to Shenandoah to become an apprentice to his father-in-law. In 1919, the May Seed & Nursery Company was organized. The original company sold baby chickens, tires, batteries, radios, paint, shoes and clothing as well as seed, mostly by mail.

Earl May Radio

In the early 1920s, Earl foresaw an opportunity to reach thousands by a new means of communication called radio. He traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to broadcast his program at WOAW. After two years, he decided to build his own radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa.

In 1925, KMA was opened, at first as a department of the nursery company. It was one of the most popular stations in the country, broadcasting homespun farming and gardening talks.

Earl May Radio
Earl May KMA studio

Earl May won the “Radio Digest” coveted gold cup in 1926, after being voted the World’s Most Popular Radio Announcer by over 452,000 people throughout the United States. The Mayfair Auditorium, home of KMA, was visited by thousands of listeners who wanted to meet the legend and see the live broadcasts.

Earl May Radio on KMA

Earl May Seed Catalog

“Don’t envy the Zinnias across the fence, grow some yourself, with blooms immense. ‘I want the best,’ you’re sure to say, so buy your seed from Earl E. May.”

After starting out with just a handful of seed and nursery catalogs in 1919, more than two million were later mailed annually. Radio “advertising” helped boost mail order catalog sales. Gardeners could browse the catalogs filled with lush blooming plants on cold February nights. Then receive seeds and nursery stock ready for spring planting.

Earl wrote the copy for the catalogs and his “Nursery and Seed News” himself. They were filled with product and planting advice, as well as personal anecdotes that made readers feel like real friends. During the Depression, he often told his farm seed customers to order and plant the seed they needed, and pay him whenever they could. A letter from Earl May in the 1948 catalog showed that his customers had great confidence in him. “During the last year over a thousand customers have sent us their signed checks and left it to us to fill in the amount required for our goods.”  Such kindnesses earned him a reputation as a friend and humanitarian throughout the country.

Though a powerful sales tool for many years, time eroded the catalog’s effectiveness, and it was finally dropped in 1991. That way the company could concentrate on its retail nursery and garden centers. The company now meets customers’ needs by providing the finest quality products through its expanding retail garden center facilities and online.

Earl May Garden Centers

May Seed & Nursery Company’s business was 90 percent mail-order for many years, until the first brick and mortar retail store outside of Shenandoah, named the Earl May Trading Post Number 2, was opened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1930. The May Company added stores the next two years in Omaha, Nebraska; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Ft. Dodge, Iowa. Several more were opened in the 1930s throughout the Midwest; several were open only from February through May, and were called “Spring Stores.” They were usually located in downtown areas, and carried a good supply of garden seed and nursery stock.

In 1938, the decision was made to operate all stores on a year-round basis. At that time, fertilizers, insecticides, tools and other hard goods were added to the existing merchandise line. The foundation of the present day Earl May Nursery & Garden Centers had been established.

Earl May Distribution

As the nursery and garden center operations expanded, so did the need for more storage space and shipping facilities. In the fall of 1971, a new distribution center popped up just outside of Shenandoah. Earl May’s own fleet of tractors and trailers could deliver merchandise and nursery stock to the garden centers daily, and stores were able to replenish inventory often. This meant customers had plenty of fresh merchandise to shop from.

For many years, Earl May Garden Center operated a 77-acre test garden, which attracted thousands of visitors from around the country. A portion of the area housed more than 2,000 varieties of vegetables, trees, shrubs, roses and grasses for national tests and future varieties for Earl May customers. As many as 20,000 visitors attended the annual open house to see the dazzling display of color created by thousands of blooming plants. The Show Gardens were discontinued at the end of the season in 1994, and the grounds were used to construct a larger green goods growing and distribution center to better serve retail customers.

Earl May Delivery Truck

Earl May Today

Ankeny Earl May Storefront

Today, Earl May Garden Center is among the top 10 independent garden centers in the nation. While the company’s core business remains selling seed and garden products, specialty items have been added. These items include private label lawn and garden seed, fertilizers, garden insecticides and fungicides. In addition, Earl May added a garden gift and decor department and continues to expand the outdoor living department. Service offerings include landscape and container garden design, installation, and yard, garden and container maintenance.

As times change, store facilities also change to allow customers a pleasant, up-to-date shopping experience. In 2020, paint colors and signage will be updated to create an inviting and inspiring atmosphere for our customers.

“Great pride is taken in product knowledge and service. Almost any place can sell a rose bush or potted perennial but not many can tell you how to care for them and honor a guarantee too,” says Mr. Bill Shaw, former CEO. “We want to educate our customers so they’re happy with their purchase and they can enjoy it for years to come.”