Our Story2018-10-31T11:39:10-05:00

Growing Since 1919

Earl May Garden Centers pride themselves on being the “local” lawn and garden experts. Our stores only sell plants that are Midwest hardy and that are appropriately rated for the local climates. In addition, each Earl May Garden Center has company-certified professionals on staff. Earl May Certified Professionals are experienced associates trained to assist customers with all aspects of the lawn and garden. Total customer service is a company commitment and means doing something beyond what customers normally expect.

We operate 30 stores throughout Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas and our stores have always been family owned and operated. That means that 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. He was a “natural born” salesman and quickly attracted a number of capable individuals to work with him in building 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 by trapping wolves, skinning animals, and selling turkeys. He started his career after earning a certificate to teach school at $50 per month. He then entered law school, and worked his way through the University of Michigan 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, and 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 was able to foresee the great opportunity of talking to thousands of people 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, 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, during the peak years of the mail-order business, more than two million were mailed annually.  Radio “advertising,” a new concept, helped boost mail order catalog sales. Gardeners could browse the catalogs filled with lush blooming plants on cold February nights, and dream of receiving seeds and nursery stock ready for spring planting.

Earl himself wrote the copy for the mail order catalogs and his “Nursery and Seed News.”  They were filled with product and planting advice, as well as personal anecdotes that made readers feel like real friends. When the banks failed 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 so the company could concentrate on its retail nursery and garden centers. Although there is no longer a mail-order catalog, the company is now meeting today’s customers’ needs by providing only the finest quality products, through its new and 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, 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. Betty Jane Shaw, the current President of Earl May Seed & Nursery, has watched her grandfather Earl May’s visions develop and mature much the same as a fine oak tree.

Earl May Distribution

As the nursery and garden center operations expanded, the need continued for more storage space and shipping facilities. In the fall of 1971, a new distribution center was built just outside of Shenandoah. Earl May’s own fleet of tractors and trailers would deliver merchandise and nursery stock to the garden centers daily. Stores were now able to replenish inventory often, and customers had plenty of fresh merchandise to shop from.

For many years, Earl May Seed & Nursery operated a 77-acre test garden, which attracted thousands of visitors from all over the United States every summer. A portion of the area was used to test 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 flowering 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
Earl May Employee Experts

Today, Earl May Nursery & 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 to include private label lawn and garden seed, fertilizers, garden insecticides and fungicides. In addition, Earl May has added a garden gift and decor department and continues to expand the outdoor living department with beautiful, functional patio furniture and accessories to complete any outdoor space.  Landscape design and container garden design and installation as well as yard, garden and container maintenance services are offered in every store.  Some Earl May Garden Centers even carry an array of pet supplies and livestock as a year-round conveniences for customers.

As times change, store facilities also change to allow customers a pleasant, up-to-date shopping experience. New construction, remodeling and relocation are ongoing. Earl May President Betty Jane Shaw is instrumental in the design and layout of stores, providing general direction and long-range strategies for all of them.  All locations have been updated with new paint colors and signage to create an inviting and inspiring atmosphere for our customers.

CEO Bill Shaw, Betty Jane’s husband, oversees daily operations for the company from its corporate offices in Shenandoah, Iowa. The couple is on a first-name basis with managers and store personnel. “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. Shaw. “We want to educate our customers so they’re happy with their purchase and they can enjoy it for years to come.”