We had the good fortune of connecting with Simone Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Simone, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
It’s interesting to think about risk, it definitely signifies taking a chance and doing something that most others wouldn’t.

When I first opened my nursery I remember my cousin asking me “So, what’s it like to start your own business?” I answered, “Well, I guess it’s a lot like bungee jumping, screaming as you fall, hoping the rope doesn’t break and that you bounce back up!” No matter how much preparation, it’s exciting, scary and invigorating to take that step.

I’m not sure when it began, maybe when I was a teenager, but at some point I decided that I was not going to sit around and wait for things to happen, I’d set my sights on something and work to make it happen or say “yes” when opportunities knocked. I suppose I owe it to my Grandmother and her take charge attitude. Recently my sister said I’m a lot like her and recalled one of her favorite sayings “Every once in a while you just have to do something that scares the pie out of you!”
I love traveling, exploring, meeting new people, learning new things and figuring out how to adapt to change (key for staying in business). I like a good challenge and find that if something is a little scary or out of my comfort zone I should push myself for that growth and share what I learn with others.
You know what they say “We get one chance in life” and at the end of the day I’m not going to be that person who says “I coulda, woulda, shoulda” and I take full and honest ownership for my success or failures. Life is ever changing and progress is full of risks, I figure it’s all good as long as I’m learning along the way and moving forwards- no regrets.

Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
What is it that pops into your mind when you think of a retail nursery? Home improvement garden department? Rows of plants on gravel or asphalt under a shade structure? Well, The Educated Gardener is not anything like that. Not only are we a small family run business in an increasingly corporate, big box world but we also have a very unique tiny western town setting surrounded by meandering pathways, water gardens, planted areas and an aviary. With a background in design and a passion for plants, nature and biodiversity we genuinely care about our customers and strive to help them find solutions to their garden needs. With us, it’s not just about the sale. I’m proud of our knowledge of the area and of our unique selection and excited about sharing gardening enthusiasm with our current and growing customer base. We all have more to learn and I’m constantly looking for fun new/ different plants, products or techniques to try out and share with my customers and love listening to and learning from their experiences.

After graduating with degrees in Landscape Architecture from Cal Poly SLO my husband got his Landscape Contractors license and we began working together in his design/build business. I’ve always been a plant fanatic but during this time we frequented lots of nurseries and most were very similar and offered a variation of popular plants following the usual set up of rows, shelves and shade until we came across Heard’s Country Garden nursery in Westminster in the mid 80’s. The country cottage style and eclectic plant selection was inspirational and you could tell that this was a business with a love of plants. The seed for my business had been planted and from that point on I decided to follow my passion and bring something different to our area. My thought was “the educated gardener knows that there’s more”… more than just selling popular plants, soil and fertilizer, it’s a whole way of life, nurturing and creating an environment, working with nature, knowing about climate zones and various plant requirements, using organic and non toxic methods. I wanted to create a fun and inviting business reminiscent of childhood memories of old gardens where a new discovery is found at every turn and I could share my passion with others.

My business was years in the making, from that initial idea until officially opening in July of 1993 I went through the process of formalizing my ideas by taking classes through the SBA and consulting with friends, family and former instructors in the writing of a formal business plan, more help through meetings with SBA SCORE volunteers (Service Core of Retired Executives), licenses, permits, lining up suppliers, funding, finding a location, construction, stocking, advertising and finally opening.

Starting and running a business is not easy, especially one with live inventory, subject to not only changes in the economy but also seasonal and environmental factors in addition to balancing family life and avoiding burnout. It’s very important to remain flexible, willing to adjust as necessary and to realize the importance of taking vacation, spending time with family and not becoming totally consumed by work.

Through the years I have learned to watch, learn about and know my “competition”, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Never try to compete in a race to the bottom of cheapest prices, rather be flexible, find your niche and work hard to be the best, learn from and get to know your customers, always be honest and refer them to store “A” or “B” to find a product or service that you don’t have, your customers will appreciate it and you will have a much better and more cooperative relationship with other like businesses.

One silver lining of the recent pandemic was that people all over the world were jolted awake to the realization that our lives and way of living is fragile. People stopped traveling, shopping, going out for dinner, to the theater and even to work. Staying at home got people thinking about their own families, communities and local environment, planting gardens and growing their own food. Small businesses are vital to providing diversity, a sense of place and adding to the character of a community. With my business, The Educated Gardener, we are not a corporate or big box store. I strive to open peoples eyes to the diversity of exciting plants that are available, educate and inspire people to create living, bio-diverse landscapes that work with nature, supporting beneficial insects, pollinators, birds and butterflies, creating wildlife habitats, improving soils and finding natural solutions for healthy gardens.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Santa Margarita may be a tiny town but I like to say what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality! Aside from a must visit to The Educated Gardener, while there you definitely need to visit my favorite artist friends, Peg Grady of Studio 58 and Heidi Petersen of TABLE/Heidi Petersen Ceramics, both of which have studios and showrooms on the same property. Peg Grady is a very talented transplant from New York City, quick witted and quirky with an array of artistic talent which includes paintings, drawings, mixed media, irreverent stitchery and currently bringing to the world the travels, every day life and adventures of “Smoking Bird”. Pegs work has been featured in galleries throughout the US and can be found in homes around the world. Heidi Petersen specializes in contemporary functional ceramics which are as beautiful to look at as they are to use. Heidi’s tableware is irresistible and can be found discerning homes and upscale restaurants.

If you want something fun for friends or family, head to Margarita Adventures for a great time ziplining over the vineyards of Ancient Peaks winery, who’s tasting room is just across the street and waiting for you to visit after your return to town. Their award winning wines are some of the best in the county and deserve a taste and if their cafe is open grab a charcuterie plate, salad or delicious sandwich.

If antiques are your thing, head on into The Barn Antiques and Uniques, the selection there can have you lost for hours.

In town around dinner time? You owe it to yourself to get a reservation at The Range, one of the best restaurants in the county, so delicious, fresh, locally sourced ingredients, but be prepared to pay cash only.

Santa Margarita Lake is a mere 10 minute drive out of town, has lots of great hiking trails, fishing and boat rentals, but before heading out stop by Caliwala Market and Deli for some fresh made sandwiches, chips, drinks or healthy picnic fixings to bring along.

Want to meet a friend for coffee, lunch, beer, appetizers, burgers or maybe Friday night music? You can find all that at The Porch Cafe.

Lots to do without hardly even leaving tiny town, but you can also pop over “the Grade”, 15 minutes to explore San Luis Obispo, or 40 minutes to the beach in Morro Bay. Take a look at the FARMstead Ed SLO County Farm Trail map to find local farms, ranches and food producers or of course go out wine, beer, or cider tasting. If you’re bored, that’s your own fault.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Shoutout to: My family!
– My Grandmother for being the fearless matriarch of the family who lead by example, sharing her love of travel and exploration, jumping into projects and volunteering full speed ahead with the rest of us in tow.
– My Parents for pushing us into trying new things, letting us make and be accountable for our own mistakes, taking us hiking, camping, exploring and supporting our involvement in many different activities.
– My Husband, Tom, for putting up with me speaking my mind, supporting me in my crazy ideas and helping with my business creation and evolution along the bumpy way.
– My Sister, Sons and Friends who have been there for moral or physical support.
– 4-H for years of valuable experiences through projects, competitions, camps, leadership and exchange programs.
– My High School English Teacher, Mrs. Lester, for her guidance and activities in our Explorers Club.
And- to my teachers and fellow classmates in the Landscape Architecture Department at Cal Poly SLO (‘84,’85 & ’86) who always pushed for creative solutions.

Website: www.educatedgardener.com

Instagram: @the_educated_gardener

Twitter: @Lilygal

Facebook: @EducatedGardener

Image Credits
Simone Smith

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