Built on a Deep Rooted Passion: The Lasting Legacy of Peterson’s Nursery and Garden Center

By Diego De Jesus
Photography by Jordan Randall

As soon as you park, you see a palette of petunias and a giant milkweed tree swarming with monarch butterflies along a fence that skirts the perimeter of Peterson Nursery and Garden Center. Here is a garden that’s moved many times throughout the decades, but has kept the same promise. 

It all started as a hobby in the spring of 1932. Their grandfather, Newton Curtis Peterson Sr. began growing camellias and azaleas in tin cans with poked holes on the bottom and started selling them to his neighbors. He discovered the apple-blossom pink Duchess of Cypress azalea at the nursery’s original location at Riggins & Pennsylvania near Lake Morton which he opened in 1932. 

The nursery moved from one location to the next for decades at a time. Karen Norris-Peterson and her younger brother, Howell “Howie” E. Peterson Jr., were handed the torch in 1985 by their father, Newton Curtis Peterson Jr., to continue the generations-spanning nursery. It was eight acres then, but they decided to downsize and settled on their current location they moved into in 1985. 

You never plan to fail. You fail to plan is kind of an old slogan that we’ve picked up over the years. We want to make people educated on how to do things right.” – Karen Norris-Peterson

Now on County Road 540A in south Lakeland, the nursery has seen a significant change in scenery from the original untrammeled central Florida. 

“When we first moved out here, there was no CVS, no Walgreens, no Publix,” Karen said. “There was just a strip plaza. Now, they have a small town…it was kind of a little community that moved close to us here.” 

They’re frequently visited by the same customers, some of whom have known of the nursery since they were children. Some customers have been coming for three generations, and have memories of visiting the nursery with their grandparents.   

Their nursery has always been known for its roses, and it’s a promise they keep every year to provide samplings that blossom into an eye-catching hue. Karen and Howie have been ordering their roses from California for 50 years, understanding that their staple flora has a dynamic trend among their customer base.  

Around this time of the year, the nursery orders roses to get the saplings in December like clockwork to make it in time for the growing season. 

Plants have trends. Some come and go where providers don’t grow them anymore based on demand. With this philosophy, every year, Peterson’s grows at least 1,000 roses. They grow their roses for eight weeks, and the All-American Rose Society picks new rose varieties annually.

New rose species are introduced to the nursery every year because of their novelty and attractive colors, making them more expensive to import and sell. Each species requires a different method of maintaining its fragrance.

“We get excited with new varieties, new colors, new habits, like if they’re disease resistant and if they last a long time in a vase,” Karen said. “That’s what everybody kinda wants, something low-maintenance like that.”

They also order classic roses like red Mr. Lincoln’s and peach-apricot Tiffany’s for customers who remember when their grandparents cultivated those species.

While they’re bridging the gap between what’s new and striking versus what’s old and nostalgic, they continue to provide education on their life’s work.

“You never plan to fail. You fail to plan is kind of an old slogan that we’ve picked up over the years,” Karen said. “We want to make people educated on how to do things right.”

Every month, Karen hosts a free lecture from 9:30 – 10:30 a.m.  that covers a specific aspect of gardening, anything from how to attract bees to your garden to landscaping.

For beginners looking for somewhere to till the soil and start gardening, Karen suggests beginning a vegetable garden, depending on the season. During the dog days of summer, cherry tomatoes, peppers, okra, and eggplant are in season since they naturally can handle 110-degree heat.

“Getting out there working in the garden is satisfying alone. It’s just rewarding that way,” Karen said. “I’d much rather be out there working in my garden. It’s very therapeutic instead of doing paperwork. I love waiting on customers and helping them with their garden.”

Their nursery is one of the oldest in Lakeland, with other nurseries coming and going. There’s uncertainty about who will take their place in the future, but until then, they’ll still carry on their legacy appreciated and carried on by generations of Lakelanders.