Why People Love the Plants and Owners of This Durham Plant Nursery

Why People Love the Plants and Owners of This Durham Plant Nursery

People feel strongly about Gunter’s Greenhouse. In online reviews, words like “love” and “amazing” pop up frequently, often followed by several exclamation points. It’s the type of “brand affinity” marketers and companies dream of.

So why has this plant nursery in east Durham gained such an emotional connection from gardeners in the area? The answer has something to do with venus flytraps, cats and expert advice.

A Family Business

Melanie Gunter Whitten and her husband, Kevin, are the second generation to run Gunter’s Greenhouse. The couple took over the business in 2002.

“Mom and Dad were the ones who originally started it, Diane and Burt Gunter,” Whitten said said. “They started it in 1980, so this is the 40th year.”

Melanie Gunter Whitten and her daughter April manage Gunter's Greenhouse in Durham.
Image courtesy of David Straughan.

Whitten says that she and Kevin, and now their children, have added to the foundation her parents built for Gunter’s.

“They mainly did the outside stuff, perennials, annuals, stuff like that,” she said. “Then about four or five years ago we started the houseplants. So we have a little bit of everything.”

“A little bit of everything” might sound like hyperbole, but in Whitten’s case, it’s pretty apt. Today, Gunter’s Greenhouse has seven greenhouses, all home to a stunning variety of plants. Visitors will find anything from rare succulents to carnivorous plants like venus flytraps at this nursery.

That range draws from the Whittens’ passion for plants. They were one of the first nurseries in the area to start growing succulents, and they continue to seek out new plants each season. Many people come to Gunter’s for plants they simply cannot find elsewhere.

Succulents being prepared at Gunter's Greenhouse
Image courtesy of David Straughan.

“If we can get our hands on anything rare, we go after it,” said Whitten. “We’ve got a supplier that we buy from…he’s out there hunting. He goes to different people and different places until he finds something.”

A Greenhouse Grows in Durham

Whitten said that the rapid growth of the Triangle has been a boon to their business.

As a wholesaler, Gunter’s supplies some of the Triangle’s most popular garden centers. Southern States in Carrboro, Barnes Supply Co. in Durham and several Ace Hardware locations all source their plants from Gunter’s Greenhouse.

A diverse greenhouse at Gunter's Greenhouse in Durham.
Image courtesy of David Straughan.

The massive spike in population and new homes over the past few decades has translated to a huge demand for decorative plants. “With all the growing around here, the last couple years have been blown out,” she said.

COVID-19 Creates a Gardening Boom

That sustained growth took a sharp upward turn this year, as the pandemic caused a boom in the gardening industry.

“This year has been crazy,” said Whitten. “Nobody has anything else to do.”

As North Carolinians took to both their indoor and outdoor gardens, nurseries and garden centers across the state saw huge increases in business. As both a wholesaler and a retail business, Gunter’s saw a surge on both sides. “Business-wise it’s been crazy,” said Whitten. “We had a lot of people that have never planted before.”

Image courtesy of David Straughan.

Whitten said that initially, COVID-19 forced them to change things up a little. They started requiring masks and moved more plants outside the greenhouses to allow for open-air social distancing.

“In the beginning, we had to do the curbside thing because [for] a lot of our older customers, we had to look out for them,” she said. “As time went on we had to kind of shift out. It just got too busy and too much.”

The Stars of Gunter’s Greenhouse

Gunter’s Greenhouse is known throughout the Triangle for its diverse selection of plants. However, there are a few more stars of the show on Angier Avenue.

“I’m starting to think our cats are more famous than us,” said Whitten. “We’ve got one Calico. My husband says she’s the Instagram queen. Her name is Pumpkin.”

It is impossible to miss the cats that have clearly claimed the nursery as their own. Whether rolling around, basking in the sun or draped over a shaded shelf, the cats of Gunter’s are everywhere.

One of the cats of Gunter's Greenhouse.
Image courtesy of David Straughan.

“My kids are grown now, but they named our kitty cats,” said Whitten. “There’s Pumpkin, Dumpling, Munchkin, Sammy, and we call the other one Mama.”

Whitten says that people spend a lot of time at Gunter’s taking photos of the cats. “Especially big fat Pumpkin,” she said. “She’s the main one.”

Gardening Guidance from Gunter’s Greenhouse

In addition to the plants and cats, people come to Gunter’s for advice. Because much of the Triangle’s population boom relies on newcomers from other parts of the U.S., the Whittens’ knowledge of growing plants in the area is a valuable resource to them.

Pansies grow at Gunter's Greenhouse.
Image courtesy of David Straughan.

Whitten said that Kevin spends a lot of time talking about plants and gardening with customers. “He tells a lot of people general plant advice,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of new people. We also have, of course, our regulars. Kevin doesn’t want people to have problems with their flowers. He helps everyone and wants to make sure everybody succeeds.”

Gunter's Greenhouse has a massive variety of plants.
Image courtesy of David Straughan.

Perhaps what people seek at Gunter’s, or at least what they find, is more than advice — it’s people who care about plants and care about people doing well. That makes it easy to see why the nursery has carved out such a special place in the hearts of the Triangle’s gardeners.

The feeling sounds pretty mutual.

“There are some customers out here we love to death,” said Whitten. “Well, actually, there’s a lot of them.”

Looking for some advice for fall gardening in North Carolina? How about a few other locally-owned nurseries to pick up some mums and other fall plants?