Green Forest exudes a spirit of growth, from the nurseries full of budding baby yaupons speckled with dew to the legions of pink-plumed crepe myrtles toward the back end of the property. “You can’t have bad energy and make this many plants grow,” Batson says. “All our Green Forest people know that a positive attitude and a willingness to work is what’s going to keep our plants healthy and thriving.” Batson, a perfectionist by nature, stoops to adjust the flow of a water hose in a potted plant at the end of an aisle of what seems like hundreds. “Most people wouldn’t notice that it was out of place, but, at this point, I can’t help it,” he says.
Batson helped found Green Forest Nursery with his father in 1983, but his passion for plants, people, and business originates in his childhood in LaGrange, Georgia, where he grew up around the sprawling, historical Callaway Gardens. “My entire family is from Stone County, but when my dad was called into the Service, we moved to LaGrange. As a little boy, Callaway Gardens took my breath away. I loved getting lost in what seemed like endless flowers and trees,” Batson says. After his time in the Service, Batson’s father moved the family back to Stone County to take over the Batson family lily farm. “On the lily farm, I always had my hands in the ground. We had to work so hard and get so dirty to make these beautiful, pristine flowers grow well. That may have been when I first learned the value of getting your hands dirty in order to make something beautiful.”
As he grew up, Batson knew he wanted to take over the family business. “I’ve always loved plants and people,” Batson says, “So I knew I wanted to work outside and help people beautify their homes or gardens with well-grown, quality plants.” Batson attended Mississippi State University, where he received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ornamental horticulture. “Those programs really prepared me for the world I’m in now because they gave me a strong business backing,” Batson says. After college, Batson went to work for a nursery in Folsom, Louisiana. “While I was in Folsom, I would see these guys go out in the woods to dig out yaupon holly and sell it. The percent profit was pretty good, considering they didn’t have to buy the tree for anything.” Batson took a hint from the Folsom yaupon diggers, and soon enough, he found himself back on familiar soil, digging for and selling Stone County yaupons.
In a beat-up, spray-painted GMC truck, Batson started his own Stone County business in 1983. “My wife and I wanted to come home,” he explains, “We got married when we were 18 and 19, and we wanted to start this business before we had kids. We knew we wanted to keep our roots in Stone County. I’m very attached to the property I’m standing on now and the people who live and work around it.” The Green Forest Property stands on about 900 acres of land, 200 of which serve as nursery space. Somewhere between digging for yaupons and dealing with new customers, Batson’s humble operation grew into a full-fledged regional giant. Batson, however, refuses to take all the credit for Green Forest’s growth. “It was the 80s,” he says, “The economy was great. People were building houses and wanting to landscape those houses.” Batson saw a lane much wider than just yaupons, and he decided to expand his business to target re-wholesalers and distribution centers in larger metropolitan areas. “Because we’re located so close to such major highways, we’re able to provide plants to major distributors and landscape companies all over the Southeast,” he says, “We’re so close to the coast, close to New Orleans, close to Hattiesburg. It just makes sense to run the business out of this place.”
After noon, the sun hangs high over Green Forest Nursery. For a few minutes, Batson slips away from plant propagation and nursery management to visit his favorite spot on the property: a secluded wooded area near the crystal blue irrigation pond–a true Green Forest. “This is where I come to think,” he says, “I meditate, I pray, I might eat a snack. I just love that any time the work gets overwhelming, I can come here and appreciate nature. There are places like this all over Stone County. Anytime you need a refuge, you don’t have to look far.”
Since 1983, Batson has helped create and sustain a nursery where local kids can come and work for the summer. More than that, he’s forged a workplace that celebrates and supports young students who want to work in horticulture. In fact, Batson has even sponsored a local young man who wanted to attend Mississippi State to pursue a horticulture degree. “It’s important to me that I carry on my father’s legacy,” he says, “And the two of us always wanted to make sure that Green Forest was a local business with an enormous reach. We want the community to take pride in the nursery’s growth over the years, because this is something we’ve all done together.”
Batson’s family has been in Stone County for over 200 years, and they take immense pride in their wooded, centrally located home-place. This pride, though, hardly leads to exclusivity; they want everyone to experience what Stone County has to offer. “This is a place for entrepreneurs, creators, and artisans,” he says, “We don’t want to keep people or industries out; we want to bring them in so we can see this place grow even stronger and brighter.” Most of all, however, Batson looks forward to seeing how industry leaders and business professionals can find a new rhythm in Stone County. “If you bring your business here, you’re going to find a loyal, reliable workforce. You’re going to find a top-notch school system. You’re going to find a community who cares,” he says, “And who knows? You might also find your own little spot in the woods, a place to reflect and wind down when life gets too hectic.”
As late afternoon approaches, Batson makes the drive back home, where his wife, dog, and ducks greet him. He throws some meat on the grill, turns on his favorite folk rock radio station, and enjoys the end of another gorgeous day at Green Forest Nursery. Tomorrow may look just like today–the work will be hard, the people will be welcoming, and the plants will be blooming–and, for Batson, that’s more than just right.