From historian to horticulturist

John “Ike” Carter Jr.  standing in front of flowers and trees.

When John “Ike” Carter Jr. (B.S.’82/H&S) graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, he faced a job market with few opportunities for newly minted history majors. So he got innovative and turned to his past experience working for nurseries and maintaining landscapes at Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown to cultivate a new career path. 

When did you start John Richmond Landscaping?

I started the business in 1987 and incorporated in 1993. In the beginning, I had some equipment and a pickup truck. There was a home-improvement store in Richmond at the time, Hechingers, and I bought a lawnmower there on credit. I started making a decent amount of money landscaping and had a good client base. I never really liked being inside, so that’s when I decided to start the business. At that time, gardening and landscaping was more of a hobby for me. Then it became more of a necessity to earn money and everything flipped, history became more of a hobby. Now we have 42-60 employees depending on the season.

My grandfather always had a saying: “99% of your worries never materialize.” It is something I have always carried with me, and he was right.

How did VCU prepare you to start your own business? 

People might ask how a degree in history has anything to do with horticulture. History and liberal arts give you a good background in everything. I found that tremendously helpful at the beginning in gaining respect and confidence from potential and existing clients and still do. People have a wide range of interests. Tapping into that is very helpful in selling yourself as the ideal candidate for the job.

When you’re studying history, you also learn about literature, philosophy, religion and sociology. Every garden, past and present, has a history. Even in literature, they mention gardens and how they were constructed back in colonial days and how it changed in the 1800s. People moved from a more formal garden to a more romantic garden, which was something that didn’t really have any structure. Even in poetry, you can find references to gardens. I find it very interesting.

I also had a very good logic professor and a very good economics professor at VCU who taught me tools that I use every single day, and a very good Spanish professor. I speak Spanish fluently and a lot of it was because of him.

Do you seek out gardens to visit when you travel?

My wife, Karen, and I like to try and find smaller gardens off the beaten path. We have been to France and have seen the gardens of Versailles. I also like going to the Tuileries Garden across from the Louvre. Paris is such a walkable city; if you take the time to go off the beaten path, you’ll discover smaller gardens that may not have the same historical significance as Versailles, but have more charm. We’ve also been through many gardens of the Gilded Age and in many cases, as with the Biltmore and Rockefeller’s gardens in the Hudson Valley, there is as much detail and thought put into the gardens as what went into the grand structures. There was a huge movement toward large, open gardens during the Gilded Age, and there was a lot of money to back it. Rockefeller put much more time into his gardens than his homes. He did much of the design and physically helped his crews with the planting. Many of those gardens can be seen today in their original state. So again, history can be viewed through gardens. We enjoy finding these hidden gems in our travels.

What advice would you give business owners who are just starting out?

When I started my business, another business owner gave me advice. He said, “Ike, I can see you’re struggling on what to do here. Why don’t you just do what you know how to do and go with that.” I am lucky I did have something else behind me, which was landscaping. So I would say do something you know how to do. We are in a recession that is beyond the country’s control, and if people can use their degree in a field they may not want to be in, the experience is invaluable. Maybe you work in the restaurant industry and you could use what you learned in college, like I had to, to help you take something and turn it into something else like a business.

I would also recommend you always return calls when you are starting a business. Those are skills I learned at VCU because you have to have papers turned in on time, you have to be able to talk to your professors and you have responsibilities. A lot of people start businesses who don’t have that kind of background. One of the most important things for me was returning phone calls, because people were amazed that they got a call back.

What would you do if you didn’t start John Richmond Landscaping?

I would have gone back to college. My history professors wanted me to get my master’s degree. Some part of me wishes I had, but right now, I can do as much as I want to with the business. However, I think many things direct us toward where we should be. I am happy where I ended up and owe my school and my professors a great deal of gratitude for helping me get there.

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