New Digs

Chris Winslow of It’s About Thyme is in the middle of explaining all the red tape behind moving his entire garden center to a new location when a frantic customer named Jim bursts into his office.

“I have this pergola out in the olive orchard and I tried to plant grapevines on the top but they’re just burning up!” says Jim. “What would you suggest to grow? Wisteria?”

“No, no!” Chris says, much more animated now than he was about construction costs and city regulations. “Wisteria would eventually destroy the pergola! I’d do the native Texas crossvine.”

“What’s that?” Jim asks, causing Chris to spring from his desk like Superman. “I’ll show you! Just happen to have one out here.” To me, he says “I’ll be right back,” then he rushes out the door. For Chris, plants and customers come first—especially if he has to choose between them or discussing a loathsome topic such as the forced relocation of his beloved business.

A developer plans to scrunch a large number of homes onto the plot along Manchaca Road that It’s About Thyme has grown into for over two decades. But unlike most stories of Austin developers pushing out small businesses, this one has a happy ending. Just around the corner, the Marbridge Foundation has set aside space for Chris and his wife Diane to build bigger, better digs. While it’s hard to imagine an institution like It’s About Thyme literally uprooting itself to relocate five greenhouses, hundreds of pots, chickens, mannequins, an old bathtub and its beloved outdoor train set, the Winslows have done it before, if on a smaller scale. Marbridge will be the fourth spot on which the Winslows have set up shop since 1980, if you count the backyard where Diane launched It’s About Thyme as an herb garden. “I’m not afraid at all,” Chris says of the move, which will even include the landscaping—from the fishponds to many of the trees. “Everything’s going. Anything that can be picked up and moved will be moved.”

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As the Winslows work to make the new space as familiar as possible, they’re also eager to branch out and experiment now that they have room. They’ve already mapped out where 100 to 200 olive trees will go, as well as test orchards to show people how to plant and tend fruit trees. Likewise, they plan to work with Texas A&M on a plot of grapevines as part of the school’s ongoing research project on grapes in Texas. The Winslows expect to still have plenty of room left over to keep on growing the plants they sell, a rarity in the garden-center biz that has helped make their reputation. This homegrown floral output includes several native Texas perennials, trees, herbs and vegetable plants—including 30 different kinds of peppers and 50 to 70 types of tomatoes in any given season. 

Setting up shop at Marbridge will be a coming-home of sorts for Chris, who worked at the residential care center for mentally challenged adults after graduating from University of Texas in 1971 with a degree in anthropology. As the foundation’s “horticultural therapist,” he employed 40 Marbridge residents before retiring in 1998 to partner up at the herb shop with Diane (whom he met when she sold herbs to Marbridge). He expects to employ residents again after the move, and the foundation, in turn, plans to sell the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor through an on-site farmers market.

Although originally told to move out by this past January, Chris and Diane have been able to stay month-to-month while the landowner and developer sort out details. They’ve used this reprieve to plan a seamless move-in where they can open the new location and close the old one without losing a day of business. “The plan is to keep the employees employed,” says Chris.

Though the impending construction costs and the absence of a firm move-out date from the landlord have left the Winslows living in what Chris calls “the world of the nebulous,” he shows few, if any, signs of worry. Back at our meeting, when Chris doesn’t come back to the office after a few minutes, I step out to find him lecturing Jim about how grass tends to like manure compost more than vegetative compost. “People have been putting manure in their lawns forever!” Chris says. When Jim breaks out a young lychee tree from his car, Chris’ eyes light up. “Let me show you what I’ve got in here!” he says, excitedly leading Jim into a greenhouse. Talking more about the upcoming move will simply have to wait.

By Steve Wilson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel 

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