By Karen Derr
Joshua Kornegay, owner of Joshua’s Native Plants and Garden Antiques, can be found on-site in the Heights most days. The first hint that he’s a hands-on kind of guy is the nursery’s online reviews, which often mention how Joshua personally helped with a purchase. And if you sit down for a chat with him, be prepared for multiple interruptions—like the phone, which Joshua answers personally, or a first-time shopper who said he had found the place by accident and just wanted to congratulate him on a great nursery. Or a neighbor bringing in a couple of “junktique” iron planters to trade for butterfly plants. Whether he’s finding a rare specimen for an aficionado or helping a local classroom get pesticide-free milkweed plants for their monarch caterpillars, he seems to get a kick out of helping all kinds of gardeners. Joshua’s has been located at the corner of Nicholson and West 18th streets in the Houston Heights for over 20 years now. It’s not on a commercial street, but the parking lot is usually full. Inside, shoppers find lush rows of plants, stacks of colorful pots, and a huge warehouse of garden art and antiques.
Like the plants he’s made a business selling, Kornegay is a native, born and raised in Houston. In fact, the 51-year-old lives in the house where he and his three older sisters grew up in nearby Oak Forest. He says many fellow Waltrip High School alumni shop with him. Start talking about growing up in Oak Forest and the Heights, and he’ll bring up Peppermint Park, Doyle’s on 34th, and shopping in the Heights at Kaplan’s Ben Hur. “We always bought my mother’s Mother’s Day gift at Kaplan’s Ben Hur,” Kornegay shares. His first business loan was financed by a local Heights bank. He credits his dad for sparking his love of nature and science.
Kornegay could be the poster boy for his alma mater Stephen F. Austin University, which has a billboard campaign touting that “lumberjacks make great entrepreneurs.” Kornegay says, “I don’t advertise a whole lot, but if I can get you in here, you’ll dig it, because I’ve got things nobody else has.” He’s constantly looking for unique sources to get better pricing and merchandise not offered by other nurseries. He explains, “Some species are contract-grown for me, and me only—I even have a Salvia named after me! I also specialize in ol’-fashioned favorites that are classic southern heirlooms—the kind of things your grandparents would have grown,” adds Kornegay.
He also buys 40-foot containers of pottery directly from Vietnam. His inventory includes fountains made from large ceramic pots, which he is able to offer for less than similar items from traditional markets and trade shows.
His quest to offer something different to his clients is key to his business philosophy. “I looked at [stocking] bronzes through a middleman in Dallas who offered cute little puppy dogs and Disney-looking frogs.” Kornegay recalls his frustration: “I said, ‘This is it?’” He began researching a sculptor in Thailand who specializes in classical busts and cemetery memorials. “I contacted him and said, ‘Can you carve a six-foot-tall naked guy? And while you’re at it, do me a series of angels.’” Despite his straightforward approach, the finished bronzes are artfully executed, and he says the designs are not available anywhere else in Texas. He’s expanded the line to include gargoyles and large mythical elves. He knows his clientele and the kinds of items that delight them, from funky rare finds to upscale items at a good price.
When asked about the popularity of native plants, Kornegay explains, “They’re more popular than ever. People don’t want to water every day or use pesticides. And they want butterflies and hummingbirds. We specialize in wildlife attractants.” Joshua’s sells thousands of milkweed plants per year to both schools and backyard hobbyists. “They love to bring me pictures of their caterpillars, and I’m thrilled to see them. It’s good, clean fun.”
Kornegay laments over the lack of choices offered to gardeners in today’s market, whether it’s natives or “bread and butter” stock. “There’s so much more out there than wax leaves and red tips. And we all know about bluebonnets, but there are thousands more indigenous species that thrive in our floods and in our draughts, and they’re just not available anywhere else. I like to try to zero in on that.” He says succulents are also a segment of his business that is growing, and he recently built a new 80-foot succulent section. “Succulents have gotten so popular. We have great sources for that here in Texas. I know almost every grower in the state.” Kornegay applies his hands-on approach when it comes to quality and selection. “I visit these farms personally, and I walk the greenhouses and pull what I want,” he says. “That’s how I win OutSmart’s Gayest & Greatest most years. I work hard at it.”
Besides flora and fauna, Kornegay has a passion for everything ancient-Roman. He collects coins and deities dating from Alexander the Great to Constantine, and confides that his collection numbers in the thousands. He also loves to travel, but most of his trips these days are limited to long weekends because of his work. Big Bend and San Antonio are favorites. It seems his travel and personal life may have suffered some while he’s been tending to business and working long hours. Single, with a great sense of humor, he rattles off the personals ad he would write: “GWM in search of experienced gardener for long-term relationship, outdoorsy type, not afraid to get dirty, some heavy lifting required,” Joshua Kornegay laughs unapologetically. “No, we can’t go to Southern Decadence. And no, we can’t go to Rio.” Of course, he might change his mind if he suspected he could pick up something great for the nursery while he’s there.
Learn more about Joshua’s Native Plants and Garden Antiques at joshuasnativeplants.net.
Karen Derr is a Houston-based Realtor and the founder of Karen Derr Realtors, which sells both town and country properties. She writes and speaks about home and small-business topics.