The McEwen brothers earned their green thumbs as kids in Winnipeg. Their grandfather started a sod business in the 1950s, and Bruce and Bill McEwen’s father and uncle expanded into landscape construction as well. The two boys contributed to the growth of the family business with shovels, digging up sod on the weekends and holidays and it was there that they learned the value of hard work, doing your best and standing by it, and building something from the ground up.
“Our parents taught us to work hard. If we wanted something, we had to work for it. It was a good life lesson,” says Bill McEwen Jr., co-owner of Blue Grass Nursery, Sod & Garden Centre.
They learned the business early and watched it grow from the headquarters around the McEwen kitchen table. The founders were always looking for opportunities, and the growth of Calgary brought with it the need for sod for new developments. In 1971, the McEwens decided to expand the business into Alberta. Bill McEwen Sr. and his wife Gail purchased 155 acres of pastureland in Red Deer, established Blue Grass Sod Farms, and set out to perfect their own brand of nursery-grown turf. Within a few years the company was producing premium Blue Grass sod, which continues to be the gold standard for turf today.
Blue Grass Sod Farms continued to grow, and in 2000 the McEwens expanded with the first retail location. They started Blue Grass Nursery, Sod & Garden Centre in Balzac in a 40 x 60-foot building and added onto it year after year. Today, it spans 17,000 square feet (with another 10,000 sq. ft. of greenhouse space coming this fall) and the business includes a newly expanded location in Red Deer with acres of caliper trees, perennials and annuals, turf and cereal crops and a location in Edmonton dedicated to bulk products, trees and sod. They plan to recreate the Balzac location in Edmonton in the coming years.
The third-generation operation is much more than a purveyor of quality garden accessories, plants, trees, soils and mulch. Blue Grass also does large landscaping and design projects at commercial buildings, city parks and properties, provincial spaces, and golf courses.
The clientele enjoys the benefits of decades of service, experience and knowledge about all things garden-related. The around 300 peak-time staff across the province are eager to help customers find the best products for their project, whether customers are planting their first vegetable garden, trying to choose the right trees from a selection of thousands, purchasing potted plants, or growing microgreens or herbs to create their own windowsill garden. And with 50 years of operations in Alberta, Blue Grass professionals have determined through many trials the types of trees that will grow in the province’s harsh climate and which won’t.
While Blue Grass started only as a sod farm, year over year they have expanded their operations. Blue Grass is proud to put Alberta first when it comes to the products they carry. Many of the trees customers find in the lot are grown locally at Blue Grass’ tree nursery. The vast selection of perennials, annuals, and now even tropical plants are also being grown locally by Blue Grass’ dedicated team of horticulturalists. Providing landscaping supplies to southern and central Alberta, along with snow removal, commercial landscaping, and landscaping maintenance are some of the new areas the company has grown into in recent years.
“Bulk products have become a huge part of our day-to-day — gravel, sand, mulches and decorative rocks. We also do a lot of custom-mix soil so you have a nice soil for your garden or pots,” says Bruce McEwen, co-owner of Blue Grass.
Customers love the convenience of delivery, whether that is a truck full of soil for a large job or Handy Cubes for smaller ones. These one-cubic-yard bags can be filled with gravel, soil or mulch and delivered mess-free to a customer’s driveway. There is no risk of the product washing away if it rains and if they don’t use it all, customers just close the bag and store it for use next year. Blue Grass has evolved with the times — especially these crazy times — to give customers what they want.
Blue Grass was a favourite destination last year when COVID-19 forced people to stay home. The staff noticed a surge in people, especially first-time gardeners, wanting to plant vegetable gardens, refresh their yards, and add beauty to quarantine with annuals and perennials. The company’s growing facility in Red Deer was filled to capacity with product last year. The product made its way to all the Blue Grass locations and throughout all of Alberta to ensure the company could meet customer’s needs.
“We went from being closed (at the beginning of the pandemic) to having one of the best years we’ve ever had,” says Bill. “It’s going to be another very busy year.”
COVID-19 changed how the company does business, and they developed Blue Grass’ online ordering system to accommodate that. It started 2020 with 17 products available online and now there are 500 products and growing. Bill and Bruce McEwen are making it as easy as possible for people to shop so Albertans can discover their green thumbs.
After 50 years, the brothers are still growing the business while helping their customers grow their businesses and gardens.