George Van Atta started Van Atta’s Greenhouse and Flower Shop on a small budget in January 1980 in his hometown of Haslett, Michigan, near Michigan State University (MSU). He was 26 years old.
Van Atta didn’t always want to study horticulture, though he was exposed to the field early in his life. His parents, Ted and June Van Atta, had a seasonal greenhouse business in the backyard that he helped with while growing up.
“Watching my parents run their business certainly planted the seed [for my business],” Van Atta said. “I remember working as a five or six-year-old helping mom and dad with transplanting, watering and selling plants. I’ve been doing this all my life.”
While he enjoyed growing plants, Van Atta didn’t always expect to make that his career. After graduating from high school, he took some classes at Central Michigan University and then transferred to Lansing Community College (LCC), where he earned his associate degree.
“I didn’t know right away what I wanted to do. I think that’s fairly common for a lot of people,” Van Atta said. “I was always intrigued by the idea of having my own business. Doing your own thing resonated with me.”
After LCC, he transferred to MSU to study fisheries and wildlife. Van Atta changed his major to social work and then to horticulture. The field of horticulture stuck, while he also pursued his business interests.
“I had almost as many business classes as I had horticulture classes,” Van Atta said. “Along with my hands-on experience in my parents’ greenhouse, my education at MSU really helped me set the foundation for what I was going to do in the future. To excel in your field, it helps to have a combination of experience, as well as the education.”
To help other horticulture students gain experience, Van Atta generously provided $5,000 for the 2020-21 academic year to support an MSU Horticulture Teaching Greenhouse internship.
Van Atta first told fellow students that he dreamed of starting a business during an internship with Paul Ecke Ranch poinsettia farm in Encinitas, California. He graduated from MSU in 1978, eager to get started.
“It’s interesting when you set those dreams, put the focus on it, and have a goal. Things can happen. I’m proof of it,” he said. “That whole idea developed as I went along.”