Horticultural giant files for Chapter 11

Park Seed, one of the best-known catalog sources for seeds, has filed for bankruptcy protection.

GREENVILLE -- A tough economy has taken its toll on Upstate horticultural giant Park Seed Co., which has filed for bankruptcy protection but expects to continue operating as it has for nearly a century and a half.

The Greenwood-based seed provider, including its wholesale and rose-cultivation partner companies, filed to seek protection from creditors and is scheduled for an emergency bankruptcy hearing in Columbia on Wednesday, according to court records.

"Seeking court protection and restructuring is clearly our best option," Park Seed spokeswoman Claire Kuhl said. "We are learning from this experience, which will improve our business."

The Park Seed Co. operates a massive

catalog and online service that provides more than 1,000 varieties of seeds for vegetables, herbs and flowers, along with plants and gardening accessories.

The companies together owe close to $10 million to hundreds of creditors, according to documents filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Columbia.

About 330 people are employed at the 500-acre national Park Seed headquarters in Greenwood, with additional workers in the springtime, Kuhl said.

Park Seed has an illustrious history, beginning with its creation in 1868 in Pennsylvania by 15-year-old George Watt Park. A decade later, Park Seed's cataloge reached 20,000 readers and up to 800,000 readers during World War I.

The company moved to Greenwood in 1924 and to its current complex in 1961.

In 1983, the company joined in an initiative with NASA to pack 25 pounds of 40 different vegetable and fruit seeds on the Challenger space shuttle and study how the seeds responded to outer space.

The three companies' business models always have been seasonal in nature, but the economic downturn in 2008 brought it unprecedented challenges, Kuhl said.

"The horticulture industry is challenging and highly seasonal in the best of times," Kuhl said. "As the general economic situation declined starting in 2008, demand for luxury, non-essential purchases dropped sharply."

The recession caused sales gaps in core products, including roses, perennials and garden-inspired gifts, she said.

"This created cash-flow issues that worsened with each passing season," Kuhl said. "Despite deep cost-cutting and numerous attempts to execute supplier payment programs on our own, we simply could not meet our short- and long-term operating cash requirements."

The companies' business office, gardening center, call center, online service and shipping and receiving operations will continue, she said.

The companies are under the leadership of a court-appointed trustee and have four months to prepare plans for a new capital structure to pay their debts.