They chart the frost, track the rain, and never get to kick back on Mother’s Day. Spring is crunch time for family owned greenhouses and nurseries, where generations are up to their elbows in the dirty work of nurturing everything from antique roses to sturdy saplings. Sure, this time of year you can buy flats of bedding plants on practically any street corner. But if you are looking for something special, local growers have the goods. Whether you’re a seasoned horticulturist or a poke-and-plant beginner, they offer a wealth of wisdom to ease your growing pains. Here are four family growers who can help you get in touch with your Inner Green Thumb, plus four fantastic plants that thrive in the Ohio Valley. Let the sprouting begin!
Seeds of Change
It was supposed to be a retirement hobby for Earl Baeten, who’d been bitten by the gardening bug and bought a Gallatin County farm where his five children could run around on the weekends. Earl, who had a floor-covering business, started planting trees on the site; one thing led to another, and when a piece of property came up for sale on Frogtown Road in southern Boone County, he thought it would be fun to grow some plants there and sell them.
It’s easy for the Baetens to remember how long the business has been around—17 years—because they’ve added a greenhouse every year. Brothers Todd and Jeff Baeten work year-round, while their father continues to pitch in part-time. It helps that the family opened their business right before growth in southern Boone County took off. Subdivisions sprouted like, well, weeds, and the Baetens were ready to serve the scores of new yards that needed to be landscaped and maintained. But it also helps that they enjoy what they do, even when it eats up three months of the year with 14-hour days.
“We’re so blessed to be in this business because we love it and there’s no substitute for being happy in your work,” says Todd. He’s the salesman and contact person for the operation, while his brother Jeff supervises the horticultural end. They both work in the nursery. Apparently, they inherited their father’s knack for growing things; even before the nursery opened, Todd selected agriculture as a college major and ran a lawn-care business before Earl convinced him to join him and Jeff at the nursery. Since then the Baetens have become one of the top boxwood producers in Kentucky, and they sell the evergreen shrubs to stores throughout Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, as well as inside the Bluegrass State. The center also grows all its own flowers and foliage in addition to many of the other shrubs and trees it sells.
Some independent garden centers grapple with competition from chain home-improvement stores, where customers can pick up a flat of annuals along with a faucet and a drill bit. But Todd Baeten doesn’t worry about them too much. He thinks most customers value the time spent at a garden store, poring over a vast array of blooms in search of the perfect color and texture, breathing in the scent of potting mix, and chatting with other gardeners about their finds. If he had to do it all over again, he’d put a coffee shop in the middle of his store (and still might), because he believes a greenhouse prompts people to slow down and linger.
“They like to be surrounded by all the plants and have half a million choices,” Baeten says. “This isn’t a business where you want to come in for 10 minutes and be done.” Here, he says, visitors can see “2,000 white geraniums and 2,000 pink geraniums and 2,000 red geraniums in bloom.” At a big box store you may have a couple shelves of cell packs. “There’s no comparison,” he says.
>> Baeten’s Nursery & Greenhouses, 364 Frogtown Rd., Union, (859) 384-4769, www.baetensnursery.com
Good to Grow
“Lantana is a great plant,” says Melissa Benoit of Marvin’s Organic Gardens in Lebanon. For starters, when the going gets tough, lantana keeps blooming. “It’s heat- and drought-tolerant,” Benoit explains. “We had some here last year that looked good all summer, even at the end of August.” Lantana’s colorful flowers, borne in charming clusters, attract butterflies. Plus, they come in mounding or trailing varieties, so they look good in a hanging basket. You can even train them as topiaries. Bonus: lantana blooms summer to frost, so you get your money’s worth.
>> Marvin’s Organic Gardens, 2055 Route 42 South, Lebanon, (513) 932-3319
A stroll through the orderly hothouses at H.J. Benken in Silverton is a reminder of the company’s roots as a florist. The jewel-like coleus and velvety impatiens sit in tidy rows surrounded by other summer annuals; dignified foxglove and showy anemone take their place amid the perennials. Nearly everything is in bloom, pinched, trimmed, and primped to look glamorous—or as glamorous as something sitting in dirt can look.
Mike and Kathleen Benken are the third-generation owners of Benken’s; of their five children, four of them—Tim, Kate, Lindsay, and John—also work in the store, and the fifth generation is old enough to come in and get their hands dirty. Mike’s grandparents, Harry and Johanna Benken, opened the store in 1939, and the family’s seasons have been shaped by it ever since.
“The rule when we were growing up was no spring sports,” says Mike, explaining that Easter lilies, bedding plants, and Mother’s Day bouquets always took priority over youth baseball and softball. “That was pretty much the rule for our kids too.” He remembers going out to deliver flowers the day he earned his driver’s license; years later his infant children sat in their pumpkin seats watching Kathleen transplant seedlings.
But the business has been through several transformations since the floral shop opened nearly 70 years ago. The need for floral arrangements dwindled as people’s lives became less formal; later on, florists found themselves competing with grocery stores that sold flowers next to the produce section. But as the floral business diminished, the garden center took off. In the blossoming east side suburbs, homeowners began to spend time and money on their houses, leading to a period Mike Benken remembers fondly for its “red geraniums and yellow marigolds.” And later, as gardening grew into a competitive sport, with everyone wanting a yard that the neighbors would notice, consumers demanded ever-greater choices in bedding plants. At the same time, homeowners had less and less time to spend in the garden, which led to the current boom in container gardening and hanging baskets.
Benken’s has scrambled to accommodate their customers on all fronts. The annual gardening guide they distribute at the store lists the hundreds of plants they sell, along with descriptions, growing requirements, and special notes about deer resistance and fragrance. And throughout the store there are enormous containers that use color, texture, shape, and fragrance to show customers what they can do at home. “It’s no different than what they do in a department store, when they put a mannequin up and put clothes on it,” Benken says. “We need to put plants in a container and show people a paint-by-numbers on how to get that look.”
Benken admits that some of the changes have been hard. For a long time greenhouses were for employees only, and plants grew in every inch of the structures. When customers began demanding entrance into the greenhouses so that they could personally scout for their own selections, the store had to create walkways, thereby sacrificing precious growing space. He worries sometimes that, in the rush to provide the greatest variety of plants, stores like his risk overwhelming their customers with too many choices. Then there are the 14-hour days all spring, and the financial pressure of a business in which most of your money is earned in a brief window around April and May.
“It’s a retail business, and retail’s hard,” he says. “You lose your holidays and you lose your whole spring season, but in the end it’s worth it. Nothing is better than seeing an empty greenhouse.”
>> H.J. Benken Floral, Home, and Garden Center, 6000 Plainfield Rd., Silverton, (513) 891-1040, www.benkens.com
Good to Grow
“The prairie dropseed is a fantastic-looking plant,” says Steve Slack, co-owner of Keystone Flora in Spring Grove Village, which sells plants that were native to Southwest Ohio before 1700. The dense, circular clumps of green turn straw-colored in fall. “They’re like little puffballs,” says Slack. “They’re really delicate and perfectly symmetrical, and they have great winter interest.” Mature, prairie dropseed is two to three feet high; it loves full sun, but can tolerate some shade. And it won’t become invasive. “It behaves,” says Slack.
>> Keystone Flora, 5081 Wooden Shoe Hollow Lane, Spring Grove Village, (513) 961-2727. (Open to the public Saturday and by appointment only.)
Al Funke is a man of many opinions.
There are, to begin with, his thoughts on the popular “black satin” hardwood mulch—“garbage,” he calls it—and his view of his big-box competitors, which he calls the “Cheapo Depots,” and which, he claims, sell poor-quality plants and ruin small businesses. There is his opinion of chemical growth regulators, the potions many growers use so that plants stay manageably small on the shelves but that also inhibit their growth when they are planted in the ground. “It’s drug addiction,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“We teach our customers to work with Mother Nature,” he adds. “If you work with her, she’ll do 99 percent of the drudge work for you.”
Funke’s opinions, shared with shoppers and distributed in a newsletter he e-mails to regular customers, are one highlight of a trip to his Spring Grove Village garden store, where his great-grandfather Friedrich Funke started farming more than a century ago. Friedrich was one of the many German farmers who settled in Wooden Shoe Hollow, now known as Gray Road, and grew vegetables.
Funke’s father, Bob Funke, took over the business in the 1950s and gradually converted it from vegetables to container ornamentals. Al Funke was studying at Ohio State University, with a dream of working at NASA designing the biosphere for a moon colony, when he decided to spend a summer helping create a wholesale division for the family business. Now 47, he has run the rambling seven-acre site, including the two acres of greenhouses, since his father died in 1991.
Funke’s is an eclectic place. There are resident cats roaming the aisles and architectural salvage pieces—chimney pots, tiles, old garden gates—poised for sale among the woody shrubs and trees. The store invites local merchants in for craft shows from time to time to sell hand-knit caps, lotions, and balms. There is an emphasis on American-made products, with an enormous collection of wind chimes manufactured in Texas and a locally owned line of self-irrigating flower boxes. There’s a fire pit roaring away during the holidays, when the Christmas tree lot is open, and Al’s mother Helen is at the cash register most of the time.
Like many garden stores, Funke’s is experimenting to figure out what customers will want next. They’ve expanded their selection of culinary and medicinal herbs to more than 100 varieties and are growing saltwater coral in a back greenhouse. The landscape installation part of the business has grown too, but Al Funke still has time to share his knowledge and opinions with the customers who walk through the door. “I tell my customers, give me 15 minutes of your time,” he says, “and you too can be a gardening diva.”
>> Funke’s Greenhouses, 4798 Gray Rd., Spring Grove Village, (513) 541-8170, www.funkes.com
Good to Grow
“Hellebores are evergreen perennials that bloom in the early spring or late winter,” explains Jordan Holtkamp, nursery manager at Greenfield Plant Farm in Maineville. “I’ve actually seen them pop up through the snow.” The plant’s foliage is sturdy and structured—some varieties even have serrated leaves—and it brings life to a dormant garden. The flowers (white, pink, purple, light green, yellow, and dark red) are long-lasting. Hellebores prefer dappled shade and look great in mass plantings. More good news: They’re deer resistant.
>> Greenfield Plant Farm, 726 Stephens Rd., Maineville, (513) 683-5249
The Family Beds
At an age when most of her contemporaries are a couple decades into retirement, Mary Harrison spends her springtime hunched over hundreds of seedlings. A winter day might find her digging in acres of plants or searching for a hamamelis (that’s witch hazel to you and me) in bloom. Summer means a steady stream of plant lovers wandering through her gardens, admiring everything from old-fashioned hollyhocks to woodsy Jack-in-the-Pulpit. And always there are the details she commits to paper—the weather journal she’s kept her whole life, the notebooks in which she records the first and last blooms of various daylily varieties, the maps she creates to note every plant in her display gardens.
“There are some very rare and valuable plants here,” says the 86-year-old horticulturist. “I’m not going to live forever and she’s got to know where everything is.” She is Harrison’s daughter, Sherri Berger, who helps run Mary’s Plant Farm—six acres of plants, herbs, shrubs, and trees near Hamilton. “I’ve seen it happen too many times,” Harrison says with dismay. “A place is sold to somebody and they dig the whole [garden] up.”
The farmhouse on Lanes Mill Road was a barren site high on a ridge when Mary and Alvis Harrison bought it in 1946. The daughter of an avid gardener, Harrison set about transforming the acreage into a pageant of unusual plants, all carefully selected because they would thrive in her yard and because she loved them. One day a state horticultural inspector suggested that she start selling her plants because no one else had what she grew.
Mother and daughter opened the farm in 1976; three acres are devoted to display gardens that help customers learn about new plants and decide what they want, and three acres are devoted to growing fields of viburnum, hydrangeas, peonies, ferns, and specialty plants. As the business grew, classes, garden parties, speaking engagements, landscaping services, and an online catalog followed.
Because of her location, exposed to the fiercest winter winds and strongest summer sun, Harrison knows that a plant that does well in her gardens will likely do well anywhere in the region. And for the plants that do well, Harrison offers extensive collections that draw serious gardeners from across the country: 1,600 varieties of daylilys, close to 300 kinds of hostas, 100 or so types of roses.
A visit to Mary’s Plant Farm is as much a lesson in gardening as it is a business transaction. The owners quiz their customers about where they intend to put their plants and what they expect them to do. A customer with manicured nails and a perfect coif may find herself steered toward the easy-care daylilys instead of the high-maintenance roses she came in looking for. “Mother’s been known not to sell a plant to somebody because they’re going to put it in the wrong place,” Berger says. “People will call and say, ‘I don’t want my roses until May.’ If you want that rose from us, you’ll take it in March and put it in the ground. It’s perfectly hardy; put a little mulch on it and walk away.”
Harrison admits she’s relieved when fall comes and it’s time to close up the shop. But she can’t imagine a retirement spent at a beachfront condo; even when she allows herself a vacation, she often ends up at the local botanical garden, marveling over species unknown to her. When customers come in with tales of frustration from the garden, she reminds them: “It’s supposed to be fun. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever have, but if it’s not gratifying, if it’s going to make you a nervous wreck, then don’t do it.”
>> Mary’s Plant Farm, 2410 Lanes Mill Rd., Hamilton, (513) 894-0022, www.marysplantfarm.com
Good to Grow
“I can’t say enough about parrotia persica. We love them,” says Stephanie Renaker-Jansen, a co-owner of Reminiscent Herb Farm Nursery & Landscaping in Florence. The Persian ironwood, as it’s known familiarly, has it all, according to Renaker-Jansen: glossy green leaves in summer; fall colors that range from gold to orange; gray bark that flakes off to reveal patches of white, tan, and green; and lovely flowers that arrive in late winter or early spring. And these trees are relatively disease, insect, and drought-resistant. “I’ve never seen anything bother them,” she says.
>> Reminiscent Herb Farm Nursery & Landscaping, 1344 Boone Aire Rd., Florence, (859) 525-8729
Photographs by Carmen Nauseef, Illustrations by Russ Charpentier
Originally published in the April 2008 issue.