More than 100 nurseries are blooming in Lake County, Ohio
Saturday, June 07, 2003
There are so many fabulous nurseries and garden centers here in Pittsburgh. We know and love them all too well, especially as we gaze into our empty pocketbooks each spring.
But as any plant nut will tell you, it's hard work to have a real plant-shopping spree in Pittsburgh. Our nurseries are far apart, many in isolated outposts in the distant reaches of the county, and the avidity with which we seek our plants dwindles as we spend most of the day in the car rather than among the plants that are calling out to us.
But psssst! Here's a tiny secret from some of our local gardening fanatics: Lake County, Ohio.
"The whole place is a horticultural treasure hunter's paradise," said Rose Field, a recently retired landscape designer in Point Breeze. "There's a whole range of plant material in such a short distance once you get there; you can't beat it for variety or quality."
A 2 1/2-hour drive from Pittsburgh, Lake County really is something of a gardener's mecca. The county is, as the name implies, on the shores of Lake Erie, and is home to more than 100 wholesale nurseries that supply plants to garden centers across the eastern United States.
Location is the key to this area's growing success. When prehistoric glaciers gradually formed Lake Erie, they deposited a variety of soils along the narrow crescent of its southern shores, making it possible to grow a wide range of plants with differing needs. The lake itself moderates the climate, preventing any extremes in temperature as well as providing a constant water supply. Add in the major highways that make overnight delivery to half of the nation's population a reality, and it's easy to see why the Lake County nursery industry bills more than $90 million in wholesale sales each year.
What makes this area so attractive to us non-wholesale shoppers are the retail nurseries up and down U.S. Route 20. There are 12 in a 20-mile stretch of road. Among the most prominent is Bluestone Perennials, a nationally famous mail-order supply nursery that specializes in reasonably priced, tiny pots of perennials and shrubs. They ship more than 3 million plants each year, according to owner Bill Boonstra.
Though anytime is fine to visit Bluestone, next week is the best. Why? The Sale. After the mail-order season dies down each year, Bluestone opens its greenhouses to the public for a few days and sells nearly everything at rock-bottom prices -- a flat of small perennials (which grow full-size in a season or two) is priced at $18 -- one way to fill up a garden bed without totally breaking the bank. This year, The Sale runs Thursday through June 15.
If you're going, why not hit as many nurseries as you can? To help you, Post-Gazette artist Diane Juravich and I recently made the day trip to scout out the best route from Pittsburgh. This trip can easily be done in one (long) day. But if you're planning on visiting The Sale, veterans suggest getting there early and spending much of the morning there. So, an overnight stay might make more sense if you want to visit all the places outlined here.
Three hundred miles and one car full of plants later, here are our findings:
We took 79 North to Interstate 80 West to Route 11 North. Route 11 is a secondary highway in northeastern Ohio, a 50-mile journey with few opportunities for gas or food, so fuel up somewhere beforehand. You'll be thankful to see the signs for Route 90 East (toward Cleveland). You'll be on 90 East only for a short distance, about five miles, before exiting at Route 45 in Ashtabula.
At the top of the exit ramp, turn left, and travel about half a mile south on Route 45 to Sycamore Hall Gardens (letter A on our map). We're actually in Ashtabula County here, but this place is too good to overlook. A small, family-owned garden center specializing in shade plants, Sycamore Hall boasts amazing display gardens filled with a bewitching assortment of plants, including rare hostas, ferns, pulmonarias and specialty conifers. Most of what is grown in these gardens is also for sale here, because as owner Mary Ann Clause says, "These plants are my best sales people."
Clause, along with her partner Bob Archer, lives in the historic house on the property, which is currently undergoing extensive restoration and, sadly, is not open to the public. But the gardens are more than enough to capture the plant enthusiast's attention, as is Clause herself. Be sure to ask her for a tour of her gardens and be prepared to take notes. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and the wise traveler would do well not to blow the entire shopping budget here, though it's entirely possible. This is one of the more pricey stops on our way, but the prices are not at all out of whack with the quality and rarity of the merchandise.
Tear yourself away and get back in the car, turning left out of the parking lot and driving about 4 miles north to Route 20. Turn left, and travel another couple of miles west to Girard Nurseries (B), on the right side of Route 20.
Girard is a nationally known mail-order supplier of specialty conifers, azaleas and other shrubs, family-owned and operated for the past 58 years. The assortment is not wide at first glance, so be sure to ask if there's something in particular that you're looking for. The family keeps more stock in the greenhouses. Check out the full range of water gardening supplies and walk through the display gardens to the right of the nursery to see what these puny little conifers can grow into.
Turn right out of the parking lot and get back onto Route 20, heading west. You'll pass through the small town of Geneva, and then officially enter Lake County. The next stop is Sabo's Woodside Nursery (C), on the south side of Route 20 in Madison.
Sabo's is known for its enormous selection of annual bedding plants and hanging baskets, but they also offer a mix of vegetable plants, perennials and a few shrubs. Go for the annuals and the friendly, knowledgeable staff members such as Cathie Thomas, a self-described plant nut who declares "a blank lawn is just a palette for me."
Here we come, Bluestone
Back in the car heading west again, look for a tiny, ill-marked road called Arcola Creek. It will be on the left side of Route 20, about 2 miles west of Sabo's, directly before a used-car dealership. We're going to take a small detour for a trip to the famous Bluestone Perennials (D).
Turn left onto Arcola Creek and follow it to Middle Ridge Road, and turn right. Bluestone is about a half mile farther, on the right side of the road. If you're going on sale day, plan to park in a field and walk to the nursery. If not, parking is plentiful. There is a brand-new retail facility on the nursery grounds, featuring most of the 1,000-plus varieties of perennials that the nursery offers. Plants are small, sold either in plastic six-packs or three-packs, and follow the signs carefully for prices. Be sure to pick up one of the free plant catalogs located by the cash registers -- it makes a great reference tool.
Heading west again, turn right out of the parking lot and drive about a mile to Middle Ridge Gardens (E), on the right side of the road.
Middle Ridge Gardens is a well-designed garden center, with a large greenhouse in front stocked with annuals and stunning hanging baskets, flanked behind by a double row of greenhouses, all nicely paved and wide enough to pull a wagon through. In these back greenhouses are gallon-sized perennials on one side, bedding plants on the other. In the perennial houses you won't find anything exotic, but what's there is healthy, lush and very reasonably priced (three one-gallon perennials for $15, or $6 each).
Our side trip concluded, we head west again on Middle Ridge Road, which takes travelers back to Route 20.
Find more room in the car
Our next stop is Gilson Gardens & Florist (G). Continue on and head west for about half a mile. Gilson is on the right, fronted by a cute little white cottage and gravel-lined pathways. Shrubs and perennials fill the front of the garden center, annuals and groundcovers hold court in a small greenhouse to the left, and shade perennials can be found on the slope behind everything else. The best thing here? The large assortment of clematis, wisteria and other climbing plants in the gazebo in the middle.
Hop back into the car for about 20 seconds and head west once more on Route 20. On the left side is Norris Garden Center (H). Norris has the usual shrubs and perennials in front, but inside is another story. Here you'll find a ton of garden ornaments such as planters, bird baths, wreaths and wind chimes. The greenhouses are filled to the rafters with hanging baskets and the most gorgeous Boston ferns you'll ever see.
On the road again, now heading east on Route 20 (make a right out of the parking lot), we shortly come to Martin's Nursery, which offers unusual trees, shrubs and hostas in large sizes. It might be hard to fit a delicious cut-leaf Japanese maple in the back seat, but it's well worth a try, especially at Martin's reasonable prices.
Our last stop is Secor's Nurseries and Fruit Market (J). Make a right out of Martin's, back on to Route 20, and travel a couple of miles. Secor's is in a large barn and has a small selection of shrubs and trees out front. Inside are the ubiquitous bedding plants and an enormous selection of vegetable plants in all sizes. In early May, owner Larry Secor had dozens of 4-foot-tall tomato plants already boasting small green fruits. You can pick your own strawberries here, too, which would be a nice snack on the drive home.
To leave, you can catch Route 90 in Madison (follow the signs on Route 20), or head back to our original starting point, taking Route 20 all the way back to Route 45 in Ashtabula. There are many chain hotels and motels at that exit, just in case you have the urge to stay overnight and do the tour all over again the next day. That is, if you have any room left in your car.
We, alas, did not.