Plant-Shopping Road Trip

Between Columbus and Cleveland are five garden centers offering unique herbs, annuals and perennials.  

Black Friday may be the ultimate shopping day for the holiday season, but the warmer weather of Mother’s Day weekend signals prime time for plant shopping. And thankfully, Ohio offers some of the best nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers for a trunk load of plants. In fact, the state ranks among the top five nationally when it comes to garden centers and nursery production, says Kevin Thompson, executive director of the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association.

Check out these favorites, clustered not far off Interstate 71 along the rolling and fertile countryside between Wooster and Alexandria.

The first stop is Quailcrest Farm. Located at the gateway to Amish country, this complex is worth the scenic drive alone. Its long lane leads past a farmhouse, a restored dairy barn and a patchwork of display gardens on the way to a greenhouse solarium. Here, you’ll find an extensive herb collection and plenty of reasonably priced, homegrown perennials.

In 1975, Libby Bruch started the business with 200 field-grown perennials. Today, her four children — Rusty and Toby Bruch, Ginna Phillips and Deborah Robinson — continue to build on her legacy. Collectively, they boast 200-plus years of gardening wisdom for inquisitive shoppers.

“We’ve made plenty of mistakes and can share what we’ve learned,” says Rusty, the resident shrub and tree pro.

For herb questions, seek out Toby. He’ll help you select from 15 basils, 20 lavenders and 16 mints, including one sampled in Quailcrest’s free lemonade. Ginna is the perennial queen. She knows the tried-and-true classics but also gets excited about newer varieties such as the rainbow of recent coneflower hybrids. Ginna says Quailcrest also grows several old-fashioned annuals like cockscomb and scented geraniums. Inside the gift shop, ask Deborah to point out the Ohio-made pottery for your container gardens. She may send you on to the potting shed where they’ll pot up containers with your plant purchases.

Next stop: Kingwood Center’s greenhouse. If you haven’t been to this 47-acre former estate garden, you’ll be awed by its spring displays and charmed by its lovely greenhouse packed with plants. They’re crammed on tables, tucked beneath them, hanging above and even displayed outside. In addition to several mainstays, shoppers will find many one-of-a-kind novelties, perhaps a golden dwarf conifer or a striking succulent. Also, look for coleus “Kingwood Torch,” introduced by Kingwood’s senior gardener Charles Applegate. Occasionally, his other introductions — hosta “Kingwood Center” and talinum “Kingwood Gold” — are for sale, too.

Eighteen miles away, the village of Bellville is home to two noted nurseries — Possum Run Greenhouse and Wade & Gatton Nurseries. Stop at the town’s landmark bandstand to fold down the car’s back seats and make room for more plants.

At Possum Run, fuchsias are king. Justin and Lynn Marotta grow 230 varieties of these exotic flowers for the North American wholesale market.

“Nothing rivals fuchsias,” says Justin, as he describes the intricate flower’s head-turning appeal. “Not even orchids.”
Native to South America and New Zealand but grown in Ohio as an annual, these shade divas are often typecast as hanging-basket flowers. Bestsellers such as “Dark Eyes” and “Swingtime” feature the familiar dangling lanternlike flowers in magentas, purples, pinks and whites. Recently, plant breeders have released a series of upright fuchsias with smaller flowers, often in shades of orange and red.

In their retail garden center, the Marottas feature 20-some fuchsias, including hanging baskets of the double varieties and pots of the upright ones that look great combined with tropical plants in containers. Besides fuchsias, this full-scale garden center offers a variety of other homegrown annuals and perennials, as well as garden accessories. Don’t miss the 12-foot indoor waterfall, arched wooden bridge and restored bank barn that’s now a gift shop.

At Wade & Gatton, hostas rule. Van and Shirley Wade grow 2,500 varieties at their 84-year-old nursery, and busloads of hosta fans from around the world travel to what they call “hosta heaven.” They’re drawn to the Wades’ amazing collection of these easy-to-grow, shade-loving perennials known for their beautiful foliage in varying sizes, shapes and colors. You’ll find mini hostas with quarter-sized blue leaves, larger ones with ruffled chartreuse leaves and even giant varieties with 6-foot spans and bold variegated leaves. In fact, Van has introduced 100 hosta hybrids, including “Van Wade,” “Van Wade Blue” and 80 others.

Begin your tour outside the Wades’ 1880s Victorian home, then wander through the hillside and woodland gardens filled with this diverse species. Grab a clipboard and take notes of your favorites, then visit the hoop houses to purchase ones to take home. With so many options, it’s best to make selections as you go or you’ll lose track of where you’ve spotted something. Look for hosta “Liberty” — the 2012 Hosta of the Year. Besides hostas, you’ll find 1,500 varieties of daylilies along with other perennials, conifers and trees. Before you go, make sure you have a chance to meet Van to shake his hand or pose for a picture. (He’s known to include a free hosta with new visitors’ purchases.)

“They’re the friendship plant,” he says about hostas, which are easy to divide and share. “And there’s nothing more fun than giving somebody one unexpectedly with hopes they’ll reciprocate one day.” 

Save room in your trunk for shopping at the final stop, Baker’s Acres Greenhouse. Like its famous catalog, this greenhouse in Alexandria is filled with 4,000 unusual plant varieties and plenty of "Prairie Home Companion"-style fun. Look for helpful and often humorous plant information, whimsical chalkboard signs and quirky displays such as a vintage refrigerator filled with plants.

Co-owner and casual rock musician Chris Baker even playfully refers to his beloved coleus plants as the “Hawaiian shirts of the plant world.” He grows some 250 varieties, including 40 of his own hybrids. Seven of his coleus hybrids are now marketed nationally by Hort Couture. These showy annuals are known for their variegated leaves in contrasting colors like hot pink and chartreuse or purple and orange. Baker's Acres also boasts the Midwest’s best begonia selection with some 100 varieties collected by resident grower Dave Morris.

A visit to Baker’s Acres isn’t complete without a trip to its wacky bathroom annually decked out with a different theme. Whether it’s this year’s “man cave” or last year’s Christmas Wonderland, the crazy decor is just another way Chris and his wife Nancy reinforce their mission to have fun with plants.

Before setting out on your plant-shopping expedition, check websites or call for hours of operation.

Quailcrest Farm
, 2810 Armstrong Rd., Wooster 44691, 330/345-6722.
Kingwood Center Greenhouse, 900 Park Ave. West, Mansfield 44906, 419/
Possum Run Greenhouse, 5384 Possum Run Rd., Bellville 44813, 419/892-2770.
Wade & Gatton Nurseries, 1288 Gatton Rocks Rd., Bellville 44813, 419/  
Baker’s Acres Greenhouse, 3388 Castle Rd., Alexandria 43001, 800/934-6525.

Lunch break: Pack a lunch to enjoy at Quailcrest Farm’s or Wade & Gatton’s picnic areas. Also, consider a garden-fresh lunch at the nearby Malabar Farm Restaurant (3645 Pleasant Valley Rd., Perrysville 44864, 419/938-5205.


Shop with a list to avoid costly impulse purchases. Before leaving home, survey your landscaping and determine
your needs.
Don’t limit your plant purchases to blooming ones. Rather, buy plants with buds to open soon or later in the season.
Consider a plant’s foliage. Coleus, hosta and heuchera (coral bells) are favorites for foliage.
Look for healthy plants. Avoid ones with wilted, spotted or discolored leaves. Also, if possible, check the plants’ roots. Ideally, they should not be growing out of the bottom of the pot.
Read the labels to make sure you have the right growing conditions. Hanging baskets of shade-loving impatiens won’t thrive on a sun-drenched patio.
Invest in multiples of plants for maximum impact. Instead of assembling a hodgepodge of plants, consider buying quantities of a few varieties in a complementary color palette.
Do your homework. Collect ideas from magazines, public gardens and the Internet. Evaluate your growing conditions and learn about the plants for those conditions. By choosing the right plants for the right spots, you’ll prevent many costly mistakes.
Indulge in something new. Many of the greatest gardening joys come from learning about new plants and experiencing the surprises they bring. Try some of the season’s hottest new plants: heucherellas, groundcover roses and succulents.