August 23, 2009

In praise of the uncommon nursery

Yesterday, Betty and I drove 90 miles to buy $116 worth of plants. It isn’t that we live in the middle of a nursery-free zone or that we have access to free gasoline. Rather, we chose to drive to Dartmouth, Massachusetts because we were looking for unusual plants and Avant Gardens is a reliable source for them. Then again, this spring, we drive 155 miles, to Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, to stock up on more than $300 of plants.

I have nothing against the ‘Big Box’ stores. If what I want is inexpensive potting mix or lime, I’ll be hard-pressed to find it cheaper anywhere. I also brook no argument with the locally-owned soup-to-nuts nurseries. The people at Weston Nurseries (a mere 18 miles away) know me on sight and they have supplied most of the trees and shrubs that grace our property. Weston’s staff is both knowledgeable and friendly and the nursery has some nifty marketing programs that keep us coming back. I used to joke that, instead of having my paycheck direct-deposited at a bank, it should be given to Weston and they could give me back any loose change that I didn’t spend there.

But when it came time to buy the annuals and perennials for some thirty containers this spring, we headed out the Mass Pike and spent roughly four hours shopping Andrew’s vast greenhouse and open-air sales area. Andrew’s (named for Andrew Cowles, who owns the nursery along with his wife, Jacqui) is a 30-year-old family business. It’s a 150-acre farm that has found its niche selling plants that you won’t find elsewhere. Those plants are lovingly described in a dense, 84-page catalog that makes it clear that Andrew’s both knows and believes in what it grows. For example:

MELAMPODIUM paldosum ‘Showstar’. This vivacious bloomer is the workhorse of your garden. Incredibly heat and drought tolerant. Once you try it you’ll never be without. Lush bushy mounds of misty green foliage adorned by multitudes of golden-yellow blooms. Full sun to partial shade.

That’s a lot of description for a small plant purchased in a four-inch pot, yet everything in the catalog is similarly detailed. Because those descriptions have been dead-on accurate every year, we’ve grown to trust that the cultivar we’re getting is going to perform as described.

Avant Gardens is not so easily described. If there is a common thread to the nursery’s collection, it is the unusual plants that owners Kathy and Chris Tracey have discovered and nurtured for the New England market. Going there is always a voyage of discovery: a mass of brilliant, late-summer color that turns out to be a self-sown annual brought back from California; or a capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ that has dark purple foliage, the better to highlight the tiny, round black and red peppers on the plant. ‘Black Pearl’ was worth the drive all by itself. Finding an array of sedums and grasses with terrific autumn accent colors was exactly what we expected, and we were not disappointed.

Nurseries like these are a treasure and deserve a wide following. The outlay for gas is more than made up by discovering a plant with an off-the-charts ‘wow’ factor. And, to me, that’s what gardening is about: cultivating delight.

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