Taking Your Gardening Dollar, Unusually Clever People

Why it’s “Old House” Gardens

Scottkunst
I love this photo of Scott; like the Old House Gardens catalog, it’s colorful, old-fashioned, and charmingly cluttered

After placing my, um, eighth bulb order, a final fit of madness provoked by emails about irresistible discounts at Van Engelen’s and Old House Gardens, I started to wonder. What happens to all the bulbs that don’t get sold? I’m sure there can’t be enough obsessive bulb freaks like me to buy all these tulips and daffodils every year. What do they do with them all in December?

Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens came to mind as a good person to ask, mainly because he might remember me as the person who calls for instructions on how to force rare tazettas and complains because they don’t carry the species lilies I want. My one question about leftover bulbs morphed into many questions, and it turns out that Old House Gardens is a relatively young company with an interesting story. Unlike many founders of mail order nurseries, Scott Kunst does not come from horticulture or botany, but rather from study of the past. As he tells it:

“I was doing landscape history in the 80s, and I got a Masters in Historic Preservation, focusing on plants and gardens rather than on the built environment. I helped recreate historic gardens—not just high-end landscapes, but also small parks, cemeteries, and rural landscapes. As I was buying plants and bulbs for my own garden, I would notice that one year a certain bulb would be in nine catalogs, and the next year it would be in one. So in 1993 I sent out my own tiny catalog just to save bulbs that might go out of offer.”

Dahlia
The Atropurpurea dahlia, 1759

Kunst hunts for plants that have interesting pedigrees, consults the exhaustive lists of the national societies and international registries, and admits to being obsessed—within reason. “I’m not really interested in saving all 20-some thousand nineteenth century dahlias, but when there’s only nine left …” He works with other growers to amass enough non-mainstream (and some popularly available) bulbs to offer each year. Some, like dahlias, are easier to propagate than others (like tulips).

Henri
The henrii lily, one of the species offerings

For years, Kunst worked with lily expert Edward McRae, who found such rarities as the red variety of lilium canadense for the catalog, but—sadly—McRae died recently. A canadense varietal has not appeared in the catalog for a while; these days Kunst is excited about the Excelsior hybrids. As Kunst explains, he is not looking to offer interesting species as much as unusual hybrids that reflect man’s history with plants. “Gardening isn’t about the wilderness,” he says. “I am really excited about where nature and us come together.”

Jonquil
Jonquil Early Louisiana, 1612

But even with hybrids there is the question of authenticity, which is why you will occasionally see warnings about similarly-named bulbs that may or may not actually be the bulb you think you’re buying. On example is the Early Louisiana jonquil, which, like many of the Old House hybrids, does really well in Southern gardens. Modern versions of it found elsewhere might not. Southern gardeners will find that OHG is one of the few bulb companies that offers bulbs that will work in warmer zones without pre-chilling.

Oh right! My original question! What do they do with the leftover bulbs? As I write this, the OHG fall bulb season is closed, and Scott told me that he had such a good year—in spite of having stocked more bulbs than last year and in spite of the economy—that his cupboards are just about bare. Normally, the leftovers would go to community gardens, public parks and gardens, and faithful customers with standing end-of-season bulk orders.

And was I able to restrain myself from asking if he had just one or two packs of white henri lilies left? Just barely.

Posted by on November 12, 2008 at 5:00 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar, Unusually Clever People.
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19 responses to “Why it’s “Old House” Gardens”

  1. I love this company. After I placed a recent order for rain lilies, they called me to ask if I really wanted tho place this order which was a duplicate of my order made in August. I was so charmed by their customer service that I let the second order stand. Now I’ll have to expand that rain garden to accomodate twice as many bulbs.

  2. Peg says:

    Very interesting. Gee, why have I not ordered from Old House Gardens before? Such a civilized and compassionate philosophy towards disappearing varieties.

    I can relate to the end of season sales. I placed a second Van Engelen order when the first discounts appeared, and cursed myself when the latest one arrived in my inbox. I may wait next year until the end and take my chances. I think my total mail orders this year for spring bulbs totalled 4: 3 from catalogs, 1 from Ebay. Plus a couple cheap bags of tulips I picked up at (cringe) Lowe’s.

    Those dahlias are gorgeous! Like a more romantic, countrified Thomas Edison…

  3. Colleen says:

    This was a great read—-thanks! I love their philosophy, and their catalog is one of the ones I enjoy reading the most. Definitely a first-class operation.

  4. This is a charming company and Scott is a delight. I’ve been ordering from them for only a few years but I am happy with the results. Just ordered the henrii lily to plant in memory of my late father-in-law, who was named Henry.

    And as a history buff, which is partly how I came to gardening as well, I love the stories and information about all the flowers. Thanks for this great post.

  5. I ordered from OHG for the first time this year (Rubrum and Black Beauty Lilies) and they hand wrote a thank you note on my order, which just made me want to order more from them! The bulbs I received were huge and in perfect condition. I’m saying regular prayers that the plants will actually grow in my brick-like clay soil…

  6. I just love it when you do this kind of post. It represents one of the ways bloggers can change the dialogue in gardening. I would never get to read this sort of article in a magazine and yet, many of us are interested in the philosophy behind our garden suppliers and the history of gardening. This was my first year to order from Scott, and I placed two orders. Fabulous plants.~~Dee

  7. Amy Stewart says:

    Standing end-of-season bulk orders.

    Them’s some dangerous words.

  8. HOW MANY ORDERS? You, enabler, you!

    Wonderful article. I really enjoyed hearing of Scott’s background in historic preservation/restoration and his true love of plants.

    I have fallen head over heals with the martagons, have several clumps of glad. byz. and of course, HAD to have the henryii.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  9. Sometimes new & improved really isn’t. It’s good to know there are people out there trying to save some of the old hybrids, even if I don’t have an old house to go with them.

  10. kim says:

    I’m with Dee, I really like posts like this one. I, too like to hear the stories behind the folks we buy from. This year was the first I’d heard of OHG, and I’ll be ordering from them next year. Mumble, mumble more bulbs mumble, mumble squeezing in mumble, mumble where did I plant those? Yes, you ARE an enabler!

  11. tibs says:

    I love old house bulbs. Got to hear Scot give a talk one time. Fascinating. I did not order any bulbs this year. Nor have I picked any up at a big box. I had my order all ready to send for Scheepers 40% off when the reality of the $200 vet bill (2 cats annual visit, 4 more to go) and the $400 dollar senior picture bill and all those soon to come high school graduation related costs flashed through my mind…I pressed the delete button. Such a rarity when I have self restraint with the garden. I must really love the cats and the daughter.

  12. I love these posts about the “behind the scenes” of companies like OHG, where someone has a passion and is just following through with it. They are on my list for next year, too!

    Keep ’em coming, Eliz.!

  13. luise h. says:

    This is why I love Garden Rant,all those Background Stories,all the wonderful Links and Tidbits,keep up the great job.

  14. Kate M. says:

    As someone who used to pack bulbs for Scott at OHG, I can attest that his appreciation for the integrity of each bulb and its history is communicated to and fostered in the staff as well. What would have been a job anywhere else turned into a total educational experience. Not to mention spiritual — there’s undoubtedly something holy about bulbs!

  15. Barry Prince says:

    Great article! I much prefer reading about this subject than whether we should use latin like Turdus migratorius or the common name Robin at the nursery :)

  16. I’m not sure how many years I have ordered from Old House Gardens, but it has been many. Each time I open
    a box, I know I won’t be disappointed.
    My order always comes with a special
    note from Scott. It makes me feel as
    though I am a part of this wonderful
    company. I look forward to all the
    bulbs blooming, but I have a special
    love affair with my snowdrops, those
    dainty, brave souls that tell me
    spring is on its way, no matter
    what the weather.

  17. Rose says:

    “Old House Gardens” = Superior products – Unexcelled Service + Commitment to Excellence! Scott – What can I say…lol…Hubby & I bought a farm, found dozens of OLD flowers that had previously been mowed each year from a hired hand from the previous owners. Now – I cannot wait for Spring!
    I have placed my second order & all have been planted. Mostly – I am planting all of these heirlooms for my children and grandchildren. Because of OHG they will know the beauty of days and flowers gone by! The personal notes from Scott, along with each labeled bag have been saved for the future! Thank you again for all you offer – you and your flowers are a true treasure!
    Sincerely,
    Rose
    Northwest Arkansas

  18. Julia - Julia's Big Life says:

    OHG and Scott Kunst are Michigan treasures! We are going through such tough times here economically in Michigan and many of us have turned to our gardens (even more than usual) for solace and inspiration.
    OHB’s customer service is personal and made me feel like my purchase really mattered. Their ‘Economic Stimulus Package’ was an incredibly good bargain and very generous on their part. Then, there is the sheer quality of their bulbs, the way they package and the historical description stapled to each bag that made me feel like I was planting a piece of history in my new garden.
    I dipped all my cherished new lily bulbs in Plantskydd Animal Repellant and then sprinkled the granular on the soil surface to keep the nosey squirrels, voles, etc… away from my treasures!
    Thanks for blogging about Scott and a company I am proud to buy gift certificates for my gardening
    girlfriends for holiday gifts. They get a catalog and a gift certificate to savor over the long, hard Michigan winter. The legacy lives on at Old House Gardens.

  19. Nell says:

    This is one truly good company. The kind you want to
    tell your gardening friends about,,,,,,,,Just look at these flowers, and the descriptions….who can resist. Not me. Have sent two orders for our son and two for my husband and me. Now, if I can just get them in the ground! Scott even adds a note to the order, and with some extra bulbs added. Keep going folks. I read the catalog as bedtime reading and dreaming. We had the privilege of visiting the Hortus bulbarium this Spring. It is just beautiful and they are truly helping save so many bulbs. I was too busy looking a flowers to shop in the tiny store, but maybe I’ll get some cards from OHG!

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