I was reminded of Christopher Lloyd ‘s fondness for unpretentious nurseries on a beautiful drive to Lexington, Kentucky, last week. My destination was the 121-year-old Michler’s Florist, Greenhouses & Garden Design.
“The Michler family opened their namesake florist and nursery in 1901, and it quickly became Lexington’s go-to for flora.”
I know what’s it like to be a small, nursery owner, though for nowhere close to 121 years. I had a front-row seat to nursery life for 15 years: April blizzards, droughts, green house heaters that go kaput in the night, Christmas Eve winds that rip off greenhouse coverings, and so on. I also know how much pleasure and sense of purpose Holbrook Farm and Nursery gave me. I loved our customers—well, most of them. I have fond memories, no nursery remorse, and have never lost my fanaticism for growing plants, especially those with a story about place or people. I am still surprised, and pleased, when I hear from former customers who saved old catalogs or who tell me their Heuchera ‘Molly Bush’ or the sweetshrub, Calycanthus ‘Michael Lindsey,’ is thriving 27 years later.
Christopher Lloyd, gardener and author, enjoyed a botanic adventure. Last week I imagined he was along with Rose and me for the ride to Michler’s. I loved Christo’s company— smart, curious, opinionated, and possessed of a great laugh. The backroad trip from Salvisa to Michler’s was a short, 45-minute drive on Highway 62, past the Wild Turkey Distillery, over the Kentucky River into Woodford County, with its dry-laid stone walls and rolling pastures. Christo would have demanded we stop a few times for a closer look. There were lots of poison hemlocks in ditch banks. He would have made an odd-looking trespasser with his impressive white head of hair, old sports coat and baggy pants. My role would have been to provide cover. “Good morning, Sherriff. We’re looking for flowers today.”
We drove through Versailles (pronounced Ver-sales) and then into Lexington. We found Michler’s on tree-lined Maxwell Street, a block and a half from Woodland Park.
I met John Michler, who keeps his hands on the wheel of his 5th generation family business with his son Robin, who is the rejuvenating “real entrepreneurial spirt.” John steered Rose and me back to the Kentucky Native Café. It felt like we were being led blindfolded for a surprise. John understands stagecraft. I began looking around. There were bistro chairs and tables with carnival lights strung overhead. I was in a forest in the middle of a nursery. It was quiet. The moment was dreamlike.
John Michler is bold. Seedling native hackberries had volunteered nearby and were given refuge. Hackberries suffer garden ignominy with leaves that often get decorated (a nice way of saying disfigured) with leaf nipple galls. There is a flip side: they are tough and might withstand the apocalypse. Migratory warblers and the hackberry butterfly depend on them in the meantime. They are seldom planted but should be.
“Our best planting intentions can’t save the world,” Michler said. “We must allow some plants to grow when they show up unannounced.” Black locusts and the blue-flowering Eurasian dayflowers had gained a toehold. The bold, notoriously weedy, greater burdock was here, also, but tamed. I credit my daughter Molly for teaching me about burdock’s medicinal value.
The forest is a beautiful, highwire-balancing act, not an anything-grows hodgepodge. “This is good growing versus show horticulture,” Michler explained. “I want this to benefit the environment and not just be about blue and yellow.” Pollinators and hummingbirds are at home. Native wild gingers and lawn violets were given free rein. American spikenard (Aralia racemosa) and the woodland bluegrass (Poa sylvestris) were happy. So were bottle brush buckeyes, a southern Appalachian Mountain species. Attractive parchment-colored drumsticks—drying bulb stems and spent-flowering satellites—on Allium ‘Mount Everest’ must have made a stunning punctuation a few weeks ago. There are a few other non-natives. I recognized the Japanese lady fern and the clumping, low-growing variegated Carex ‘Ice Dance’ that is nearly impenetrable to weeds.
The formula for my favorite small nurseries boils down to nursery owners who are plant proselytizers, passionate, persistent, patient, and hang out in potting sheds.
I enjoy the search and the stories
Christopher Lloyd once put the concept of “authentic” in perspective for me. He visited my little nursery near Asheville, North Carolina, in the early 1990s while he was on an east coast speaking tour. Christo spent most of his life at Great Dixter, his family’s home and garden in East Sussex. (Great Dixter has a charming little nursery with a potting shed.) I asked him if he’d like to go sightseeing. The Biltmore Estate and Sandy Mush Herb Nursery were on the table that day. A 200-room Vanderbilt-built summer home on 8,000 acres that included a formal and woodland gardens versus two acres on a steep and remote mountain hillside. Christo thought the Biltmore Estate sounded peculiarly French. Too chateau-like. “Why bother?” he asked.
Off to Sandy Mush
We drove out of Asheville on the Leicester Highway, swung left on North Turkey Creek Road, headed toward the beautiful Sandy Mush valley, forded a small stream along Surrett Cove Road, threw the truck gear into bulldog, and fishtailed up the mountain with a ragged ravine hanging out the passenger-side window. We made it! Once Christo calmed his nerves, he began to see, and feel, the unique character of Sandy Mush Herb Nursery. A tiny pit greenhouse (doubling as a potting shed) was built in 1972 before the Jaynes had built a floor in their house. There are outdoor beds and greenhouses of perennials and herbs (1400-1500 species and cultivars) surrounded by hundreds of acres of Blue Ridge Mountains preserved with a conservation easement in perpetuity. “Plenty of clean air and water,” Kate Jayne said in an email.
Their grown children, Nicketie and Christopher, are now vitally involved in the business that expanded to mail order in 1978. I dare you to compare Sandy Mush to any other nursery.
There is a subset of the botanically possessed who seek out unique, small nurseries. This is not an exclusive plant posse. It is open to all who are curious. We understand how perilous gardening can be. Nursery shoppers struggle with high hurdles—what to plant, where to plant—and are full of self-doubt that purchases may not be foolproof.
Don’t worry. If you are patient and pay attention, the odds are stacked in your favor. Gardening is not like combing a Florida beach with a metal detector. (You don’t really think you’re going to find gold doubloons from a sunken Spanish galleon, do you?) The prospect of joy and ecological benefit from your backyard is within reach. Trust me.
A wiser soul might say: start on a small scale. There is no shame in a 12’ x 12’ garden. I would add: Don’t be afraid of letting spring get the best of you. Roll the dice. We all bite of more than we can chew. Block out visions of the dog days of summer.
I am not wed exclusively to native plants, but Kentucky is remarkably plant rich, so of course I am proud and curious. So is John Michler. There’s so much I have left to learn, especially with what’s growing under my nose. Purple rocket (Iodanthus pinnatifidus) and corn-beak salad (Valerianella radiata) are species new to me, growing within a hundred yards of where I am sitting now in Salvisa. Purple rocket is flowering along woodland edges; the edible corn beak salad filled up the Salt River bottomland after our daffodils were finished blooming.
I am a habitual offender. I didn’t need to buy more plants at Michler’s. I’ve planted way too much this season already, but the temptation for a few more was too great. It often is. Michler’s assortment includes not only Kentucky natives, but also low-maintenance perennials for sun and shade, cottage garden plants, fragrant shrubs, heirloom plants, culinary and fragrant herbs, ornamental grasses, ferns, hostas, and pollinator plants. The greenhouses hold orchids, houseplants, cyclamens, spring bulbs and seasonal poinsettias and Easter lilies.
It was warming up outside as we loaded up the car for the drive back to Salvisa. Christo was still thinking of the tens of thousands of poison hemlock he’d seen earlier. He began quoting bits of Phaedo’s account of the death of Socrates and the immortality of the soul. “If there is anything beautiful other than absolute beauty it is beautiful only insofar as it partakes of absolute beauty.”
Michler’s was absolutely beautiful.
Michler’s Florist & Greenhouses
Kentucky Native Café
Sandy Mush Herb Nursery
Thursday, Friday & Saturday, 9 am-5pm; March – November. Dec, Jan & Feb – by appointment. “Always contingent on weather!”
You just added two more nurseries to my bucket list…if Heaven isn’t full of specialist nurseries, I’ll be content at the other placr!
PK, yes you would love Michler’s and Sandy Mush. Great plants, wonderful people and full of charm. Let’s saddle up!
Will put these on my itinerary, when I’m back home in July! Thank you for sharing the Christo story. I can see how you two would get on well and I’ve fishtailed our Ford Expedition up some of those Kentucky hills myself, so that made your recounting all the more compelling. Thank you for sharing. When will you put out a book of all these gems?
Excellent idea about a compilation in book form!
Thanks, Debra. I’m flattered, but a short Garden Rant monthly piece is more than enough. I’m a very poky writer.
Jenny, you’re going to love Michler’s. No book, but thank you. It’s all about weeds right now.
Sandy Mush has been a long time favorite. Yes, they ship. Yes, they often come down the mountain to sell plants at local festivals and events. But there is nothing like following the one sign up the mountain, crossing shallow streams and wondering where you went wrong on the way. Then you arrive and learn you didn’t. You stay for hours, because there is both the garden and the merchandise to go through, so very much of it! I’ve done it in three cars – a Honda Wagon, a Mazda 3 (pretty sure the undercarriage was never the same) and a Subaru Forester. Take a four wheel drive if you can and not a car with low clearance is my advice, but go! I’m delighted to learn the kids are working with the business as I’ve worried about the future after seeing Goodness Grows and the Lazy K Nursery disappear after their owners died. Excited to learn about Michler’s as I drive through Lexington a couple fo times a year. Will make a point to visit. I’d love to see (and help write) a road trip guide to great nurseries.
Yes, Liane, the drive to Sandy Mush is definitely part of the excitement of a visit. I can’t wait to return. It’s been over 27 years. I used to take plants to Asheville for events. Sandy Mush out sold me every time!
its hard to get John Richler to lose his cool, but a few years ago, I told him I was planning on dying in my faviorite place: his greenhouse. He didn’t object, but it did take him a few minutes to process it. His son Robin might just turn it into a highly desirable gardens death venue…..to be among all those beautiful plants…its a magical place for sure.
Sally, what a funny story. Thanks.
Enjoyed this so much! Would love to visit both these nurseries! And I always love a good Christo story! What a man!
Thank you, Kathy. Christo was terrific. I think about him often.
Wonderful read, thanks Allen, add to my bourbon trail road trip when covid eases.
Thank you, Craig. Michler’s would be a great diversion from the Bourbon Trail.
You are such a wonderful story teller Allen. Such a gift. I was standing in Christo’s potting shed two weeks ago and you were top of mind as nursery manager Michael Morphy pulled out a well-thumbed copy of Jelitto’s seed catalog, both as wish list and as a perfect numbered reference for how to handle seeds. Specialist nurseries are the lifeblood of gardeners – thanks for sharing these gems with everyone. – MW
Thank you, Marianne. Happy you got to hang out in Dixter’s potting shed. I remember the smell of potting soil—real soil.
Allen, thanks so much to you and John Michler for validating my volunteer hackberry glade. Sitting in one spot (which I do often), I can count more than twenty happy hackberries, from saplings to centenarians, with another dozen or more just beginning to hack their way above the considerable undergrowth. By extension, I suppose that means I should also be able to count tens of thousands of hackberry psyllids munching away on the now fresh green leaves. Given how uniformly they do their thing, however, I don’t view their galls as disfigurement, but more like adding textural interest to the leaves to balance that of the strikingly beautiful rugged bark. In any case, it’s rare that I do in a hackberry seedling unless it’s really shown up in the worst of places. Also happy to report that the city of Madison is now including hackberries in their tree replacement program after the recent ash disaster.
Joe, hooray for hackberries. So happy Madison is planting them. Did you read Lab Girl? Hope Jahren did her dissertation on hackberry. Did some molecular work and discovered portions of the hard seed resemble opal.
I am one of those that seek out the obscure. Thank you sir spotlighting Michele’s, I have
Loved it for decades. I need to get back on the road, although it’s a bit longer than 45 minutes
I found this from a Facebook post by Sandy Mush Herb Nursery today. You and Sandy Mush were two of my favorite nurseries when I had my first garden, back in central North Carolina. I actually remember getting the catalog you have in this post! I was sad to see you go, some of my favorite plants came from Holbrook. I am now in east Tennessee, several gardens later, and still get plants from Sandy Mush. My most recent blog post actually references them- https://troutcove.com/2022/06/04/gregory-bald-azaleas/ . Thanks for the post, I miss your nursery but am happy to find your website!
Ruth, thank you. It makes me happy to know you remember the catalog cover with Molly, the draft horses and the Holbrook Farm garden. Glad you found the Garden Rant. I’m envious of you and your beautiful native, deciduous azaleas.
It was definitely a memorable cover, and catalog! I’ve bookmarked the Garden Rant and will return for more posts. In my previous garden I had lots of azaleas and rhododendrons growing naturally, but here I have to add them. Still, they settle in well since this is close to their home turf. Thanks again for all the great plants you used to offer, and the words you continue to share.
Allen, no matter how long you take to put words on paper, (or on the computer,) I always look forward to your rants. You are a gifted writer.
Locally owned nurseries are always the best options for any gardeners, and especially for beginners. Not only are they usually charming, like the ones you highlighted in your post, but they usually have knowledgeable people that actually can answer your questions. And, you’re supporting your own local economy. It’s a win/win/win situation.