The gifts of a simple garden can keep giving all season. The bounty of vegetables and herbs yields tasty nutrition as well as a healthy zest for life. The beauty of flowers and caring for plants soothe the soul. Even potted plants or window boxes quite literally provide the air we breathe. Even more, our gardens provide shelter for the monarch butterflies, pollen for the bees, and nutrients for the soil in the cycle of life.
Nurseries are the starting point for expert gardeners and newbies alike. They provide the seeds, bulbs, implements, and other essentials, and nursery staffers offer a perennial source of gardening wisdom. History buffs, take note: Two Missouri nurseries have been in continuous operation since the nineteenth century, and one of them holds the title of oldest continuously operated nursery in the world.
We’ve dug up fascinating stories on a few Show Me State nurseries and planted some other gems here, too. Happy gardening!
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The story of Gilbert H. Wild begins, like many Missouri stories, with German immigrants. George Jones, who owns the company today, says the eponymous Gilbert’s father was on a wagon train bound for the Southwest when his wagon broke down in Missouri. The Missouri landscape reminded him of home, so he decided to settle in Jasper County.
Gilbert H. Wild and Son has been in business for 132 years now, and operated in the same family until George Jones bought it in 1991. George has a degree in horticulture and a long history of working with plants. As a merchandiser for Michigan Bulb Company, he traveled to Sarcoxie to find out whether the owners of Gilbert H. Wild would sell flowers to his company. “They said, ‘No, we’re selling the company,’ ” George recalls.
He took the news back to his boss, who said he wasn’t interested in acquiring a growing operation. This left George at a fork in the road. “I needed $110,000 to buy the company, and that year my bonus was $130,000,” George says, “It was a godsend.”
Gilbert Wild started raising peonies and today, George raises peonies, daylilies, irises, and hostas on his 250-acre farm, which includes the same tract Gilbert was working back in 1885. The company sells plants online or through mail order. There is no st
Not too many cattle farmers decide to switch to growing and breeding irises, but thirty-seven years ago that’s what Jim Hedgecock did. The owner of Comanche Acres says he didn’t think he had enough land for a cattle operation, and in lieu of scaling up, he thought he’d try growing irises.
Although it may seem like a dramatic career change, the idea didn’t just come out of the blue. “My mother and grandmother and several family members grew irises here at the farm,” Jim says. He decided to try growing a crop, and the rest is history. “I knew from the start that if it worked, I’d start a commercial farm,” he says.
Today, Comanche Acres is the largest commercial iris farm east of the Rocky Mountains, and Jim says that’s been the case for years. Although at one time he was growing irises on fifteen acres, he’s recently scaled back to a slightly more modest ten-acre operation.
Comanche Acres has developed a reputation for introducing new colors every year. Jim is a hybridizer, meaning he breeds different species of irises in order to combine their pigments and create colorful new varieties. He is also a judge emeritus in the American Iris Society, which is the highest rank a member can achieve. He judges contests and gives seminars all over the country.
In May, the irises are in bloom at Comanche Acres and visitors may walk the fields there. If you’re interested in buying, you’ll get a clipboard when you arrive; walk around and write down the varieties you like. Place an order, and they’ll be shipped to you when ready. Comanche Acres ships to all fifty states, plus Canada and Europe.
Alex and Mary Fife got into the business of selling daylilies through Missouri artist Brian Mahieu. The artist kept his own garden near Boonville, but didn’t have the acreage to support all of the daylily varieties he was creating. Mary says she and her husband were already friends of Brian’s, and “he knew Alex grew things well,” so he asked them to become his partners.
Using the gardens that the Fifes operated near Armstrong, the three formed a partnership in 2000. At the time, the Fifes were already running an agricultural operation on their farm, which has been in their family since 1871. Today it’s just Alex and Mary running the business, and Mary says that since 2010 they’ve been doing business exclusively online, forgoing a brick-and-mortar store. “We still carry some Mahieu cultivars,” she says. Brian Mahieu moved out of Missouri in 2016 to the state of Washington.
About three acres of the farm are devoted to daylilies, from registered-name species to newly hybridized seedlings. Asked about her favorite varieties, Mary tells people, “I like the one I’m looking at, at the moment. I really just love flowers.” You can order from Lilywood Farms through the website or a mail-in form.
In 1984, Mervin Wallace had become disillusioned with the nine-to-five grind, so he decided to leave it and create Missouri Wildflowers Nursery. With a background in botany and biology, Mervin says he was interested in cultivating native species. “I started the nursery with the idea that I was going to sell plants from within the state,” he says. Part of Mervin’s business model has been winning over hearts and minds. In the early days, many people he knew considered native wildflowers as mere weeds. Attention to environmental conservation in recent years, though, has been a boon to business. In an effort to help struggling monarch butterfly populations, Mervin says many people have been interested in buying milkweed for their gardens.
“It makes a big difference,” he says. “If you plant milkweeds in your garden, you’ll probably see caterpillars by the end of summer.” Declining bee populations also make people want to pitch in. Overall, Mervin says, business has grown for the last three years. “People plant not just because they’re wanting a pretty plant,” he says. “It’s related to wildlife quite often.”
Missouri Wildflowers Nursery also emphasizes native species by selecting a “Native Plant of the Year.” This year’s plant is leatherwood, which is classified as a shrub, but Mervin says it resembles a tree. Leatherwood grows in the Ozarks region in the shade, often in streams but sometimes on blufftops as well. Of all the offerings available at Missouri Wildflowers, Mervin says only about one-half of 1 percent are genetically non-native.
You can visit the nursery south of Jefferson City, or place an order and find resources for growing on the website.
Of all the gardening suppliers in the state, Stark Bro’s stands out for its long, illustrious history. Founded in 1816 by James Hart Stark, an immigrant from Bourbon County, Kentucky, Stark Bro’s was owned and operated by his descendants until as recently as 1994.
In those 178 years, the Stark family came up with the idea to hold an International Fruit Fair, which allowed fruit growers to send in their creations to compete for top honors. The winner the first year was, according to the Stark Bro’s website, “a strange-looking elongated apple with five bumps on the blossom end.” As soon as they identified the grower, Jesse Hiatt, the Starks wasted no time in securing rights to the variety, known today as the Delicious apple. In 1914, another submission of Delicious apples came in, but this time the fruit was yellow, submitted by A.H. Mullins. Today the majority of the world’s apples come from the Red and Golden Delicious varieties.
In 2013, Stark Bro’s merged with Miller Nurseries, a New York-based company. At age 201, Stark Bro’s is the oldest continuously operated nursery in the world. You can purchase a wide variety of fruit, nut, and landscape trees from the Louisiana, Missouri, garden center or from the company’s website.
John McPheeters began Bowood farms as a wholesale perennial nursery in 1989. The farm in “Bowood Farms” is in Clarksville, and Lizzy Rickard, daughter of John McPheeters, says her great-grandparents founded it as a traditional agricultural operation. They’re also the source of the “Bowood” part of the name, which Lizzy and her family speculatively attribute to the rows of Osage Orange trees that were once on the farm—the Osage Indians utilized wood from the trees in the Mississippi River valley to make bows and arrows.
Lizzy says she and her brother began working for the farm in the early 2000s, and decided to switch the business from a wholesale supplier to a storefront in St. Louis, distributing all their products through one brick-and-mortar location. Today, the Bowood Farms nursery is in a beautifully rehabilitated building in St. Louis’s Central West End neighborhood. The building was an auto-repair shop, then a plastics and cabinet manufacturing plant before its purchase in 2005 by Bowood Farms.
At the St. Louis location, visitors will find not only a nursery but also a curated gift shop, with wares Lizzy describes as “gardeninspired” and including a full line of pottery. Cafe Osage serves foods sourced in part from the Clarksville farm. Although Bowood began as a perennial-focused nursery, the company now carries a variety of annuals, and Lizzy adds, “We’ve always been known for herbs.” You can browse their wares and get a bite to eat in St. Louis seven days a week.
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