I mourn the nurseries of yesteryear. They were everywhere in Arkansas, tucked away on country backroads, springing up in parking lots, laid out in folks’ backyards with a sign by the driveway that said “PLANTS.” Each reflecting their grower’s unique tastes. Now old-fashioned varieties like bellflower, primrose, campion, toadflax; impossible to find. The first place I ever saw toadflax — CedarWolf Gardens in Elk Ranch near Eureka Springs, a couple of small greenhouses full of exceptional florae. Lizzie and Les Huff. Artist Lizzie painting vistas, flowers and the guinea hens that roosted everywhere. Towering hollyhocks swaying in the breeze. Les with his come-along wrangling huge boulders into place, teaching me about compost and Lil’ Gumbo Mini-Mudders, the only tires a landscaper’s vehicle should ever wear. Closed many years ago.
That family greenhouse by Roaring River on our annual anniversary pilgrimage in June, always filled with masses of blue delphinium, sharp as a gasp of breath. Their friendly cat named TwoCan because he showed up absolute skin and bones and ate 2 big cans a day for almost 3 weeks — gone. House neglected, broken-paned greenhouse covered in moss and ivy. The peach orchard near Blue Eye, 13 kinds of peaches from July thru September — early, late, cling, freestone — sold day lilies and honey on the side. Can’t even tell it was there except for the trees, peaches rotting on the ground. Chotkowski Gardens past Fayetteville, Henry and Karen such fabulous hosts; since 1995 an explosion of magnificent peonies, 1200 cultivars on the acreage. Their annual Mother’s Day Garden Party with hundreds of friends. Tents of lemonade and iced tea, cookies on the farmhouse veranda, a glass of wine or two. Strolling the grounds, intoxicated by color and fragrance, choosing what we would plant when tubers were dug in the fall — cancelled since 2017.
The large nursery outside Hindsville, nestled in the curve of the road between here and there, miles from anywhere with a pulse. They must have been wholesale landscapers; specialty roses and small trees. Sales desk was always white but an older, easy-moving Latino named Gabriel was boss of the Hispanic crew that tended stock. Late one afternoon, just before closing, I happened upon Gabriel and crew out back, shadows lengthening as they moved between wide rows, watering. They were singing to the roses, a gentle, loving melody. Gabriel led with his fine baritone.
What happened? Dirt wasn’t dirt cheap anymore, nor mulch. Weight meant expense, not just shoveling. Gas prices rose, transportation costs increased. Water, too. Nurturing plants takes time, lots of time. Work was hard, profit margin low, product subject to insects, drought, hail, frost. Owners age. Good help difficult to find.
Walmart and Lowes and Home Depot put in “garden centers” and homogenized the market, buying from the exact same source so there’s almost no difference in what the three stores carry. And hey, you can get your oil changed and pick up a rotisserie chicken for dinner while you’re there.
Then Covid-19 came in early 2020. Arkansas seems sheltered, but our cases rise. Suddenly, everyone is home, ALL THE TIME, and it’s Spring. Sunlight reportedly kills the virus, plants seem safe, gardening is healthy, except maybe a pulled muscle or two. The weather is perfect; balmy days, plenty of rain.
This week, mid-May, I’ve gone on a scouting tour of the few regional nurseries left. Our local resource, Bear Creek, looked like the Huns hit it since I was there a short while ago. Westwood Gardens in Rogers told me they had the best day in the history of their store, in the middle of a pandemic. Perennials Plus in Gateway with plenty of pond plants but not what they’ve had before in herbs or shade plants, though I did score 3 varieties of foxglove. Bradford Nursery just out of Rogers had nothing spectacular. Everywhere, plant and planter prices had gone up, up, up. I didn’t find much of what I was looking for, or any wonderful new things, and what there was, was mighty expensive.
I mourn. I miss the old days, when every turn of the road brought treasures and dirt was truly “dirt cheap” and people grew unusual things for novelty or sheer fun or for the memory of what was in Grandmama’s garden. I really miss those extraordinary places I used to visit, each with their own story. Maybe, as people reconnect to the earth in this difficult time, there will be a re-blooming of such places and stories. I hope so. And every time I go past the place near Hindsville, now a county refueling station, I still hear Gabriel and the boys singing.