Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Carol Watson Greenhouse: A Horticultural Dream Destination in Greater Syracuse

by janem on May 5, 2018

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton

Carol’s flair for display on display

Carol Watson’s passion for design showed itself early. She was the kind of child who frequently rearranged furniture and tweaked the décor in her and her friends’ bedrooms. She gardened with her grandparents and spent summers visiting them at their summer place in Maine, where she was captivated by the moss, the rocks, the wild blueberries, the small island just off the shore, and the endless shades of green. Merging her love of nature and interior design, she was especially drawn to indoor environments that seamlessly flowed into the outdoors—like her grandparents’ camp. Naturally extroverted, she loved talking to people—the more, the better.

The entrance to Carol Watson Greenhouse is a garden room unto itself.

In her role now as the owner of Carol Watson Greenhouse in Lafayette (12 miles from Syracuse), all of Carol’s childhood propensities, loves, and talents come into play. So, too, does her education—her degree (1975) in retail management from Syracuse University, and 17 years’ experience in that field. “I found I didn’t mind the 17–hours days in retail,” she says. “I loved being busy, meeting so many new people, constantly moving, being on my feet…I still do.”

Carol Watson

Carol brings a merchandiser’s eye to the retail spaces at her greenhouse, creating enchanting, ever-changing tableaus, like a series of store department windows—but ones you are invited into. Her designs for the landscaping end of the business reflect an interior designer’s ability to connect with her clients’ aesthetic and to help house and landscape meld harmoniously within that aesthetic.

Carol’s mother, Claire, who is 87 and still in charge of the plant production end of things, began the greenhouse operation in 1981. Carol joined her mother’s business in the 1990s when the business grew enough to add more staff, and things really took off after 2001, when the greenhouse steadily increased its reputation as a destination experience. Carol’s kids, Brandon (31) and Abby (28), were raised in the family business. Brandon is a real estate agent and Abby is studying for her master’s degree in social work, and both continue to love plants and gardening.


Come in, grab a cup of coffee and a pastry, sit in a leafy courtyard in the main greenhouse, soak up some warmth in any season, and listen to the gurgling fountain. Carol Watson Greenhouse is open daily year-round and is dog friendly. You can “belly up to the Terrarium Bar” and find all the materials you need to create your own terrarium of any size.

Tables and chairs, coffee and pastries, and beauty all around invite customers to relax.

Events are a big part of what makes Carol Watson Greenhouse a destination. In mid-April, you can come to the Spring Celebration of the Senses, which features local artisans and musicians and food tastings that benefit the Rescue Mission, which works to end hunger and homelessness in central New York. A Summer Soirée features chamber music, food, and cocktails to raise funds for Symphoria, Syracuse’s musician-led cooperative orchestra, one of only two such orchestras in the nation.

Head grower and Carol’s Mom Claire Watson grows more than a dozen varieties of kale for the fall Kale Festival.

In fall the greenhouse hosts the very popular Kale Festival, in its seventh year. “In the past, it was tough getting people to think about plants in the fall, even though there’s so much color and texture to enjoy then,” Carol says. “Years ago, my mother started growing many, many varieties of kale. We did lots of containers with it and encouraged people to use ornamental kale in the garden and in bouquets. Eventually, we started cooking with it. Now, we have a chef come for the weekend-long Kale Festival to teach people how to make all sorts of kale recipes, and Mom and I cook our own kale dishes for a week leading up to the event.” Last year’s menu featured kale pesto with toasted walnuts, kaleslaw with kaleonaise, chocolate chip kale cookies, kale ranch dip, kale bean soup, kale guacamole, and kale broccoli salad.

Hands-on activities bring in kids and adults alike. Folks can take classes at Carol Watson Greenhouse in things like creating miniature gardens, making living wreaths, or the intriguing-sounding “Yoga and Wine Fusion” class. In all but the busiest spring months, the greenhouse space can be rented for bridal showers, weddings, and community events. Year-round, you will see many local artisans’ work featured in the greenhouse as well. And every Saturday, Carol talks about plants and gardening on the Channel 3 News with Laura Hand.


On the greenhouse/nursery side, Carol and her mom offer a wide array of plants, including unusual ones like tulip-flowered geraniums, teeny tiny miniature fuchsia plants, a spectacular array of succulents, creative and robust hanging baskets, and all of those gorgeous kale varieties.

Carol has a team that does landscape installations from Skaneateles to Ithaca and Cortland to Cazenovia and the Thousand Islands. In addition, the We Plan, You Plant program she launched a few years ago is a big hit. Homeowners—many of them young couples who are interested in plants and want to do the planting themselves—bring pictures and measurements from their property. Carol gets a sense of her customers’ aesthetic, then pulls site-appropriate plants out to show potential arrangements of plants and coaches folks on the proper planting techniques, including soil amendment considerations.

“This We Plan, You Plant approach saves the customers money, as there’s no charge for design or fancy plans—and it saves me time from driving around to peoples’ homes,” she says. “It’s also great fun and builds relationships, and it better suits those who like to be able to see the plants in all their dimensions before committing. They can also do their landscaping in incremental stages, which takes a lot of pressure out of the process. Prior to We Plan, You Plant, I spent so much time on the road, yet I have this big thriving retail business that I need to be here for. I’m so happy I found something that works better for everyone.”


What are some of Carol’s design signatures? She’s known for making sure the house and garden are united aesthetically, that one flows into the other, for using a wide variety of plants, and for ensuring that plants have enough room to mature and express themselves while preserving the view from inside the house. “It infuriates me when I see that a landscaper put a 10-foot-tall willow in front of a living room window!” she says. “I always design with future maintenance in mind…right plant, right place is a huge part of that.” Carol avails herself of compact varieties of shrubs like the ‘Miss Ruby’ (rich pink flowered) and ‘Miss Molly’ (reddish-pink flowered) butterfly bush varieties that are also season-long bloomers and are fully hardy to Zone 5a.

She also uses the dwarf varieties of the durable paniculata-type hydrangeas—so ‘Bobo’ is a better bet than ‘Limelight’ in front of a window, for instance—and has learned the keys to success with growing the sometimes temperamental macrophylla-type hydrangeas (think ‘Endless Summer’ et al) in central New York. She highly recommends Tim Boebel’s book Hydrangeas in the North: Getting Blooms in the Colder Climates. “You can protect the buds from the cold by wrapping plants but also by using pruning techniques,” she says. “For instance, I learned from Tim’s book to cut back terminal buds on the taller shoots so that the rest of the buds are easier to protect and cover.”

What are the biggest sources of inspiration for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to travel?  “When I go to Manhattan to visit my daughter, I walk all day and look at the planters and the window boxes, and I go to the High Line,” she says. “I love the New York Botanical Garden when I can get there. But mostly, walking around Manhattan gives me tons of ideas.”


Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, editor, and writer.


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