Michelle Sutton

A Tale of Two Nurseries

by cathym on November 25, 2018

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton unless noted

Rawlings Nursery: Hostas & Display Gardens in the North Country

Generally hardy to Zone 3a, hostas are at home in Zone 4b in Ellisburg, New York, an hour north of Syracuse and just east of Lake Ontario. There, on the former family dairy farm, Kevin Rawlings has grown over a thousand cultivars of hostas and generally offers 200-plus cultivars for sale. The farm’s soil is a desirable pocket of clay loam in a sea of sandy soils created by glacier retreat. The winds off Lake Ontario howl across the farm year round, but the hostas stand up to it well.

Many of Rawlings’ family members were school teachers, including his parents, who ran the dairy farm as a back-up source of income until they retired around 1979. At that point, the family put up a greenhouse and started growing annuals, creating sumptuous display gardens that served as outdoor event grounds for weddings and the like. “At peak we had 12,000 annual plants on display,” Rawlings says. “In one bed alone (140 x 60 feet), we planted 8,000 annuals. It took five of us the whole of Memorial Day Weekend to plant,” he says.

Hosta display garden at Rawlings Nursery.

Spring in the hosta house. Photo courtesy Rawlings Nursery

Kevin Rawlings

Eventually the family had to change gears once again, because sales of annuals by big box stores were driving prices down. Kevin Rawlings had a passion for unusual trees—and has planted quite a few that are maturing on the farm—but he found that hostas were more profitable. “I thought they were fantastic and they had the commercial advantages of transporting well and looking good in a pot,” he says. He sold hostas with his children at the Syracuse Farmers market for 25 years, and says “we meet some wonderful people and made dear friends,” but now he sells only by appointment from the farm in Ellisburg. Some longtime customers make the trek once a year from Rochester and points west to see the latest cultivars.

For many years, hosta cultivars were propagated only by division. When hostas began to be propagated by tissue culture (the accelerated growth of plant cells in an artificial medium in a sterile lab environment), there was an explosion in both quantity of plants produced and in cultivar range. Tissue culture has been a boon for hosta collectors but has been a little less kind to hosta growers, because increased supply has put downward pressure on selling price.

“Do they flower?” is a question Rawlings hears surprisingly often. He responds, “The only way hostas are not going to flower is if they are growing in too dark a spot. All hosta cultivars possess floral meristems (groups of cells that give rise to flowers) inside the terminal bud, but if the plant doesn’t get enough sun, it won’t advance through its seasonal growth to the point of flowering.”

Some folks ask for the white hostas they’ve seen pictures of. “There are several cultivars that come out of the ground white, but they don’t stay white throughout the season, Rawlings says. “They turn green out of necessity so they can perform photosynthesis. Increasing temperatures cue the conversion.” A few customers have asked for a red hosta… which doesn’t exist but in pictures.

People who are newer to growing hostas may ask for “the blue one.” But the “blue” is not immutable; it’s the effect of white wax on green leaves. “I rub the underside of the leaf and show them how the wax comes right off,” Rawlings says. “It’s the base color of the green leaf and the thickness of the white wax that determines how blue or gray the leaves look,” he says.

Yellow hostas aren’t immutably yellow either, Rawlings explains. “They do one of two things, depending on cultivar,” he says. “They can come out of the ground brightly colored and then become chartreuse or dull green afterwards; they green up to protect themselves. Or, they do the opposite and come out green, then fade to chartreuse, then convert to bright yellow as the season progresses.”

Even large-leaved varieties have small leaves when they are young plants. It can take 5, 6, even 7 years for a large-leafed hosta like ‘Sum and Substance’ to come into its full leaf size. Therefore, it can be easy to see a dwarf plant and think that it’s going to mature as a medium or large hosta when in actuality, it’s going to stay small.

Kevin’s Favorite Hosta 
(Out of 5400 Registered Varieties)
According to the description in the Rawlings Nursery online catalog, ‘Sagae’ (pron. SAH-GAH-ay) grows 32 inches high and 60 inches wide. It forms a vase-shaped mound of large, thick frosty green leaves with gold margins. It’s consistently number one or two on the American Hosta Society popularity list, and it was the 2000 American Hosta Growers Hosta of the Year selection.

Kevin’s favorite hosta cultivar is ‘Sagae’. Photo Courtesy MOBOT Plant Finder

Contact Rawlings Nursery
WEBSITE: rawlingsnursery.com
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/RawlingsNursery
EMAIL: hostaguy@gmail.com
PHONE: (315) 396-9763
ADDRESS*: 12061 Monitor Mill Rd
Ellisburg, NY 13636

*Nursery open by appointment

Marcellus Nursery: 56 Years of Growing in Onondaga County

Ted and Nan Stetler

When I interviewed Ted and Nan Stetler, they were just back from an Alaskan cruise. I assumed they’d be loath to return to work, but Nan says Ted was “bored out of his gourd” on vacation. That can happen when you’ve been working as hard as he and Nan have for so many years, running Marcellus Nursery: it can be challenging to be away from your own business.

Ted, who earned an agriculture degree from SUNY Farmingdale (then known as Long Island Agriculture & Technical Institute) in 1961, started Marcellus Nursery in 1962 with the purchase of 44 acres in the Town of Marcellus, southwest of Syracuse. When the nursery’s garden center moved 12 miles to the Town of Onondaga in 1970, the Stetlers chose to retain the name Marcellus Nursery for name recognition and branding reasons.

Ted and Nan met in 1966, got married in 1967, and started their family in 1975. They have two daughters, Beth and Jill. Nan has been integral to the nursery’s success, as has Rachel Reynolds, the garden center manager of more than 20 years. Nan says, “She’s like a daughter to us.”

Green roof planted with sedums keeps the checkout building cool.

‘Lemony Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus racemosa).

Fabulous sculptures abound.

Marcellus Nursery runs on multiple tracks, with only five full-time folks, Ted included. There’s the 85,000 fieldgrown trees and shrubs, the landscaping business, the potting-up work of the largest selection of perennials in the area, and the retail garden center. There’s the plant propagation work, which Ted does as a means of unwinding at the end of a busy day during the growing season. There are beautiful display gardens for customers to explore, at the center of which is a 53-year-old weeping European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’).

Field-growing so much material means that the plants on offer at Marcellus Nursery are acclimated to the often harsh upstate NY winters. Furthermore, most of the field crops are not irrigated. “If they survive and adapt to those conditions, they are going to perform well for local customers,” Nan says. Mercifully and surprisingly, deer have not been a problem in the tree and shrub nursery fields. However, they have been an issue in the production areas of the garden center site, so the Stetlers are upgrading their 5-foot perimeter fence to 8 foot tall.

Customers are invited to wander display gardens.

In addition to growing bread-and-butter plants, Ted likes to try out some “fantasy plants,” as he calls them, each year. “I’ll buy ten of this and ten of that of unusual plants and try them out,” he says. He is trying to interest folks in weeping dwarf spruce and dwarf pines, but he gave up field-growing Japanese maples after several devastating winters wiped out whole rows of trees.

During the growing season, a typical day for Ted goes like this. Paperwork at his desk from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. Then at 8 a.m. he joins his staff and works alongside them until 4:30 p.m. when he goes home to regroup for an hour before going out on client consultations in the evening. Home by 8 or 8:30 p.m., he does plant propagation work to unwind, and he and Nan have dinner at about 10 p.m. It’s a pretty grueling schedule, so Ted is looking for efficiencies everywhere he can— for instance, by using a motorized wheelbarrow on landscaping jobs.

Good advice at the garden center checkout.

As owners of Sycamore Hill Gardens (sycamorehillgardens.com) in Marcellus, George and Karen Hanford have a long association with Ted and Nan Stetler and Marcellus Nursery. George says, “Ted is the father of our gardens. Ted and Nan took us under their wing and introduced us to the world of plant propagation and the joys of designing, maintaining, and sharing a large plant collection. Without their guidance and friendship there would be no Sycamore Hill Gardens, no annual fundraisers for local charities, no national American Conifer Society meeting or local New York State Nursery and Landscape meetings held here in our gardens. We can’t thank Ted and Nan enough for their help and kindness.”

Contact Marcellus Nursery
WEBSITE: marcellusnursery.com
EMAIL: contact@marcellusnursery.com
PHONE: (315) 488-2632


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


Slow and Steady: The Rise of Flower CSAs

by cathym on July 2, 2018

by Michelle Sutton

You’ve probably heard of the Slow Food Movement, and maybe even the Slow Gardening concept coined by horticulturist Felder Rushing. If you buy cut flowers from local growers, you are likely participating in the burgeoning Slow Flowers movement.

The concept of Slow Flowers was popularized by garden writer Debra Prinzing who launched slowflowers.com in 2014 as a means to connect consumers to farmers, florists, and grocery stores who sell locally grown flowers. It was through Prinzing’s website and its grower directory that I found Linda VanApeldoorn of Take Your Pick Flowers in Lansing just outside Ithaca, and Carrie Kling of Windy Acres Horticulture in Royalton, an hour east of Buffalo. Both provide flower CSAs to their customers.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and CSAs are farms that offer subscriptions to their customers for regular (usually weekly) deliveries of produce and/or flowers. Both Linda and Carrie found their way into flower CSAs as a natural outgrowth of their customers’ desire to have regular deliveries of bouquets. Here they are in their own words.


Linda VanApeldoorn’s Story

Flower bouquet by Linda VanApeldoorn. Photo by Anna Simonak

I started flower farming and operating a pick-your-own in 2006 soon after I moved in with then-new husband Paul. His home, to my delight, happened to be situated on the only hillside with sandy loam in all of clay-heavy Tompkins County! In 2008 the Lansing Farmers Market opened and I took bouquets to sell. Shortly thereafter, I left my day job, started growing flowers full time, and added doing flowers for weddings and events to my business.

The CSA branch of the business began in 2007 after my chiropractor said, “You know, I’d love to get your flowers but I don’t have time to come out there and pick them. If you bring them to me, I’ll buy them!” I started bringing flowers when I had my weekly appointment with her, and then other people started getting interested.

This year I have 53 flower CSA members. Some pick up their bouquets here at the farm, but we also have drop-off locations in Tompkins County and I do some deliveries to homes, offices, restaurants, and retailers in the Ithaca area. Folks can opt for 10- or 15-week seasons. Each year I add new varieties to the mix. My business motto is “Flowers from Seed to Centerpiece!” … as I start most of the plants from seed in my home under grow lights.

Linda’s wreath for the bride. Photo by Linda VanApeldoorn

I suppose I was part of the Slow Flowers movement before it was named as such. My philosophy is to grow flowers as sustainably as possible. I try to let Nature do her thing as best she can. On the rare occasion I use a pest control product, it has to be certified organic. Buying local is so very important, as most store flowers are grown in South America, treated with chemicals, packed dry, and have such a long journey to your table, the life gets sucked out of them while the carbon footprint mounts. You can see the difference between imported and locally grown flowers, so if you’re going to buy flowers, why not buy real ones? One reason my CSA has been so successful is that people are in such disbelief about how long my flowers last. They pick up their flower CSA delivery and comment that last week’s bouquets are still looking fresh.

I belong to the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and keep learning from them. They have a great YouTube video about locally grown flowers that I highly recommend (youtu.be/PEXs9UUgqqg). I’ve done seed trials for them over the past few years, so sometimes I get early access to new and unique varieties of cut flowers.

Linda VanAppeldoorn. Photo by Sheri Negrea

A really lovely arrangement came out of the drought summer of 2016, as it was then that I met Glen Robertson from Challenge Workforce Solutions in Ithaca. Challenge finds work for folks with disabilities and other barriers to employment, and Glen runs a program called Ability to Bloom that grows and sells cut flowers. Because the drought compromised flower productivity that summer, Ability to Bloom was having trouble meeting their flower quota, so Glen purchased some from me. We then joined forces; now I hire Challenge crews to work here a couple days a week, and I also go up to their plot to work when they need me.

I started teaching workshops a couple of years ago on flower arranging, how to make flower crowns, drying flowers, and dried flower crafts. There are several upcoming ones listed on my web site, takeyourpickflowers.com.


Carrie Kling’s Story

Carrie’s creativity at work. Photo Courtesy Carrie Kling

Windy Acres Horticulture (windyacreshorticulture.com) is a small farm in Royalton, New York. We grow flowers on just under an acre-and-a-half of our 75-acre farm. I began by selling potted plants at a farmer’s market more than eight years ago. Over time I was drawn to the simple beauty of flowers grouped together in a bunch, and to flowers so artistically arranged that they would make your heart stop for a moment while you admire nature’s colors and shapes.

The flower CSA evolved naturally from a desire to market my flowers directly to consumers.  My friend Julie Blackman from Blackman Farms and I would talk about our goal of retiring from our jobs in health care to pursue our dreams of farming. She went on to open a brick-and-mortar store in Snyder called Farmers and Artisans where local and artisan foods and products are sold, and I gave up my medical career to focus on growing specialty cut flowers. It evolved naturally that we would partner and that Julie would provide the distribution for the flower CSA at her store, along with her vegetable and fruit shares.

A Carrie Kling creation centering heirloom chrysanthemums. Photo courtesy Carrie Kling

Putting a name and face on a product is what consumers want and need. We are surrounded by mass marketing which is impersonal and isolating. People want a connection to others and to the land. We have all experienced seeing a mass-marketed bouquet, where each flower looks like the next, a clone of its neighbor in color and form. Lost are the nuances that nature brings to individual flowers and stems. I strive to make each week’s bouquet of our 18-week subscriptions different and unique from the last. In addition to the CSA customers, florists, event planners, and brides are appreciating the benefits of local flowers that are naturally grown at Windy Acres Farm.

I continue to grow and experiment in the field of cut flowers. This year, I am trialing a partnership with another flower farmer to provide flowers for her CSA, thereby increasing her options for artfully designed seasonal bouquets. We’ve started providing floral design classes, usually in the fall. After instruction in basic flower care and design, attendees create their own beautiful arrangement to take home. It is a huge amount of fun.

Carrie Kling with her peony border. Photo courtesy Carrie Kling

Becoming a part of the Slow Flowers movement was something I felt I had to do to support the larger industry. Slow Flowers is about making a conscious choice to educate people on the source of their flowers and to grow flower farms once again in the U.S. Many people don’t know that most of the flowers sold in the U.S. are shipped in boxes from South America, Africa, the Netherlands, and other places.

To survive their long trip as cargo, they have been grown to withstand the rigors of being out of water for at least a week. These flowers have been hybridized to the point of becoming scentless and are sometimes lifeless in appearance. They are fumigated with pesticides to prevent the importing of pests into the U.S. Flower variety and a diverse gene pool is being lost as only varieties that withstand shipping are grown for seed. Workers, mostly women, are exposed to sub-optimum working conditions and dangerous chemicals.

The Fair Trade Agreement of the 1990s that allowed these imports literally put most flower farmers in the U.S. out of business. The Slow Flower movement strives to bring American-grown flowers back. My CSA is a natural outcome of joining the Slow Flowers movement, as is engaging with other flower farmers through the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.  This group selflessly shares information, resources, and best practices with the goal of helping each member to succeed. There is no limiting sense of competition, but a mutual sense that each member is vested in your success.

The Principles of the Slow Flowers Movement
(from slowflowersjournal.com)

  • To recognize and respect the seasons by celebrating and designing with flowers when they naturally bloom
  • To reduce the transportation footprint of the flowers and foliage consumed in the marketplace by sourcing as locally as possible
  • To support flower farmers small and large by crediting them when possible through proper labeling at the wholesale and consumer level
  • To encourage sustainable and organic farming practices that respect people and the environment
  • To eliminate waste and the use of chemical products in the floral industry

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


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.