seasonal stakeout

Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy the Plant Shack except where noted

Rachel Stepien is the owner of the Plant Shack in East Aurora, southeast of Buffalo. With two locations and a third being planned, she is offering things people need more now than ever: community, creativity, the people-plant connection, and—soon—cocktails!  

Did you grow up in a gardening family?
Rachel Stepien: I grew up in Niagara County, in Youngstown. My love for nature started there and with going to nature preserves with my grandparents. My dad always had a garden (and still does), and helping him pick tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer is definitely something I will always remember. I would help find toads in my gad’s veggie garden or move spiders off the tomatoes before he watered. He had the knack for growing veggies and herbs, and inside the house we had cacti and small trees. One cactus got so large, we had to donate it because it wouldn’t fit in the house anymore. 

How did your plant interest evolve from there? 
Throughout my life, I’ve had a fascination with all types of forests. I always wanted to go explore the Amazon rainforest; I remember being a kid and having this cool pop-up book where you could add different plants and animals to a rainforest backdrop. It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, that I started collecting plants and really getting into the houseplant hobby. 

Before starting the Plant Shack, I had worked at the Buffalo Zoo in the rainforest exhibit (I have a degree from Canisius College in Zoology). After seeing how much my mood improved in the winter because of being surrounded by plants at work as well as at home, my love for them really took off. 

Anna’s cat, Billy, keeps an eye on things.

What was your initial business spark? 
I always had an appreciation for cozy, locally owned coffee shops, and when I was drinking coffee last fall in my home, surrounded by plants, I had a vision of creating a botanical café. I thought, “How cool would it be to actually create this kind of space for other people?” I knew this would be a big endeavor, so I started with plants—getting my name out there, spreading the word and excitement, etc. My end goal is still to become a botanical café: coffee by day, craft cocktails by night—all surrounded by green!

What do you see as your overall business mission and vision? 
This is so hard for me to answer, as I have at least ten missions! Overall, though, my mission is to be a place for the community to gather. My vision is to be a business that supports the community that supports me. To be kind. 

How have you used social media to grow your Plant Shack community? Social media has been my number one place for getting out news and information, advertising events, and gathering a following of fellow plant people. It’s been amazing! We’ve done giveaways with expensive plants so that people who may not be able to splurge to buy one have a chance to win one. I have used our social media to help a foster dog find a home. 

I want people to know there is someone just like them behind the Plant Shack name. I like sharing behind-the-scenes things on social media so it’s more personal. I want people to know that they can come to me for advice or just to chat. I also use social media to provide exposure to other small businesses in our region and to encourage folks to check them out. 

Could you tell us about #TheShackGivesBack and your areas of giving? This comes back to my mission and vision. I want to be a place for the community, to help make our community and world a better place. Animals and nature are my passion, so many of my give-back efforts are related to that. For instance, starting last November, for every ten plants we sell, we plant a tree through the nonprofit organization called One Tree Planted. We have planted 445 trees around the world so far! We’ve also raised money to help those affected by the Australian bushfires.

We have covered the cost of transportation fees for animals who are being transported to our region by plane, and we’ve sponsored cages at the Niagara County SPCA. One of the dogs we helped transport stayed at the Shack during our open hours to greet customers and gain exposure; because of this, she found an amazing new home! Once we get back to normal, we hope to have more “shop dogs.” 

You’re starting a scholarship for college or trade school students. What inspired you to do that?  
I was on a business trip with my other job, and my shuttle driver to the airport was a high school student who was applying to colleges. He is the first of his family to go to college, and he really wanted to go to a certain one that is very expensive. He had this plan laid out, that he was going to go to the local community college for two years, then another college, and then finally transfer to the expensive college so his diploma would be from there. 

I told him that the name of the college wasn’t everything, but after him telling me his plans, how he was saving money, etc., I tipped him very well and said it was for his college fund. I got such a great feeling that I was able to help him out, even in such a small way, that I decided that I would use my business to help someone go to school. We were going to start this year, but due to the coronavirus, we instead donated over $500 in gift cards and Easter dinners to local families who were struggling because of income loss related to the pandemic. 

Speaking of the pandemic, how have you been adapting your business in this strange time? 
We essentially closed for a full month, but after talking to my employees, we came up with a plan to safely open with curbside pickup. We transferred everything to a new website that’s equipped for online purchases. We did that for about a month, and once phase three of reopening came around, we opened to the public but with restrictions (masks, capacity limits, etc.). We have two locations, both in East Aurora. Our seasonal location at Knox Farm State Park will remain closed this year—as it’s just easier with everything going on—but our Main Street location is open.  

Are you still hoping to open a botanical café in the future? 
Yes! We are in the planning phases of opening a separate (different location) botanical café, complete with coffee, patio, indoor seating, and cocktails. I can’t wait to fulfill this goal/vision.  

What kinds of events and classes did you have and plan to get back to? Will you be adapting them to online? 
We had everything! We had introductory German classes, jigsaw puzzle nights, local artists teaching botanical drawing, macramé hanger making classes, succulent arrangement workshops—I can go on! We aren’t adapting these to online, but we are working on having some outdoor events before winter hits. 

The cloth plant pouches are intriguing—can you talk about those? 
The cloth pouches are made by Amiga Wild, a business cofounded by two friends in Venice, California. The pouches have plastic liners in the bottom but the friends thought it would be a fun and different way to display your plants. The safari-themed cloth pouches are the most popular.

Packages ready for curbside pickup last spring. Now folks can shop the Plant Shack in person (using safe protocols).
Houseplant chic: “plant pouches” lined with plastic. The Shack seeks to support as many small businesses as possible. 

What are some other innovative products you’d like to highlight?
Not so much individual products, but I would like to add that many of our gift items are made by local or international small businesses; we seek to support as many as possible. Our candles, cards, jewelry, macramé hangers, and embroidery are all from small businesses. Most of our store furniture was custom-made by Black Dog Wood, based in Niagara County.  

Where do you turn for creative ideas and inspiration? 
When I first started, I would scroll through Instagram for inspiration from other plant shops. But when employees Erin and Anna came on board, they quickly became the source of creativity! Both of them love interior design, so they are always changing the shops around and arranging everything in the most pleasing and unusual ways. 

What interests do you have outside of the business? 
I love traveling with my boyfriend—two of my favorite places to go are St. John, USVI and Wengen, Switzerland. I also love reading and playing video games. You can find me down by our pond looking at bugs and other animals. I’m on the board of Knox Farm State Park right here in East Aurora. 

What’s an interesting fact about you that your customers might not know? 
I served in the USAF reserves for six years. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

Connecting with The Plant Shack


My pathway through community gardens

by cathym on July 3, 2020

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton 

For about ten years, the author did garden design, installation, and maintenance in greater Rochester. Courtyard gardens were especially fun and rewarding.

I have a community garden to thank for getting me into horticulture in the first place. I was twenty and living in an egalitarian community (secular commune) of about 100 people in central Virginia. Tom was a rare visitor my age who’d come from Northern California for a three-week stay. He was super fired up about growing vegetables. The first crop we bonded over was spinach. Tom was very, very excited about spinach.  

I was fired up about Tom, so I followed him into the fields, and as we spent time tending the rows and talking, his enthusiasm for the vegetables sparked something in me. I had hoped Tom would become a member of the community and provide the romance my life there was missing. Devastatingly, he decided not to stay, but I nursed my broken heart by throwing myself deeper into vegetable cultivation.  

The community’s garden and grounds manager, the lovely Jake, was very kind to me during that time when I felt so raw. Jake, who grew up on a working farm, moved three times as fast as anyone else. He decided what to grow and he delegated tasks, but owing to his superior energy and efficiency, he also did the lion’s share of the work. Because of his dominance of the gardening realm there, I could see that I was only going to advance so far in my horticultural knowledge and opportunities. Also, I really needed to be around more people my age.  

In the summer of 1990, I got a position as a gardener at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. We were given room, board, access to some workshops, and $200/week. This seemed like a dream for twenty-year-old Michelle. A woman named Sue headed things up, and she and I and one other seasonal person divided the work. 

The author in 2019.

I made compost with scraps from the institute’s kitchen. I learned how to build a three-bin compost unit (fun side note: when my husband and I went to the Omega grounds to walk around more than twenty years later, the bin was still there). I tried not to fork snake eggs when I pitchforked leaf mulch into the first of the three bins. I gave tours of the garden to well-heeled and gracious New Agers from New York City. In late summer I loved to give them raw corn to shuck and taste, and sometimes there’d be a corn husk completely filled with the black spores and white goo of the corn smut fungus. That was reliably a graphic and fun gross-out for everyone involved. (I’ve since learned that corn smut is called huitlacoche in Mexico and is eaten as a delicacy there. Also, you gotta love how plant pathologists name things so forthrightly, a là nipple gall, butt rot, scabs, and cankers.) 

Even though there were dozens and dozens of staff and several hundred participants coming through every week, I was lonely at Omega, too … lonely in a sea of people. I was a member of a community, but I never felt like I belonged. That wasn’t Omega’s fault. There was actually so much going on all the time there that my introverted nervous system was overwhelmed. I remember a lot of therapeutic crying in the garden shed in the evenings, until my roommate left her internship early and then, praise heaven, I had my own rustic room to cry in.   

In the fall I headed back to my home state of Virginia and got hired by an organic vegetable farm in metropolitan Washington, D.C. There, a community of mostly Bolivian workers had established themselves in affordable living arrangements and would remain year-round. Within a few minutes of being hired, as I was being given a tour of the operation, I saw this really handsome tall fellow stand up and look my direction. That was the sweet jack-of-all-trades Oscar, who loved babies and animals and Bolivian folk dancing. To my parents’ shock, he and I got married after knowing each other for six weeks. I don’t recommend that. Nonetheless, we continued to date for several years after the annulment, and he was extremely kind and helpful to me and my family during some very stressful times.  

The author’s most successful community garden plot year owed to a confluence of factors: going no-till (therefore, not churning up weed seeds), procuring the region’s most lovingly produced seedlings, mulching beds and paths very heavily, staying on top of the few audacious weeds that poked through said mulch, abundant rainfall and moderate temps that summer, and not being on the board at the time.

Spanish filled the air in that farm community, and I delighted in that. Thanks to beloved early childhood neighbors who were from Ecuador and spoke Spanish while I played with their kids, I had a good ear for it and was able to join in conversations. However, on the occasions when Oscar and his sister and brother-in-law didn’t want me to understand what was being said, they would speak Quechua, their third language. Sneaky. 

Oscar and I went to a lot of parties hosted by Bolivians where everyone danced—I mean everyone—there were no chairs around the room. That was fun, although I did have to learn the ways in which our cultures were different and stop centering my own. Arriving at one party, the host greeted me smilingly with, “Hello Michelle! You are fatter than before.” I slinked off to the corner to cry, but Oscar gently explained to me that in his culture, observations of fatness or thinness carried neutral weight. They weren’t insults. (American culture would benefit greatly from getting on board with this.) 

I joined my first official community garden—a grid of plots in a field—in Reston, Virginia. 

My garden neighbor said, “I can tell you know what you’re doing.” The garden did start out swimmingly, with a pretty mandala-like design, but ironically, since I’d started going back to school to study horticulture, I stopped going to the community garden regularly. All of a sudden, the weeds were horror-movie tall. 

Oscar helped me clean the plot out, and I came away with a miserable case of poison ivy. That’s when I knew that there were limitations on my gardening freedom. I could/cannot afford to wade around in bleeping poison ivy. I am very careful about this. So imagine when my surprise when I got it a couple of years ago in January—JANUARY!—from snuggling with my friend’s newly adopted husky. SNUGGLING WITH AN ADORABLE DOG! It’s just so unfair. 

The author’s favorite sunflowers (‘Chocolate Cherry’) from her erstwhile community garden plot.

My first long-term experience with community gardens was after moving to the Hudson Valley in 2010 to be with my then-new husband. We marveled at how at this community garden seemed to be deeply inhabited, with semi-permanent structures like pergolas, sculptures, elaborate fancy-rustic fences, and even a swing! We got a plot and found out that the reason people had settled so thoroughly into their plots was that unlike most community gardens where the entire area gets plowed every spring, in this one, folks could keep their same plot year after year. 

That was cool, since it seemed to generate all this creativity, but it turned out to have a major downside: entitlement. The longer people had their plots, the more inflexible they became. Especially in cases of people like the board member who was an inveterate hoarder. His board member status served as a cover for his gradually filling plot after plot with junk. 

“Snaps“ to these snaps! ‘Rocket Red’ (left side of the bouquet) is the author’s favorite annual.

He was a good-hearted person who truly liked to be helpful to other people—and I felt for him, because he seemed powerless over his illness—but the garbage accumulation was really hard to deal with. When the board finally started to present him with a timetable of “This plot has to be cleaned up by x date, and this other plot has to be cleaned by x date (repeat several times over) or you have to leave,” I was ending my service on the board. Selfishly, I was relieved, because I knew the situation that had come to a boil was going to scald people, and it did. I did very much admire the tenacity of the board president and the board in seeing things through … as I jumped ship.     

Being on the board, I learned about how many long-term squabbles neighboring gardeners were carrying on (if you weren’t on the board, you’d be blissfully unaware.) 

Based on observing those dramas, I can offer some specific advice on how to be a good community garden member: 

  • Keep your fence lines extra clean of weeds, as a courtesy to your neighbors.
  • Research plants first so you don’t plant something invasive that everyone has to deal with for years to come.
  • If you can’t keep up with your plot, ask the board for help rather than letting things get really overgrown. 
  • Don’t build berms that are five feet high at their apex and provide a den for rats. If your garden neighbors say they are seeing rats, don’t deny their reality. 
  • Don’t leave the community hoses on when you leave, flooding your neighbors’ gardens. One wouldn’t think this would need to be said. 
  • Leave your adorable dog at home. 
  • Don’t install an industrial metal fence that is so tall it makes your plot look like a mini penitentiary. 
  • Don’t camp out or get drunk in your plot. 
  • Most importantly, never, never join the board. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.


Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy of Coldwater Pond Nursery

When third-generation nurseryman and plant propagator Ted Hildebrant was ready to open his own nursery in the early 1990s, land in his native New Jersey was too expensive. A friend  living in Wayne County encouraged him to have a look at the more affordable farmland for sale in the Finger Lakes. 

Ted Hildebrant and Elly Keyel of Coldwater Pond Nursery

“My goal at that point was to be a bare root tree grower,” Ted says, “so I spent hours upon hours walking the farms with my shovel, digging holes to evaluate the soil. In so many places, the ground was stony—not fit for field-grown trees.” At the last farm he visited on his third scouting trip to the Finger Lakes, Ted found his land-match in Phelps in Ontario County. The property possessed an ideal, mostly stone-free sandy loam, a large pond for irrigation, and several barns in good shape. 

This would be Coldwater Pond Nursery, with a twist: one of the buildings was an operating poultry barn, and Ted accepted the seller’s offer to include the poultry business in the transaction. This decision would prove personally fruitful for Ted. Fourteen years ago, he hired Elly Keyel to help with the poultry barn; after a year and a half, Ted and Elly became partners in business and life. 

As the nursery sales grew steadily over the years, Ted and Elly eventually let the poultry enterprise go. “It was nice to have the year-round cash-flow of that business to help build the nursery, and we liked working with the chicks, but it was very labor-intensive, and the margin of profit was slim,” Ted says.  

The nursery’s business model has morphed in other ways over time. Today, Coldwater Pond Nursery is about 50 percent contract propagation—grafting scions onto rootstocks to sell to other growers—and about 50 percent producing rare and unusual plants for retail sale, mostly at farmer’s markets and garden show plant sales. (Ted and Elly travel to sell plants and give talks in Buffalo, Rochester, and Ithaca, as well as in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.) 

“It’s still on my mind to explore bare root tree field production of trees we graft ourselves, for the municipal market especially,” Ted says. “In the East and even just in New York, there are so few growers offering bare root.” There are few woody plant propagators as well—most propagation happens on the West Coast, especially in Oregon, where growing conditions are ideal for plants. That’s a change that’s happened over time; it used to be that there were lots of people doing grafting east of the Mississippi. “There’s only a handful of us now,” Ted says.

• • •

A striking dwarf hemlock cultivar, Tsuga canadensis ‘Moon Frost’, gets only 2 to 4 feet tall and wide.
Aesculus x carnea ‘O’Neill Red’ is a round-headed, more compact form of horsechestnut, maturing to a maximum of 35 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
This shrubby St. John’s wort cultivar (Hypericum prolificum ‘Sunburst’) produces a stunning flower attractive to bees and butterflies.

Often folks mistakenly assume that nurserymen and women have quiet winter months. The grafting work that Ted does with Elly’s assistance makes for busy winter and early spring months (ideally, most grafting in the Northeast is done when the scion is dormant, and the rootstock is just breaking dormancy). In reality, Ted and Elly have a few light weeks to rest in September and December, but the rest of the year’s work is full-bore, dawn to dusk. Ted does the general business management and oversees the propagation side, while Elly assists with sales and general plant care like potting and pruning—and she does the critical scion preparation for Ted. 

The latter involves removing needles or branches to get a clear area to do the graft. If it’s a deciduous scion, Elly will ensure cleanliness by wiping down the stem with alcohol to sterilize it. After Ted does the graft (there are four major grafting techniques to employ) and secures the graft union with a rubber band, Elly coats the graft union with a mixture of beeswax and paraffin then labels the plants and carries trays to benches. Ted and Elly joke that “I just sit and graft and she does everything else,” says Ted. After Elly, his preferred companion in the endeavor is classical music on WXXI out of Rochester.  

Coldwater Pond Nursery sells custom grafted material to states from Georgia and Tennessee, east to Connecticut and west to Ohio and Indiana. They fulfill small wholesale orders for a wide variety of customers, but they are also doing grafting for major institutions like the U.S. National Arboretum and Longwood Gardens. 

Most of the grafted cultivars are rare or unusual ones that customers can’t readily find elsewhere; Ted and Elly are currently propagating close to 2000 different cultivars. They add to the diversity of the collection in various ways. “Nurseries and collectors generously grant us access to collect scion wood from their nursery stock and gardens,” Ted says. “For instance, there’s a fellow on Martha’s Vineyard who is always amazing us by coming up with cultivars we’ve never heard of, and he mails us the scion wood. I would say half of our new scion wood we go and collect, and the other half is sent to us. We’ve collected, with permission, from nearly every major arboretum on the East Coast.” Coldwater Pond Nursery also maintains an extensive collection of parent plants in their own nursery from which scions and cuttings are collected.

Collecting trips aren’t always glamorous. In February, Ted and Elly traveled to a collection in Connecticut where they had a day and a half to collect scion wood from sun up to sun down. It rained heavily the whole time. “We drove all that way, though, so we had to just deal with it,” Ted says. 

Their host later took them to a highly regarded wholesale nursery on the coast, where the group had a chance to talk plants and exchange numerous propagation pointers. “It was the most wonderful four hours of our winter,” Ted says. That kind of camaraderie is important, because, as Ted says, “No matter how confident I get, or how much expertise I acquire, plant propagation is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Much like with farming, there are so many things that can go wrong, so many variables that are beyond our control.” 

• • •

This heavily variegated upright Japanese maple, Acer sieboldianum ‘Kumoi Nishiki’, has beautiful orange and red fall foliage.
Young grafted Japanese maples thriving in one of the nursery’s greenhouses.

How might the business model for Coldwater Pond Nursery change yet again? “We’ve started to dabble in propagating pre-bonsai trees for the bonsai market,” Ted says. “We’d like to do more of that, and we’d also like to do tree peony production using a special kind of grafting—but that’s a ways down the road.”

Regardless of the form the tree takes, its cultivar, or its means of propagation, Ted and Elly want their plants to be alive and thriving 200 years in the future. “That thought guides us in everything we do,” says Ted. “We are conscious of making sure the root structure is the best, the trees are planted at proper depth, and the trees, shrubs, and perennials get the healthiest start to life we can give them.” 

Recently, Ted and Elly had the opportunity to secure the genetic future of a mature, beloved community tree. Before the old copper beech tree near the Pittsford library had to come down in 2018, Ted and Elly collected 200 scion wood cuttings to ensure that they’d have well over the 100 clone trees the Village of Pittsford asked for. They ended up with 150 or so successfully grafted copper beech trees that are now 6 to 8 feet tall and will eventually be distributed around the Village. 

Folks are welcome to visit the nursery by appointment; weekdays are generally best. Every year the plant propagation class from Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) comes to the nursery to get an introduction to grafting and tour the facilities—four heated greenhouses where propagation and liner production is done, and seven unheated cold frames for growing container stock. A video of Ted instructing FLCC students can be found on YouTube.

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.