seasonal stakeout

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
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 ( 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
PHONE: (315) 488-2632


Michelle Sutton ( is a horticulturist, editor, and writer.


Holiday Gift Guide

by cathym on November 21, 2018

Items Inspired by the Garden

For our sponsors, the gardening season is alive year-round. We asked them for some great gift ideas, and here’s what they came up with.

The most sought after (and greenest) gift of the season is the one that says love and joy, gratitude and thanks…it’s the gift that expresses the true joy of the season—a living wreath. The staff at Sara’s Garden Center in Brockport makes hand-gathered garden wreaths daily throughout the season. We gather pine and fir boughs along with cedar, boxwood, berries and more, like a winter garden for the front door. Their wreaths express the true abundance the season has to offer and it’s all possible with a simple circle that hangs on a door. Bring this page in from the UGJ and receive $5.00 off any garden wreaths valued at $25 or more. 585-637-4745;


Live poinsettia plants add a festive touch to Holiday décor and make great gifts to fit any budget. Rudolph Galley & Sons Greenhouses, 2722 Clinton Street, West Seneca, grows thousands of fresh, premium poinsettias. Whether you enjoy traditional colors or are looking for newer varieties or even something already decorated, you’re covered. Add your own personal touches such as hand-tied bows and novelty picks. Plants are wrapped in foil, free, in the color of your choice. 716-822-9298




Mischler’s Florist & Greenhouses also carries quality poinsettias, plus flower arrangements, gorgeous holiday centerpieces, and much more. 716-632-1290;




There aren’t many places more pleasant to be in the blustery winter months than under glass. Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens is offering a 25% discount on personal and family memberships. Extend your current membership, join for the first time or purchase a gift membership for a loved one. Go online to and use Coupon Code: UPSTATE18 to order today! New memberships are valid one year from join date. Offer expires December 14, 2018. 716-827-1584


Bristol’s Garden Center, in Victor, suggests these unique gifts:

  • Self-Watering Glass Planters: Great for Amaryllis & Paperwhites.
  • Plant-Amp: Perfect for someone who has everything or your favorite college student—it’s a speaker for your phone and a planter.
  • Mini Decorative Planters: Make great hostess gifts.


What’s on the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal team gift wish lists?

Jane Milliman: Plants, plants, plants! Despite the fact that I have piles (literally) of unplanted plants, I can always do with more. Divisions, seedlings, stuff you don’t want (but not Japanese knotweed or houttuynia, thanks so much). Also, I am a sucker for gargoyles and statuettes of woodland creatures.

Deb Eckerson: A few of my favorite gardening items that I would not hesitate to give as gifts:

  • Japanese garden knife (also called a hori-hori)—I LOVE this tool and use it all the time (works especially well for hand weeding and planting)
  • Bellingham nitrile touch gloves—my fingers crack & bleed so I have to wear gloves, these provide excellent protection without removing sense of touch or dexterity
  • Any quality high-density foam pad for kneeling!

Crafty Cathy: Any thing handmade with love! Two of the projects featured in the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal over the past year would make great gifts—the hand scrub and the wine glass charms in this issue are two of my favorites.


Lastly, for the gardener with wanderlust: give the “Gift of Travel” in 2019 and join us as we venture across the pond to Scotland! Click here for more details.


From a New Generation of Farmers

by cathym on July 4, 2018

On the farm with Denis Lepel of Lakestone Family Farm

Story and photos by Donna De Palma unless noted


Denis Lepel never suspected that tending a garden would lead to a life of farming. Lepel, and his wife, Trish, picked up roots in Rochester and moved to Queens when Trish’s father fell ill with Parkinson’s.  Lepel’s father-in-law bestowed the care and feeding of his tomato garden on Denis.

While in Queens, Denis and Trish joined a CSA on Long Island. “Even though I’d worked as a produce manager at a local grocery store for eight years, I was introduced to vegetables I’d never seen before like Hakurei turnips and many different varieties of eggplant” says Lepel.

The couple’s excitement about organic and local foods expanded. Lepel’s awareness about our food system was awakened by the video series, “Meatrix.” The films opened Lepel’s eyes.

“We watched these films which were cartoon parodies of the Matrix movies.  They talk about factory farming and the meat system and how the meat we eat is raised.”

Denis Lepel with hens.

Shortly after viewing the “Meatrix” series, Lepel decided it was time to start eating healthier food. He and Trish decided to visit the CSA farm they’d joined.  “That was when it hit me.  Farming might be something I’d be interested in doing.”

Lepel expanded the garden plot in his father-in-law’s yard.  He gardened in raised beds behind the house in Queens. “I had an affinity for gardening.  My garden got larger and larger.   I employed home garden methods such as square foot gardening to increase yields on small plots.  It worked well. We had 30 different varieties of vegetables growing in a 48 sq. ft. garden.”

“When my father-in-law passed away, it was a pivotal moment for us.  We had already started our family and wanted to raise our children near our parents.  My parents were all we had left and they were in Rochester.  We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do for work if we move back.’  We toyed with the idea of buying land and starting a farm. Worst case scenario and the farm folds, I could get a traditional job.”

“My wife and I started thinking maybe we could do this. We trolled the internet for anything within a 30-mile radius of Rochester. We thought Rochester would be a good market.  A lot of people live in the area. Organic produce is gaining in popularity. Our farm would be close enough for people to visit as members of a CSA.”

“We found some property online in October, 2010.  We were visiting Rochester for Thanksgiving that year and said to ourselves, ‘If it’s still there when we visit, we’ll take a look.’  The property sounded much better than it actually turned out to be.”

Lakestone Family Farmhouse courtesy Denis Lepel.

The Lepels fell in love with the 1850’s farmhouse for sale in Farmington but they didn’t know anything about the land it was on. “When you’re farming, the land is the most important thing.  But I had never farmed a day in my life, so I didn’t know how important soil was.  I thought, at the time, a farm is a farm.”

Lepel booked a reservation to attend the winter conference of NOFA NY in Saratoga Springs in January of 2010.  And he started reading about farming—anything he could get his hands on.

Lepel went to his first NOFA conference armed with computer printouts and aerial maps of the farm. “Half of the people I met at the conference thought buying this land was a mistake. They said the soil was too rocky.”

“But I felt such a connection with the people at the NOFA conference. The community was so inviting.  They told me I wouldn’t make money but no one told me I was crazy to want to farm. So that clinched it in my mind; that this could be something I could do.”

Lepel needed the exposure to other organic farmers.  “I met a whole lot of people that I’m still in contact with to this day.  People I see on a weekly basis at farmers’ markets.  It’s such a tight community.”

“People at the conference told me I needed to learn more about farming. It was there I heard about Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Westchester County.  I applied for an apprenticeship. Instead, I was awarded an internship because I didn’t have any farming experience.  I use many of the techniques and principles I learned at Stone Barns Center on my farm today.”

Lepel interned at the Center from June through October of 2010. “Because I couldn’t wait to begin farming, immediately upon returning to Queens from the first NOFA conference, I picked up an organic food guide. I called every farm within an hour of my house in Queens to volunteer.”

Restoration Farm in Old Bethpage on Long Island took Lepel in as a volunteer in February of that year.  His first project, besides shoveling snow, was converting a tractor from fossil fuel to electric power.

The Lepels closed on the farmhouse in Farmington in the summer of 2011 and haven’t looked back since starting Lakestone Family Farm in the spring of 2012.

The training Lepel received at Restoration Farm served him well. “We started seeding, planting and clearing land.  My system of farming is a combination from those two farms because that’s all I ever saw before I started here.  The things we did—the raised bed system—came from the model at Stone Barns and many of my planting techniques are similar to those at Restoration Farm.”

Lakestone Family Farm has grown in the seven years since the first seeds were planted.  Lepel worked alone for most of the first season, breaking ground, plowing and building raised beds.

“I planted three-quarters of an acre myself that first year. By the second year it was a full acre. By then, I’d hired help,” says Lepel.

Lepel is still perfecting his craft. His 64-acre farm has room to grow. “I had never started a plant from seed before the farm. I built a greenhouse without knowing how to use one.  The best tomato transplants came that first year before I knew what I was doing.”

He’s learned to work with the heavy, silty loom and clay subsoil on his farm. According to Lepel, soils are very local and soil types can vary within a single farm.

The Lepels also raise chickens, 500 hens that lay, on average, 28 dozen eggs a day. How did Lepel learn to raise chickens? He read a book. “Our chickens are on fresh pasture daily. Our pastures are our gardens so where we have fallow land that was gardened, that’s where we put our chickens to fertilize the land.”

Lepel plans to expand his poultry processing facility later this summer to increase its processing capacity from 1000 chickens to 20,000.

The Lepels CSA has 50 members, many of whom come to the farm to pick up vegetable, egg and chicken shares. Lakestone Family Farm grows mini-jewel lettuce bouquets, kale, Hakurei turnips, baby bokchoy, spinach, string beans, tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, leeks, onions, summer, fall and winter squash, ten varieties of peppers, cherry tomatoes, Swiss chard, strawberries and more on two acres for their CSA and for local farmers’ markets.

“I raise close to 100 varieties of vegetables here. We started our CSA in 2014.  The CSA model was one of our motivations for starting the farm.  Because we were members of a CSA and I was volunteering at a CSA farm—Restoration was a CSA— I really had that as my mindset. I wasn’t interested in farmers’ markets then because most of what I had read was written by CSA farmers who downplayed farmers’ markets.”  According to Lepel, farmers’ markets now account for a major portion of the farm’s annual income.

Lepel hasn’t quite hit his projections yet.  He was hoping to be in the black by now, but says he’s getting closer day by day.

Denis and Trish Lepel plan to grow their farm and their family.  Their three children, Abby, Josh, and Ben, haven’t known much other than farm life which is what Denis and Trish always dreamed of for them. Life on the farm is good and the Lepel family, and their farm, are thriving.

Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.