A Bloomin' Good Business
Blumen Gardens combines the best of the past and the present to create a thriving company that provides a unique shopping experience as well as quality plants and landscape installations.
Joel Barczak, co-owner of Blumen Gardens with his wife, Joan, started the business as a small nursery in the couple's back yard, across the street from the current facility.
Even in the off-season when there's not much in bloom, Blumen Gardens is an oasis. Located in the northern Illinois town of Sycamore in the heart of farm country, this small nursery and garden center is situated "two blocks off of anywhere," says Joel Barczak, founder and co-owner with his wife, Joan. Indeed, walk a couple of blocks in any direction and you'll find yourself in a residential area; among aging industrial buildings; approaching downtown Sycamore; or at the entrance to a two-story local hospital. "So because of that poor location," Barczak continues, "you better do something, you better be something really special. It's an oasis. We designed it like a garden; we just try to have fun and try to offer well-chosen plants."
It's not easy to find, tucked away in an unusual setting - and it's absolutely worth the search to find it. "Rather than a garden center," Barczak says, "we're a garden that sells plants. We designed the grounds to reflect that."
The character of place
Enter the grounds at Blumen Gardens, and you're transported to a haven populated by plants, oddities and a small staff with a big imagination. The site itself is a drawing card. The interior retail space is divided into two separate structures, the first of which is called "the white building," whose weathered exterior greets visitors entering from the street. It houses small gift and gardening items, and the back of the building provides space for the garden center's checkout station.
A larger structure offers ample room for expanded retail displays, plus storage, a garage and an event facility. The building is a barely renovated wire factory, and the unique surroundings lend an air of history and heritage, comfortably mixed with the funky and imaginative objects displayed in endlessly artistic vignettes.
Maintaining the buildings in near-original condition pays tribute to Sycamore's past as an industrial hub in a farming community, and plays on the Barczaks' wish to honor their location and to provide what's appropriate. This dedication extends to the plants they grow and sell. A good example is the stand of quaking aspen that graces the entrance to Blumen's sales yard. Visitors have questioned Barczak about the trees, and he explains, "Railroad tracks once went through that spot. There's a foot of gravel, of high pH gravel. So, thinking horticulturally, what would give us much value, design-wise, that can take those conditions? There's your answer."
The main entrance to Blumen Gardens features a century-plus-old building that now features small garden and gift items.
Photos by Sally Benson
Both Joel and Joan Barczak are horticulturists, each with a well-rounded background in plants. They met while taking classes and working with various garden centers and landscape companies in the Fox Valley region of northern Illinois. Joel went on to work and study in Germany - thus the name "Blumen," which is the German word for flowers. When he returned to the states they settled in an old, historic home in Sycamore, across the road from an abandoned industrial building.
Their small nursery was started in 1989 in the back yard of that house, but they quickly outgrew the location and negotiated for the space that soon became Blumen Gardens - just a stone's throw away from home.
They still grow much of their own material, concentrating on quality perennials that are well suited to the northern Midwest, but they also buy in a few branded selections as well as small woody plants (see sidebar on page 10).
Checkout is easy to find at the back of the white building; the concrete surface has since been replaced by brick.
Three-part harmony, with a twist
Blumen Gardens today incorporates three segments: growing perennials, landscape services and the retail shop. "We try to make thoughtful choices of our plants," Barczak says, "because we don't have a lot of room for display gardens." So the perennials that are grown and sold at Blumen must be eye-catching and hardy, appropriate for hot, humid summers and brutally cold winters.
The nursery was a natural introduction to landscape design and construction, a division of the business that has grown to include maintenance. The award-winning, in-house design team concentrates on using hardscape materials that can be sourced locally, with much of the stone pulled from quarries in the Midwest. Bricks are preferred over pavers: "We've found that brick maintains its rich color longer than pavers, and our inspiration comes from older, historic homes where brick was used extensively," Barczak explains. Brickwork throughout the outdoor retail space enriches the look of the facility, but it also shows customers how they can incorporate it into their own landscapes.
The retail end of the business followed. "At first we rented this space to grow our plants for our gardening and landscape jobs, because we wanted control over our plants," says Joan Barczak. "And Joel, always wanting to grow, wanted new varieties."
Seasonal displays are thoughtfully designed to hold customers' attention.
The garden center soon became a destination for eager gardeners from miles away - some arriving by the busload - and the Barczaks are careful to select those plants that will survive and thrive in the often-challenging soils and varying weather conditions of the upper Midwest.
Displays are arranged with the gardener in mind: Rather than present plants alphabetically, they're sorted by color. "When a customer comes in to look for a plant, she's probably thinking of color first, not Latin name," Barczak explains. Even placed on rustic benches, in harmony with the surroundings, the assortment of plants by color families blends them into miniature gardens, thus encouraging sales. (To ensure accuracy, the plants are arranged alphabetically within their color groups.)
Blumen Gardens' plant program
Most of the plant inventory offered by Blumen Gardens is grown on-site, including perennials and small shrubs.
"We don't really do it in a big way, but it's enough for us," Joel Barczak explains. "We don't rewholesale; what we produce is for our garden center, and then for our [landscape] jobs. And we struggle with the concept: 'Is this financially sound to do this, or is it tying up money and labor to do that?' But if we're on a construction site, I've always felt it's a great thing, because I have this inventory of plants that we design around, although we don't limit our designers to that. If Midwest Groundcovers has something, or if Roy Klehm has something, if it's the right plant, we go with them.
"Having our own plants," he continues, "really gives us a lot of flexibility. We like to plant this in our customers' minds: 'We grow it and we know it.' We grow all of our own sun and shade perennials, grasses and vines, and a few small shrubs. We buy in from Midwest [Groundcovers], and maybe Intrinsic [Perennial Garden]; Brent's got a really nice group of plants. There are so many good plants, but it's a matter of shelf space. Plus, how to justify, how to forecast what's going to be a winner."
For that information, or just for good advice, the Barczaks turn to a few trusted sources.
"We look to people like Roy Diblik, obviously, and to the Chicago Botanic Garden, Richard Hawke's plant evaluation program," Barczak says. "That's a scientific, unbiased approach. So we look at those types of things, and then we'll speculate on some things. Looking at the perennial world, I want proven stuff, I want five-star stuff. That's what people deserve. This is our job; we're like a filter, a gatekeeper of information so we can encourage garden success."
Unique garden ornaments and collectibles - call them relics - serve both as staging for the plants and as one-of-a-kind merchandise. Salvaged architectural details, including windows, doors, lintels and ironwork, provide interesting backdrops for items gathered from local artisans and national gift shows alike. Displays indoors and out are packed with fascinating goods inspired by the natural world, and they are rotated often. "At least once a week we pick a display area to break down and redesign, just to keep things fresh," Barczak explains.
A large warehouse at the back of the larger retail facility is packed to the ceiling with thousands of quirky items, ranging from vintage screen doors to saddles, galvanized stock tanks to rebar and more. Much of the collection comes by way of donation, and Barczak tells willing patrons that they are always free to visit their cherished articles. The saddle, for example, was donated by elderly sisters who had used it in their youth; at Blumen, it will be put to careful and considered use as an artful display. "We understand that retail is theater," Barczak says, "and we collect props and things that can be used for scenery."
Quaking aspen are planted at the entry to Blumen Gardens, in a space where a railroad spur once ran through the property.
So what's the twist?
A fourth segment of Blumen Gardens is a more recent addition, but it's proved to be tremendously successful. In the spring of 2005, the Barczaks opened another part of the factory to host events, and the Tea Room has been booked ever since. Groups as diverse as business owners and book clubs have rented the space for meetings and celebrations, and Blumen Gardens has become a popular venue for weddings. In fact, the facility was featured on TLC's "Four Weddings" show last year, in which four brides vie to outdo each other's events. Not surprisingly, Blumen was voted "Best Location for a Wedding Reception."
An abandoned wire factory houses the larger retail space, which is filled with ever-changing vignettes of fascinating items.
The large room was developed when the Barczaks decided to devote an 11,000-square-foot space to reserve for events. A tenant occupied the open space for the first five years, allowing Blumen Gardens to earn extra revenue while plans were being finalized. The first event was a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, organized by business colleagues in Sycamore who had met in the room to plan for an outdoor gala. When one asked what would happen if it rained on the day of the fundraiser, the decision was made to hold the event in Blumen's space.
Self-service bins allow customers to select and measure birdseed.
The gala was a resounding success, and "that night someone asked if they could have a birthday party here," Barczak says, "and so it snowballed.
Horticulturist and author Roy Diblik gives an eager crowd advice about "Know Maintenance" gardening during a book signing at Blumen.
"I very much love the small business repercussions of this," he continues, "because this is a real estate deal. You make a little money on the real estate. You want some chairs; someone provides chairs. The hotels, the caterers, the liquor providers, the photographers, the DJs in town all benefit. It just makes sense to us."
Even when most live plants are long past the flowering stage, Blumen Gardens is "alive" with color.
That spirit of community thrives at Blumen Gardens, where past and present blend seamlessly into a horticulture business that embraces both with a sense of responsibility - and a sense of humor.
Autumn is a celebration at Blumen Gardens in Sycamore, Ill.
Sally Benson is the editorial director of American Nurseryman. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.