Twenty miles southeast of Madison, The Flower Factory lures plant nerds from near and far. A proper pilgrimage here requires trading your ride in the parking lot for a red wagon, plucked from a fleet of Radio Flyers at the door. Maps will then guide you through a maze of greenhouses separated into plant categories.
The Flower Factory. Photos: David Nevala
“It’s a rite of passage to make this trek,” says Kelly Norris, director of horticulture and education at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Kelly first learned of The Flower Factory a decade ago and has made the 600-mile round-trip haul from Des Moines many times since.
The grounds (open to the public late April through October) specialize in plants you’ve never heard of, some gardener favorites and an unrivaled selection of ornamental grasses. Just don’t repeat the mistake of many first-timers who think a sedan will be big enough for the trip home.
Kelly tells why he treks from out of state to The Flower Factory.
• They have 2,500 perennials. It’s mind-boggling. Picture a sea of greenhouses.
• They grow just about everything themselves. Specialty nurseries like that are a rare breed today.
• Best hardy cactus collection in the Midwest. They’re native to the Great Plains and stay outside year-round.
• The old and the new. You’ll find hot-off-the-press varieties, plus things you didn’t think anyone was growing anymore.
Madison pit stop Explore 16 acres of streams, ponds and theme gardens, including the country’s only Thai Pavilion and Garden, at . Or stick to the tropical climate in Olbrich's glass-pyramid conservatory. On the UW-Madison campus, the emphasizes herbaceous ornamental perennials that will spark ideas for your own home garden.
Chalet, Wilmette, Illinois
Chalet’s landscaping zeal started 100 years ago and hasn’t stopped evolving and expanding since. What started as a lawn care business in 1917 is now Chicagoland’s Disneyland of gardening, home goods and even pet care. Kids explore a playhouse while adult shoppers surrender to a tunnel of wooden arbors accessing two acres of trees, shrubs, roses and perennial flowers. Inside a retail building styled after a Swiss chalet, you’ll find ceramic dishes, artful birdhouses, fresh-baked dog cookies and gourmet pet food. Five years ago, Chalet even went mobile with the launch of its Friday Farm Truck. The program brings discounted overstock plants (such as hydrangeas or Japanese maples) to farmers markets in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Chalet. Photo: Bob Stefko
Fun fact Chalet's 17-year-old parrot, Kazoo, has a 250-word vocabulary. With an 80-year life span, he'll likely be here longer than any employees.
Fill the brain, then the cart Check Chalet Learning Center’s schedule for lectures and classes held Fridays and Saturdays. The mostly free programs cover topics like attracting hummingbirds and growing vegetables.
Bird’s Botanicals, Kansas City, Missouri
You know you’re close once you see black-and-white signs on Interstate-435 for Interstate Underground Warehouse. Follow a sketchy back road to a massive hole in the hillside. It’s a portal to a botanical treasure chest. In a retired limestone quarry, more than 10,000 plants are thriving—mostly orchids and an expanding collection of succulents, flytraps and carnivorous novelties. “We now probably have the biggest selection of carnivorous plants in the Midwest,” David Bird says. David runs Bird’s (open Tuesday through Friday) with his daughter, Vashti Kern, and Kahlua, a corgi who earns her keep as cave greeter.
Bird's Botanicals. Photos: Blaine Moats
There are 20,000-plus species of orchids in the world, and many rare and hybrid varieties appear in Bird's collection, with names like dancing doll, Dracula vampira and lady slipper. In late 2017, David celebrated the bloom of one of his most-prized specimens. He now sells $100 plants from his award-winning Phragmipedium kovachii ‘Birdman’ orchid, which he retrieved from Ecuador.
Fun fact Bird’s sells Venus flytraps and rarer carnivorous plants. One variety can grow big enough to eat rats or small monkeys.
Beyond the orchids If you're not obsessed with orchids (David's definition: owning more than 60), stop at Bird’s for a few blooms and care tips, then head 35 miles southeast. Powell Gardens’ 970 acres are worth every minute of the drive, with the nation’s largest edible landscape and an island garden featuring Monet-inspired plantings.
Detroit Garden Works, Sylvan Lake, Michigan
Stepping onto the grounds of Detroit Garden Works feels like an encounter with Anthropologie’s green-thumbed cousin.
“For ambiance and decor, it’s the end-all, be-all of garden stores,” says Andrew VanHarken, director of garden care at R. Youngblood and Co., known for landscape designs at the homes of professional athletes, auto industry executives and other local celebrities.
Detroit Garden Works. Photo: EE Berger
Garden Works is the brainchild of veteran landscape and garden designer Deborah Silver, who grafts fine art and style onto the world of horticulture. Her blog, Dirt Simple, presents a digital library of inspiration for gardeners around the country. The storefront serves as main stage for her many creations and finds.
You can buy tools and some plants at the store, but the spotlight is on rare sculptures and vintage garden ornaments, some from domestic and European buying trips and others designed by Deborah herself.
A wrought-iron fence lining the property creates the feel of a private estate. But the door is open to all, whether you need an original sculpture to complement your koi pond or just a stylish sun hat.
Detroit Garden Works. Photo: EE Berger
Landscape designer Andrew VanHarken shares why Detroit Garden Works is his hub for inspiration.
• We try to create gardens that will last for many years to come, using high-quality materials. Garden Works is the spot for that.
• Deborah has been an art teacher. You can see her artistry shine through every aspect of her work.
• She has the craziest selection of seasonal planter materials, such as balled bamboo, numerous willow varieties and spiral eucalyptus.
• You can go to Garden Works and see what the trends will be in the next year.
Shop by texture Name a material, and Detroit Garden Works likely has pots and planters made of it. The inventory spans wood, stone, fiber, cast iron, recycled rubber and more.
Avon Gardens, Avon, Indiana
Before rushing the product tables for your favorite peonies and annuals, take a test stroll. Note where the pink ‘Tranquil Waters’ daylillies complement ‘Incrediball’ hydrangeas near the cascading brook, and how a raised planter elevates the impact of coleus. West of Indianapolis, Avon Gardens melds inspiring display gardens, retail outlets and events space into one sanctuary. Some of the structures on the grounds are 200 years old, salvaged from the hog farm that claimed the property 35 years ago. In the early 1980s, owner Karen Robbins cleaned up 5 acres of land to create her mini Eden in Indiana—and she moved on-site into the home of her late grandfather.
Avon Gardens. Photo: Bob Stefko
Pro tip Visit the gardens in June or July for full bloom, or during evening events to see plants by candlelight.
Bloom crawl The many gardens of Indy call for a day trip. See 300,000-plus blooms spread across 152 acres at the Newfields campus, part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The oldest city park, Garfield Park Conservatory and Sunken Garden, captures European style outside and exotic plants and trees inside a glass-walled rain forest.
Bowood Farms, St. Louis
You can nearly grasp the full circle of life within the walls of the Bowood campus in St. Louis. Many plants for sale at the retail center started as seeds on the fourth-generation Bowood family farm in Clarksville. Same goes for most of the produce served at Bowood’s Cafe Osage. The bright, sunny restaurant at the nursery serves breakfast and lunch to customers as they revise their final shopping lists. And even the cafe rooftop generates a harvest, with an herb garden supplying ingredients for drinks and dishes.
Bowood Farms. Photos: (Greenhouse, Pink Echinacea) Courtesy of Bowood Farms; (Tillandsia) Attilio D'Agnostino, (Shelves) Matchless Gem
Bowood made its name as a wholesale perennial grower for nearly two decades before reviving a decaying warehouse and auto shop in the city. That property now houses artful arrangements of plants and shrubs in an outdoor lot and a one-stop shop for home and garden wares. It has also become a gathering space for weekly events teaching cocktail basics and yoga or wreath making and terrarium building.
In the neighborhood St. Louis’ crown of culture and outdoor life, Forest Park, lies 1 mile southwest of Bowood Farms. Museums, the Jewel Box greenhouse and the Saint Louis Zoo anchor the 1,300-acre park. One mile east of Forest Park, the veggie-forward Vicia restaurant opened in 2017. Many dishes showcase turnip greens, carrot tops or other underutilized vegetables.
More Top Garden Stops
Arnold’s Greenhouse, LeRoy, Kansas Block at least half a day to see a greenhouse the size of a football field, featuring a retractable roof.
Wade and Gatton Nurseries, Bellville, Ohio The bicentennial family farm earned a nickname, “Hosta Heaven,” with 3,100 varieties. And that’s just a slice of what the 1,100-acre property offers.
Prairie Pedlar, Odebolt, Iowa “If it holds dirt, it’s a container,” owner Jane Hogue says of her potting style. Surrounded by popcorn fields, blooms reclaim old barns, gazebos, and even shoes and purses.
Tangletown Gardens, Minneapolis Winding paths of perennials and garden art turned an abandoned neighborhood gas station into an urban oasis.
Monches Farm, Colgate, Wisconsin Roaming exotic chickens add charm to the classical sculptures and urns. Pull a pot of perennials out of the ground and take it home.
Gee Farms, Stockbridge, Michigan Michigan’s largest retail nursery includes an arboretum, a cafe with a pastry chef and farm-fresh treats 70 miles west of Detroit.