Photo Caption: Ken Frieling, left, and Tom Winn in one of the greenhouses at Glasshouse Works in Stewart.
Looking at the tall, spear-topped bamboo in front of me, I couldn't be sure exactly where on the planet I was located. Turning to look in a different direction, the foliage cast doubt as to which planet I was on.
Yet here I was in beautiful downtown Stewart.
A substantial portion of the central part of that small Athens County town, you see, is given over to greenhouses and – there really is no better word – jungle. And if the place is not overarchingly famous locally, it is certainly well known among plant lovers around the world.
The Glasshouse Works has anchored Stewart's business district (yes, there is one) for more than a third of a century. It started in 1978 when Ken Frieling and Tom Winn got a 200-year-old house and their first Stewart greenhouse. A dozen years ago they added a new building – the old hotel is only about 180 years old – and more greenhouses. It is an amazing place.
"It's been a busy spring," said Tom when I ran into him at the Marathon a couple weeks ago. "The Columbus Dispatch did a story, and we were featured in Better Homes and Gardens." It seemed as if a visit was in order, so a few days later I stopped by.
The scene was typical: Ken was keeping up on the latest news with townspeople who were passing by, before he headed back among the plants. Tom was in the office, behind an enormous computer monitor, tending to what has become something of an online empire. I don't know of many business as quick and intelligent in establishing and capitalizing on an Internet presence.
If you go to glasshouseworks.com you will find them. Likewise if you visit traditionalplants.com, gardeningbymail.com, inthegreenhouse.com, exoticplants.com, rareplants.com, exoticgardener.com, succulentplants.com – on and on. Other companies also link to Glasshouse Works because the Stewart company has plants so rare you'll not find them anywhere else. In fact, some of the plants were actually invented there.
Open for local retail sale of not just plants but also of all manner of landscaping ornamentation – indoor ornamentation, too – Glasshouse Works does, Tom says, about four-fifths of its sales online nowadays. They ship all over the world.
"That's a coleus," says Ken, pointing to a brightly colored yet feathery-leafed plant in a pot. "That one is popular in Japan, but not as much here." Everyone would recognize an ordinary coleus, the colorful and almost indestructible plant that's a necessity in almost any flower box. With patterns and shades of purple, red, orange and green on broad, lush leaves, coleus is a perennial favorite (though it's not a perennial plant). At Glasshouse Works, there has been experimentation with and hybridization of coleus. The result has been a wide variety of unique specimens. Those varieties have been patented by Ken and Tom, such as the one I'm looking at, with its delicate, fernlike leaves. If you want one, you have to get it from the Glasshouse Works or from one of their licensees.
The big new trend, Tom says, is terraria. There is tremendous charm in creating a miniature landscape in an old aquarium or in a peaked-roofed enclosure built for the purpose. Some people are producing aquaria the size of a small room. Glasshouse Works has the plants to populate them, from grass that gets three inches high but no higher to gorgeous and tiny plants with pink-veined leaves, to smaller varieties of just about everything. If you're looking to make miniature scenes for your sci-fi movie set on a distant planet, they have the foliage that will make it convincing.
Even the perfectly ordinary plants at Glasshouse Works have their own twist. The spiny, common agave plants there have striped leaves – they're "variegated" in plant talk. What at first looks overgrown and out of control is in fact a working nursery of unusual plants not typically found in this part of the world. There are even banana plants that thrive outside, year round (though they do not produce fruit you'd want to eat).
After an hour's tour, my head is spinning. Wonder after wonder has come and gone. Plants I have seen in books but despaired of ever seeing in person have been on display in such profusion I don't know where to begin in describing them. Tom talks of orders from famous botanical gardens around the world, while Ken mentions buying trips from high-end plant suppliers in Japan and elsewhere.
Standing in the shade, we talk of local events, of local people who manipulate situations for political gain, of local people long gone who were as colorful in their behavior as any of the plants are in foliage or flower. We talk about the annual end-of-summer party they throw, which is the social event of the year in this part of the world, though Ken describes it as "a family reunion of old hippies."
Walking to the car I think of how rare it is to find people who have done it right, but Tom and Ken have done just that. They wanted to start a business doing something they loved and over the years, in the unlikeliest of places, they've made a genuine wonderland.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.