Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in December 2016 and updated in November 2017.
When there was nothing else — no shiny tinsel or twinkling lights, no red-and-green wrapping paper or snow globes or pet stockings — there was the outdoors. Fir-scented diffusers and misters and candles weren’t necessary when mantels and tables and portraits of ancestors were draped in the real thing, smelling crisp and sappy. In place of red bulbs and bows were holly boughs laden with berries and blooming amaryllis. A centerpiece wasn’t a gilded reindeer and sleigh. Pears, apples, and grapes were dipped in egg white, rolled in sugar, and nestled among garlands of cedar, cypress, pine, magnolia, boxwood, or whatever evergreen was within reach in the garden or along the lane.
Beginning with the most beloved Christmas symbol of all — the tree — nature supplies all we need to demonstrate merriment and abundance. When streets were muddy and cobblestoned, when candles provided the only light and tapestries the only warmth, greenery made interiors cheerful, hospitable, and celebratory.
While our quest for convenience, not to mention yard-decoration dominance, has made Christmas brighter, bigger, louder, we still turn first to nature for inspiration, beauty, and decoration, be it a swag of cedar, a wreath of cotton bolls, or a crèche carved from driftwood. Four independent garden centers — each of which have spent decades bravely, proudly bucking the Big Box trend — bring the outside in for the Christmas season, and for their treasured customers.
Joe Stoffregen, 53, can’t explain how the original family farm came to be known as Homewood. “It’s still a mystery,” he says, giving his grandmother, an English major, the credit, while admitting that “Stoffregen doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.”
Ask him, though, whether green thumbs are born or made, and his answer is definitive: born. Stoffregen’s father, Bill, a Wake County forest ranger who loved the outdoors and growing things, opened Homewood Nursery in 1967. At Christmastime, this garden emporium becomes the destination for poinsettias. It grows 25,000 to 30,000 poinsettias on site, and during the holiday season sells 1,000 every day. One hundred area churches buy their poinsettias from Homewood, and the junior class at Broughton High School has been selling them as a fund-raiser for years. Even the Governor’s Mansion is filled with Homewood poinsettias.
Awash in the jewel-toned petals, the shop itself has become a jaw-dropping backdrop for holiday selfies. “The challenge is to keep the plants pristine,” says Joe, who took over operations 16 years ago when his father retired. A single broken branch, or spilled dirt, is instantly taken care of. “You won’t find muddy floors here,” he says. “How we look is hugely important. If we think two colors of poinsettias side by side clash, we’ll move the entire display.”
But poinsettia perfection was not one of Homewood’s early ambitions. In the ’60s, Bill built a 1,900-square-foot “hobby” greenhouse in his backyard using railroad ties, bent metal pipes, and plastic sheeting. Like a good entrepreneur, he got out his church directory and sent 400 postcards, suggesting his fellow parishioners come to see him in the spring. Within two years, he’d quit his forestry job.
Left: Homewood sells poinsettias in every hue: Owner Joe Stoffregen stands among the Peterstar Reds, an exclusive variety. Right: For years, parents like Kelly Lynch have used Homewood’s poinsettia display as a Christmas card backdrop. photograph by Lissa Gotwals
Joe still recalls his mother, Peggy, weeping over her husband’s news. “It was traumatic!” Joe says, 46 years later. “My father was an optimist, a dreamer, a builder, a nurturer, a grower. He quit a job he liked for a job he loved.” Practical Peggy soon got on board, and the two worked side by side for nearly 40 years. “He was the passion; she had the pragmatism,” Joe says of his parents’ respective strengths.
Turns out, Bill’s passion was a profitable one. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, indoor plants were all the rage. Ferns and spider plants dangled in dentists’ offices, kitchens, back porches, and so-called “fern bars,” where singles mingled on date night. In the midst of this botanical fad, Bill convinced Robert Logan senior, who had his own garden center, to buy a dozen hanging baskets for Mother’s Day. Logan sold out.
After that, Logan became a mentor and a client, coming by every day to pick out what he wanted for his center. Stoffregen thought he could be a plant wholesaler for other garden centers, so he purchased 20 acres of pasture and timberland in rural Wake County on Honeycutt Road. “That was the forest ranger in him,” Joe says. The Stoffregens moved their family home, an 1819 building known as the Mary Beaver Hunter House, on wheels to the property in 1978. But people in the area wanted to keep buying from Bill, so the retail business eventually overshadowed the wholesale endeavor.
In 1979, Homewood threw its first Christmas Open House, with punch, coffee, and those poinsettias. Amazed by the sea of red, pink, and white, people snapped photos of their families in front of the flowers, and a tradition of coming to Homewood for family Christmas card photos was born. “People come from southern Virginia, make day trips from Down East to come here as part of their Christmas celebration,” Joe says. “They eat lunch, take pictures. Yesterday, someone was taking photos with their grandchildren and said, ‘We’ve never been here before, but someone was posting their photo on social media and that’s why we came — to do it, too.’ ”
Got an ornery orchid, a frustrated fern, a sad spath? Family-owned New Garden Landscaping and Nursery makes houseplant house calls, one of its many services for too-busy customers. They’ll switch your outdoor pots from spring pansies to summer geraniums and then to mums in the fall, or stuff them with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Even when it’s not Christmas, you’ll feel like the elves have been there.
But at Christmastime, it’s the shop itself that really shines. Walk through the door in December and expect to be stopped cold by the gorgeous scenes created by full-time buyer and designer Meda Woods. Trees are trimmed with motifs in mind: A woodland-themed tree is festooned with feathers, a seaside tree sparkles with sea-glass hues and glitter.
To keep wreaths fresh, New Garden employee Victoria Clapp mists them with water. Your natural wreath will last longer if you hang it in a shady spot. photograph by Eric Waters
Cultivating a sense of wonder has been at the heart of New Garden almost since it started in Jim Newlin’s backyard. His garden on New Garden Road grew, as they do, and became a backyard nursery in the late 1960s. A decade later, Newlin’s son James Morris launched New Garden Landscaping and Nursery, an offshoot of his father’s small operation. Two years after that, James Morris moved his business to a commercial location in Summerfield. After three additional moves and various expansions — including services in Winston-Salem — the business remains a family operation, and if it involves something that grows, they can handle it.
Take the current craze for terrariums: The greenhouse offers a variety of wee plants that can fit inside that trendy glass “house” on your coffee table. Or, if you want, a designer will compose and plant a miniature garden for you. New Garden’s designers also can plan your whole yard — your vegetable and perennial beds, your roses and shrubs. They can install a fountain and the wavy plants that inhabit it, and do all the chores you keep postponing: raking, pruning, mulching.
Still, retail is about 30 percent of New Garden’s business, and to spark the shopping spirit, Woods and her elves plan an in-store display for every season — Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, and, of course, Christmas. Along with live greenery for trimming, customers can buy fully decorated trees. Jerry Hilton, the general manager and a 27-year employee, both laughs and sighs when he says, yes, that does mean the customer has to take off every ornament, garland, light, and doodad-what-have-you, one by one, when January rolls around. Which might be, come to think of it, the only seasonal task New Garden Landscaping and Nursery doesn’t offer: untrimming.
Want to learn how to make a wreath for yourself with the help of nursery manager Jeremey Warren? Check out our DIY guide.
New Garden Landscaping and Nursery • 3811 Lawndale Drive, Greensboro • (336) 288-8893, newgarden.com
Joshua Logan, the 36-year-old owner of Logan’s Garden Shop, grew up bounding through the aisles of his parents’ garden store, tagging pumpkins with the pricing gun as an 8-year-old and hauling countless bags of mulch, fertilizer, and grass seed as a teenager. While he knows that many folks of his generation visit garden centers mostly for “outdoor living” supplies (think: outdoor grills and kitchens, fire pits, furniture, fountains) and “instant landscaping,” he says he just likes to grow things.
That appreciation of nature — its raw beauty and interesting quirks — is on full display during the Christmas season, when much of what’s for sale at Logan’s has a rustic feel. There are cotton boll wreaths and sticks with bolls still attached for whatever DIY project customers dream up. Wreaths made from repurposed evergreen trimmings share floor space with reindeer crafted out of driftwood, burlap-and-twine Santas, and distressed, peeling-paint windows that resemble the arched, pointed windows of old churches.
In fact, there’s an old-school theme running through Logan’s — inside and out. The shop initially opened at the farmers market off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, but in 1991, when the market moved, then-owners Robert and Julie Logan felt they were situated too far from their customer base.
Left: The tan, suede-like undersides of magnolia leaves provide color and texture contrast in this evergreen “bunch.” Right: After stocking up on Logan’s greenery, shoppers of all ages can relax inside with sweets and a board game. photograph by Charles Harris
Meanwhile, Amtrak was consolidating its stations, leaving the downtown Raleigh station vacant. So, the Logans bought the three-acre Bagwell Seaboard train station and relocated the garden center there. Freight trains still whoosh by the store three times a day, but inside, a quieter vibe prevails: Classic board games — Parcheesi, The Game of Life, Bingo, Snakes and Ladders — are stacked beneath weathered barnwood signs painted with wry slogans like “The Uglier the Sweater, the Merrier the Holiday.”
But the true Christmas specialty at Logan’s is more traditional: custom-made wreaths and greenery, crafted the old-fashioned way. If your grandmother always had mahonia berries woven into her boxwood wreath, Logan’s seasonal “artists,” as Joshua calls them, will re-create her design. If your nandina refused to produce berries this year, Logan’s will mass clusters into your wreath. Most people begin with a Fraser fir base and then add whatever they like, be it berries, pine, or yellow arborvitae for dimension. The fresh wreath is made on the spot, using a contraption with a foot-operated pedal, like a sewing machine.
“Bunches” are made to order, too: swags and sprays of greenery customers purchase and personalize for mantels, mailboxes, and windowsills. In the two weeks before Christmas, harvesters bring in North Carolina mistletoe to wire into bunches as well. Keeping things local is important at Logan’s. Employees know the provenance of each Christmas tree. The store partners with small tree farms and farmers in the state, and Joshua and his staff personally tag the trees they buy.
Vintage memories: Rustic reindeer and towering North Carolina-grown trees make Logan’s a wonderland for little ones. photograph by Charles Harris
“We know the trees before they arrive,” he says. In October he visits the farms and selects the healthiest trees with the classic shape. But they aren’t felled and shipped until much later. Logan’s gets its first load from the mountains the weekend before Thanksgiving, and more just-cut stock arrives at the store throughout the season.
Larger retailers sell trees that were cut while pumpkins were still on stoops. The farms that sell hundreds of thousands of precut trees each year must start up their chainsaws in October to meet the orders. Those trees sit for a month in a loading yard, and although they’re given water and shade, Joshua says, “you can’t replace that month they’re off a root system.”
Joshua knows his customers care about where their trees and garlands and potted plants come from, and that’s why he wants to extend the sustainability ethos to the fruits, vegetables, and herbs he sells, too. That way, when the wreaths are gone and the last evergreen needles are swept from the store, there still will be plenty of customers who stop by to pick up a flowering something-or-other for their foyer, but stay for the vintage Parcheesi, sweets, and maybe even a homegrown snack.
After the 2008 recession, B.B. Barns Garden Center and Landscaping Services outside Asheville formed an advisory team of customers and said to them: “We’re going to come out of this on top. What can we do? We’re going to retool. Tell us what we’re doing right, and wrong.”
One of the requests was a bigger gift shop, and boy, did B.B. Barns grant that wish. Less than a decade later, the garden center, with its open-air greenhouses and nursery, is one of the premier shops in the area, with a coffee bar and gift gallery carrying everything from houseplants to statuary to copper mailboxes, and, naturally, anything you want for your yard, patio, or garden, whether it’s to plant, gaze at, or lounge upon. “We’re passionate about people and plants,” says Therese Figura, the business development director.
B.B. Barns, co-owned by Barney Bryant and Ned Gibson, opened its doors 29 years ago in East Asheville. After a 2002 trip to Europe, Bryant and Gibson became enchanted with the open-air style and arrangements of European garden centers, and in 2004 they expanded their business and moved to the four-acre parcel of land it occupies today. They pride themselves on their customer services, like the Garden Coaching Service, born out of their customers’ plaintive wish: If only you could come to my house and help me. This desire drives nearly everything else the garden center does, from installations to maintenance, and, of course, Christmas decorations.
Left: Everything under the sun: The open-air greenhouses and displays at B.B. Barns are modeled after European garden centers. Right: B.B. Barns designers recommend using cone cedar, boxwood, or fir for indoor garlands. Pine, though fragrant, will shed needles quickly. photograph by Charles Harris
Whatever your sugarplum dreams are made of, B.B. Barns will bring that vision to life by delivering customized decorations, including fresh trees, garlands, and silk florals, to your home or office. Back at the barn, arrangers at the Design Bench — a huge, literal bench — take wreaths, swags, kissing balls, and garlands made with North Carolina greenery, and embellish them with berries and bows. (In November, the bench makes personalized Thanksgiving centerpieces.)
The first two Thursdays of November herald the true beginning of the Christmas season, when the barn hosts a pair of Ladies’ Nights Out. The shop is gussied up in Christmas finery, floor to beam — everything from live topiaries to just-bursting amaryllis and trees trimmed in pheasant feathers. The $20 entry fee (all ticket proceeds go to charity) includes local wine and beer, sweets, and savory nibbles.
The holiday events continue with two Trim-A-Tree evenings, hosted by floral designer Cynthia Gillooly, B.B. Barns’s “Queen of Christmas.” Figura says Gillooly “taught the store how to do Christmas in high style.” She consults with customers, helps them select what they need, and then she goes to their homes to pull it all together.
Last year, a weary young couple, expecting their first child, had looked all over town for the perfect tree. Stuck in traffic on a late Saturday afternoon, darkness encroaching, they looked up, saw the store’s billboard, and dashed inside before closing. Needless to say, they found their dream tree, and it took five employees to remove and pack every ornament and decoration, so that the young couple could replicate the tree at home.
“That’s what we want,” Figura says. “That’s community.”
While customers come from all over — Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, too — the store feels decidedly like Asheville: eclectic, warm, and focused on people. Bryant, the creative side, and Gibson, the business side, built the company on relationships. “It’s like the Cheers bar,” Figura says. “Everybody knows your name.”