The Gardener's Apprentice

Saint Heirloom


Every year at this time I take great joy in paging through the paper bulb catalogs and perusing the websites so that I can overspend on spring bulbs in the most discerning and intelligent way.  One of my longtime favorite catalogs is Old House Gardens, which describes itself as “Heirloom Bulbs—So Much More Than New”.   The founder and proprietor of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company is my friend, Scott Kunst.  To say that he sells bulbs, would be to damn him with faint praise.  In fact, he is a historian, plantsman, raconteur, writer and—perhaps best of all—a savior of countless old varieties that would be lost to commerce without his efforts.

Scott doesn’t just ferret out old cultivars; he seeks those that are beautiful and authentic and interesting.  He promotes garden heirlooms by seducing buyers with their stories.  Most of us will never have a Renoir in our living rooms, but we can have a tulip from Renoir’s time in our gardens.  This ability to make even the lowliest of gardens rich in historical treasurers is Scott’s gift to the world.

He began years ago at the age of forty. A former teacher who had cultivated an interest in history, historic landscapes and heirloom plants, Scott took a leap of faith and launched a business selling bulb varieties that had either been lost to commerce or were in danger of that fate.  That leap was cushioned by the love and support of his wife, Jane, and a faithful band of helpers and employees.

The seed of inspiration that began Scott’s business fell onto the fertile soil.  The waning years of centuries tend to make society look both forward and back, and the last decades of the twentieth century were no different.  With the millennium approaching, many people longed to reconnect with a past that they perceived to be slower, cleaner and less complicated by the consequences of our cultural desire to make everything bigger, brighter and more marketable.

Working doggedly, Scott was able to gather a collection of daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and the like from a wide array of sources, including gardeners willing to entrust him with the last few bulbs of plants that survived only in long-tended family plots.  His propensity for friendship led to connections with other heirloom aficionados, like English hyacinth maven, Alan Shipp, and the proprietors of Hortus Bulborum, a Dutch repository of old and endangered bulb varieties.  Friends in the media, to whom Scott was amazingly generous, helped spread the word.  When not occupied with the near-perpetual business of sourcing, planning, packing, shipping, catalog creation and the leap into online sales, Scott gardened with Martha Stewart, wrote articles for horticultural publications and lectured on the enduring value of saving these beautiful garden antiques.

I heard about Old House Gardens early on in its corporate life and have since filled my suburban oasis with as many of Scott’s treasures as I could fit in.  Every time I go outside, from early spring until mid-fall, I can hear the distinctive notes that those heirloom daffodils, tulips and dahlias contribute to the melody of my garden, which is only the tiniest part of the great symphony of horticultural history.  Over the years, I have found  inspiration and solace in that, but never more so than in the six months since my husband’s death.  In early spring, when the weather was cool and the wound was very fresh, the sight of the ivory petals of the elegant ‘Beersheba’ daffodil or the tender apricot trumpets of my favorite, ‘Mrs. Backhouse’, took me away from the immediate grief and reminded me of eternal things—beauty, love, endurance and the endless cycle of the seasons.  They are still the life rafts that keep me afloat when sorrow threatens to drown me.

Now Scott Kunst is preparing to retire at the end of next spring’s bulb shipping season.  When his catalog arrived and I read the news, my head, which tends to spin at the slightest provocation these days, began to whirl.  When I recovered, I realized that the most appropriate way to feel about this development is thankful that Scott has shared so much with us for so long.  Freed from the day-to-day demands of a labor and thought-intensive business, he can rest, read and spend time with Jane and his rescue dog, Toby.  He has said that he also plans to travel and busy himself in his own garden—a landscape that he has sometimes shortchanged in favor of enriching all of ours.

The idea of retirement has metamorphosed for many people, becoming less about long spells in the recliner and more about starting a new chapter in life.  I have a feeling it will be that way for Scott Kunst.  His inspiration—if not his actual presence–will persist at Old House Gardens, which his faithful employees have pledged to carry on.  Now he might finally have the time to write something longer than an article, make even more friends and spread the heirloom message in new and interesting ways.  After all, beginning a new chapter does not mean dropping the book.

In the meantime, we all have to get our fall bulbs ordered and Scott is still hard at work.  If you are interested in planting some heirlooms, or just want to luxuriate for a while in their fascinating stories, take a look at the Old House Gardens paper or online catalog.  Find them at 536 Third Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103; (734) 995-1486;  Paper catalog, $2.00.