Columbus, Ohio USA
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Concrete Jungle
Master gardeners bring beauty, expertise and humor to Short North

July 2009 Issue
By Karen Edwards

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Chris and Nancy Baker expanded their business Baker's Acres into the Short North last fall - a bright and brilliant idea after more than 25 years of rock solid success in Alexandria, Ohio. The new store, Concrete Jungle, carries the Baker's nationally renowned coleus plants. Photo/ Darren Carlson

If you have not yet visited the Concrete Jungle – the garden center at 940 N. High St. where the Urban Gardener once held court – July would be a good time to do that. The fevered, frantic pace of spring buying and planting is over and a more relaxed and ambient atmosphere has descended on the center. Now is the time to browse instead of shopping dutifully with a list; now is the time to touch, sniff, appraise and learn; the time to ask questions. Now is the time to spend some of those lazy summer mornings (or afternoons) chatting with fellow gardeners who are knowledgeable and passionate about everything botanical. In other words, now is the time to meet the Bakers of Baker’s Acres and the Short North’s new Concrete Jungle.

Nancy and Chris Baker, married now for 38 years, are high school sweethearts who met while students at Fremont Ross High School. After graduation, they may have gone their separate ways – she to Bowling Green to major in home economics education, he to Purdue University to major in art and design – but they continued to date and nurture their romantic relationship. Purdue didn’t work out so well for Chris. Like many first-year college students away from home, he could think of much better things to do with his time than study, but after transferring to Ohio State University and switching to music theory and composition, he began to settle down. Of course, he was also having some fun.

“I’ve played in a band since I was 14,” says Chris, and that includes the time he spent as an OSU student. Chris still plays keyboard with Dave Harris and Jamburger, a rock-and-roll band that appears at various locales around town. Occasionally, the group will also pop up – as the Hip Replacements – in venues like hospitals and senior centers. The name is indicative of Chris’s sense of humor, a kind of modus operandi for living life. But more on Chris’s humor later. The point is, the band has longevity to it – and it played an early part in the Bakers formative years. “We traveled with the band for three years,” says Nancy. It’s hard to tell whether the experience is something she remembers fondly, but her ready smile convinces you she would have made it the time of her life – no matter what her real feelings might have been about the band’s grand tour.

Meanwhile, Chris finished his degree at OSU and the pair decided it was time to look for, well, a real job. “I drove a cab for Northway for a while,” says Chris. At least until the night he was held up. That put an end to his cabbie career. But since jobs in music theory and composition aren’t exactly plentiful, Chris soon found himself racking his brain for another way to make a living.
“I’d always loved plants,” he says.

A budding interest
Both Nancy and Chris were raised in small rural communities where gardens are a way of life. It may have taken the music major some time to figure it out, but Chris finally decided what he really wanted to do was to work in a greenhouse. He applied for a position at Walter Engels Greenhouse – a major operation for years in Columbus – and despite his lack of experience with plants, Chris was hired. For $2 an hour, he would cut roses that were grown by the greenhouse and sold to retail shops. Nancy, meanwhile, was caring for the couple’s two children, Sarah and Nick, in their Clintonville home.

After spending a few years at Engels, and affirming that working with plants was what he wanted to do, Chris decided it was time to open his own greenhouse. Since he wasn’t about to give up his day job until his place was up and running, the couple set certain limits in scouting a location for their prospective garden center. “We looked at property within 25 miles of Engels,” says Chris. The commute to Chris’s workplace would have to be feasible, the pair reasoned, until the time came to leave.

Their search began – and quickly ended – when the Bakers found the castle-like home on the appropriately named Castle Road in Alexandria, Ohio. Nancy, especially, fell in love with the 100-plus-year-old home. The pair borrowed money and bought the property, which included three acres of ground for what was about to become Baker’s Acres Greenhouse.

Today, Baker’s Acres consists of 36 acres – thanks to the “castle’s” original owner, who held on to 33 of the property’s acres for himself. “When he decided to sell it, he said he wanted us to have it,” says Nancy. The Bakers’ property now consists of 12 acres of woods and even more open land – but the focus, of course, is on the gardens. Two and a half acres have been cultivated and planted with the Bakers’ hardy and unique stock, with an additional acre of plants completely under cover.

By 1982, Baker’s Acres was open for business, and within a short time was becoming a real success story, due, in no small part, to a couple of different things: coleus and catalogs.

The coleus king

High school sweethearts, Nancy and Chris in the early years of their marriage.

Chris says he has always been attracted to coleus and begonias – old-fashioned bedding plants that can also be used in outdoor containers and even set on windowsills as colorful houseplants.

“My grandmother had a flower garden, and she grew coleus,” says Chris. “I was fascinated as a kid by the colored leaves.” The fascination continued into adulthood, so of course coleus varieties were among the first plants Chris grew as part of his garden center’s stock. When coleus plants in his collection threw off seedlings, Chris decided, on a whim, to plant a few. They took off, growing into their own plants with their own colorful markings. Now, after 10 years of propagating the plant, Chris Baker has built a national reputation for his coleus varieties – about 180 different kinds. The flower brand “Hort Couture” has picked eight of Baker’s coleuses to distribute nationally, and Baker’s Acres gets a shout-out in a new book by Ray Rogers, Coleus – Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens.

Of course, part of the fun of growing your own plant is naming it, and Chris has no problem in that area. In fact, he relishes the task, putting his well-honed sense of humor to work. One of his favorite names – for a coleus with a purple leaf – is “Grape Expectations.” Other names include: “Duke of Swirl,” “Blond Bombshell,” and “Night by Night.” Considering those names is it any wonder there is also a “Morning After” coleus?

Besides its success with coleus, Baker’s Acres is also known for its begonias – both the Rex and Angel Wing varieties – and while Chris propagates those as well, a good many for sale at the Concrete Jungle are now grown by Baker’s Acres grower Dave Morris. Like coleus, the begonia is also noted for its foliage, although it also produces a small flower.

Yet another specialty – probably because it appeals to son Nick who works as the Bakers’ retail manager – is the fleshy, plump succulent which comes in a wide variety of colors and shapes.

What all of these plants boil down to is this: If you’re looking to plant an interesting container, or develop a bed that provides interesting foliage in addition to flowers and color, you owe yourself a trip to Baker’s Acres in Alexandria – or the Short North’s Concrete Jungle.

Catalog comedy
A second reason that may help to explain the quick success of Baker’s Acres is the annual catalog written by Chris. Every January, he’s busy writing copy that will tease and tempt gardeners waiting eagerly for that first warm spring day. After all, nothing says fun to a gardener like a thick booklet of Latin botanical names, divided into categories like perennial, annual, tropical, succulents, shrubs, vines, trees, vegetables and herbs. For a gardener, it’s all engrossing stuff – but the Baker’s Acres catalog transcends the gardening fanatic and appeals to everyone with a sense of humor. It is a veritable treasure house of comic bits and stories – some culled from old-fashioned wags, others from modern-day comics – and some which represent Chris’s own brand of humor. Here’s classic Chris: Possible Palin Boy Names: Trick, Truck, Trudge, Trim, Trickle, Treacle, Trap, Tracheotomy, Trans Alaskan Pipeline, Trans Siberian Orchestra – the list is longer, but you get the idea.

The humor, says Chris, springs up on him late at night – “or when I’m in the shower.” The only downside to waking in the middle of the night to write down a thought, he says, is finding the idea not so knee-slapping funny the next morning. Nevertheless, he’s left with plenty of good stuff to add to the book – all of which makes the Baker’s Acres catalog among the most unusual and enjoyable plant catalogs around – and (no surprise here) as much in demand as the pair’s plants. Don’t even think about looking for it this time of year. It’s simply not to be found.

But you don’t really need the catalog – not with the Concrete Jungle open and available for browsing and buying.

The Concrete Jungle came to the Bakers, and the Short North, after Urban Gardener owner Christie Nohle, decided to close up her storefront operation, keeping only her landscape design and consulting business. The Bakers say they liked the store and its location from their first visit, seeing, as Nohle did, the potential for an urban annex to their Alexandria location. Not only would a Short North locale give their customers another garden shop to visit, but it would give the Bakers a chance to employ staff members over a longer period of time, says Nancy.

Italian Village resident and Concrete Jungle employee Tama Thielen knows her neighbors and her plants. Photo/ Darren Carlson

Last November, the Concrete Jungle opened its doors to seasonal shoppers looking for Christmas trees and traditional holiday plants. It has been open ever since – a new experience for the Bakers who typically close the doors to their Alexandria greenhouse in October. Nancy says they’re likely to keep the Concrete Jungle closed in January and February this coming year – when heating bills are high and customers are more inclined to sit on their couches watching the snow fall than to actively pursue any garden shopping.

From now until December, though, there will be plenty to see and buy at the Concrete Jungle. There are plenty of perennials, annuals, vegetables, herbs and shrubs outside, and inside there are knee pads, garden bags, art-glass snails and other botanical sundries. This month, be sure to watch for the Short North’s annual sidewalk sale. “We’re cleaning out some storage areas, so we’ll have plenty to sell,” says Nancy.

When fall arrives in Columbus, the Concrete Jungle will feature mums, of course, but this year, the Jungle will also offer spring bulbs to plant. And in December, there will be Christmas trees again. “We don’t grow our own poinsettias anymore,” says Nancy, but the Bakers are in touch with plenty of growers who do, and they’ll be available for sale in December as well.

Come January, the pair will head for Fort Lauderdale – no, not to vacation but to visit the annual Tropical Plant Industry Expo, where they’ll shop for new plant varieties to consider and – if they make the cut – to showcase in their catalog. Upon their return, the Bakers and their team will start to grow the plants they’ll sell next year.

This is also the time of year when Nancy will work on one of her home restoration projects. “I also love to read, knit, crochet, sew and socialize. I like to get together with friends,” says Nancy. But when you own a 100-year-old home, you find yourself restoring it, piece by piece, and she is the person doing the bulk of the restoration work. “I enjoy it, though,” she says. During the growing season, Nancy is also the family member who splits her time between Baker’s Acres and the Concrete Jungle, working two short days and two longer ones every week.

City vs. country
Count on Nancy Baker, too, to have a pulse on the differences between the Bakers’ two locales. “We’ll get customers here who know us from Baker’s Acres,” says Nancy, but of all those customers who shop at just one location, the Concrete Jungle’s clientele is decidedly younger, and more masculine, she says. Chris agrees: “Customers who come to the Alexandria location are probably between the ages of 35 and 60 years old, and I’d guess as much as 80 percent of them are female.” In the Short North, however, the age of those stopping by are between 30 and 35 years and “we see a lot more guys,” says Nancy.

At first, she says, she was surprised to see customers in business attire wandering through the Concrete Jungle. “Everyone is dressed a lot more casually when they visit Baker’s Acres,” she says. But in an urban setting, you can expect customers to take advantage of lunch hours, or to drop by after work, which may explain another difference between the city and country locations. Baker’s Acres isn’t usually busy at night. The Concrete Jungle is – right up to their 9 p.m. closing time. During Gallery Hops, by the way, the Concrete Jungle is plenty lively, with customers able to browse to live music, played by the Dave Harris and Jamburger band – with Chris on keyboards, of course.

Besides their plant offerings, the Bakers also have a service they’ve named “Yard Call.” “We don’t have a landscape design business anymore,” says Nancy, but the Bakers and their staff will respond to the occasional SOS from homeowners, perplexed by some planting mystery in their yard. You say there is a red-wing, yellow-eyed beetle eating your daffodils? Yard Call will help identify the pest and tell you how to get rid of it. Don’t know why your irises are suddenly drooping? Yard Call to the rescue. “We’ve also gone out to help a new home owner identify the plants in the yard and how to take care of them,” says Nancy. Of course, the Bakers and their staff are also happy to answer questions at the center and on the phone – but there is something reassuring about having boots on the ground and eyes on the actual situation, especially when you’re not gifted with the power of botanical description.

There is another feature for which the Bakers are known. You’ve missed your opportunity now, but during the gardening season’s busiest months – April, May and June – the Bakers and their staff will provide you with a 10% discount off all plant purchases in exchange for a baked good. Call it the reverse bake sale if you want, but a plate of cookies, a loaf of banana bread, or a pan of fudge, anything that can be grabbed quickly by staff as they race around to help customers, load cars and answer questions, earns you that 10% coupon, not to mention some very appreciative comments. So, next year, be prepared. Bake a batch of cookies and then head to the Concrete Jungle.

For now, though, stop by the garden center to scope out the plants (especially the coleus), to ask questions and sign up for the Bakers’ 2010 catalog. The pace at the Concrete Jungle during July lends itself to just such a get-acquainted visit – or maybe a return visit to show off photos of the garden you planted this spring. Whatever your reason may be, the Bakers and/or their staff will be there to greet you. The Concrete Jungle may be urban and chic, but that warm and welcoming feeling you experience during your visit is pure country.

© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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