RESOURCES, with a focus on Soules Garden
Located on the southwest side of Indianapolis, tucked away on Rahke Road, there is a special small garden business. I am referring to Soules Garden -- pronounced sooles, although some locals say soles. This unique four-acre L-shaped gem was started by Earl R(oland) Roberts in the late 1950s. The one-acre toe portion of the property in the back was part of an existing orchard -- now hoop houses and daylilies. Earl evidently did sell some plants but Roberts Garden, as it was originally known, was not a full-time business venture. I find it interesting that his garden had few hostas but he was a passionate plant breeder. Earl's horticultural prowess is proven by the fact that in 1975 he received the American Iris Society Hybridization Award and Roberts Garden was a field trip site for the 1972 National Daylily Convention held in Indianapolis. In 1967 Earl married Marjorie (Marge) Anderson (née Cheever). Marge and her former husband Don Anderson had raised irises and daylilies at Twin Gates Iris Garden in Columbus (IN) until his death in 1966. Don and Earl had traveled together around the country judging flower shows. Earl died in 1977. In 1979 Marge married Clarence Soules and Roberts Garden was renamed Soules Garden. Clarence had been a long-haul trucker. During his travels he collected interesting rocks, especially geodes, which he relocated to the garden. Marge and Clarence continued to develop the garden and ran the enterprise for just over two decades. It was during this time that the emphasis on hostas began and the garden became a full-time seasonal commercial operation -- Marge and Clarence spent many of those winters in Florida. During their time at Soules, Marge and Clarence registered many daylilies and hostas. In 2000 they sold the place to the current owners Cynthia Miller and Chris Wilhoite who share the place with their clowder of cats. Before acquiring Soules, Cynthia had worked for Xerox and Chris was the art/design director for the Saturday Evening Post which had relocated to Indianapolis (circa 1970). After selling Soules, Marge and Clarence moved to a nearby property where they maintained a small garden. He died in 2005. She died in 2006. Chris and Cynthia reopened Soules for business in 2002. -- After I had written this blog I asked Chris how he and Cynthia learned Soules was for sale. He told me they were there on most weekends and on one of those occasions Clarence told them that he and Marge were going to sell the place and "they (Cynthia and Chris) were going to buy it!"
Earl Roberts probably knew about the magnificent soil before he started the garden east of Rahke Road. That part of Marion Co. (IN) is only 30 miles or less from the Wisconsin glaciation boundary and is situated in the glacial outwash plain. Taking advantage of this natural resource, German immigrants started commercial plant growing operations there in the mid-1800s and by the 1940s the area reportedly had the highest concentration of greenhouses in the country. The area still has some gardening businesses and greenhouses but most of them now provide plants for landscaping rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. That section of Bluff Road, a short distance west and slightly north of Rahke Road, is referred to as Greenhouse Row. The general vicinity has rich soil with a healthy percentage of sand which helps it drain well and distinguishes it from the more clayey soil typical of the region. I have more than once commented that the soil at Soules Garden is so good that if one were to stick a leg from a piano in that ground it might grow into a Steinway :)
Under Cynthia and Chris's ownership the inventory has continued to expand, but Soules is NOT the typical garden center! There are no bags of mulch, nor pottery, concoctions, or lawn furniture for sale. Soules has always been just about plants and you can expect many species and cultivars you will not find elsewhere. Locals and many genuine plant people know about the incredible variety, especially lilies (sensu lato) and hostas, as well as the remarkable selection of East Asian woodland species. Moreover, while some places use the term garden or similar in their name, they usually are that in name only. Soules truly is a garden but no longer does mail order business and is only open three days a week (F-Su) May (weather permitting, late April) thru September.
Places like Soules are a valuable local resource that we should appreciate and patronize. But these places are rare and vulnerable -- small operations, often just one person, and one accident, or one death, or retirement, or one catastrophic weather event, or an uninterested or incapable heir from going out of business. Unfortunately, this kind of loss happens too often and is inevitable. We take these special resources for granted and frequently do not realize their importance until they are gone. For example, just in the last few years truly remarkable places like Klehm's Song Sparrow (Avalon WI) and Mary's Plant Farm * (Hamilton OH) have permanently closed. So, why do these unique assets cease to exist? Partially because running a gardening/nursery business is hard work that requires supreme dedication and partially because of economics. Moreover, we are NOT a gardening society. If we were the parking lots of these places would always be full. Additionally, I comment in my Rantings book (2015) that it would be difficult to keep afloat a garden business with a focus on unusual (i.e., specialty) plants. The masses want what they see, what their neighbors have, and their neighbors are almost always just as aesthetically impaired and mimetic. Normal and ordinary. Why would you want to follow that lead when there is a better way? Further, influence from the evangelistic plant police has made the situation worse by confusion -- the "natives" only delusion (see especially my July 2019 post and my upcoming post on phytofascism). Further, there is a big difference between having a garden and merely sticking a few plants in the ground for decoration. All gardeners decorate but few decorators are truly gardeners. Moreover, a garden is NOT a thing you buy, it's the manifestation of a passioned lifestyle created over time, ever changing, and don't forget the unavoidable maintenance. Permit me to paraphrase John Houseman's 1970s Smith Barney commercial -- you get a sweet appropriate garden the old fashion way, you earn it.
While the amount of time one may need to spend when shopping at places like Soules might be greater, the tradeoff is an unmatched selection of bizarre, irresistible, and hard to find plants. What's more, specialized places like Soules usually offer unparalleled gardening / plant expertise. The emphasis at the vast majority of gardening businesses is simply making the sale. Best be prepared to know yourself because the staff is commonly seasonal help who mostly know little more about the plants they offer than where they are on property. Plus, labels are often wrong or too general. Try to find a garden center in central Indiana, or the region, where you can get more experienced info about lilies, hostas, aroids, trilliums, primulas, epimediums, Solomon's seals, et cetera than at Soules. My money is on my buddy Chris Wilhoite. It's a sure bet! He is a kind human and a treasure trove of good info -- people, places, and plants. And you very well may be given the advice at Soules while looking at an established specimen that has been in the ground performing for decades. Additionally, if you leave Soules Garden without advice that will make you a better gardener then you simply were not paying attention. I occasionally show-up there on Saturdays to help. Like Chris, I like plant people and love talking about plants as well as demonstrating gardening techniques, especially pruning.
The bottom pic (above) shows Chris Wilhoite (R) and Anton (Tony) Reznicek (curator emeritus Univ Michigan Herbarium and former President of the North American Rock Garden Society). The maple behind them is 'Koto No Ito' aka Harp Strings. It is one of my favs. The fall coloration is ridiculous! The photo was taken May 19 (2022) at Soules after the conclusion of the Rothrock Sedge Symposium (see link on the HOME page). In the morning Tony along with some other symposium participants and I had visited the Burnham's (see my Feb 2023 rant). Tony and I went to Soules in the afternoon. Although Chris and Tony had never met, we discovered they have many gardening friends in common. I was all ears and the plant related discussion during the visit was amazing! WHAT A DAY! I have known some great botanists and remarkable gardeners. While I find the combo to be rare, Tony is both! I have known none better than Tony and the late Wesley Whiteside. True phytophiliacs. I asked Tony several months after the visit what he thought about the visit. He responded, "Soules should be a destination." Need I say more? Moreover, while sipping wine and seated on an outdoor patio having late night plant discussion with several participants at the sedge symposium in Bloomington two days earlier, I asked Tony what he would have in his spectacular Ann Arbor rock garden if he was limited to using just "native" species, as many misguided purists proclaim? His answer, rocks. While his stark response is perhaps a little exaggerated, the message should be clear, and he would know.
* Mad Botanist Press (part of my small business) produced and printed (2021) the history entitled Mary's Plant Farm: A Love Story. I think a lot about the lack of good historical information concerning these often small-scale original gardening operations (i.e., the background story -- the people and location, the who, what, when, and why). This also applies to the original source of the plants we employ and the story behind their name. Far too often these interesting and useful facts (the history) do not get recorded and are lost to time. This void is one of the reasons I highlighted Soules Garden in this month's blog. A common mistake (life and gardening) is not thinking about asking the right questions or doing so too late. The take home message: appreciate and try to avoid missed opportunities.
Finally, if and when you visit Soules be certain to checkout the "rooms" in the grove of old large eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) at the back of the property that Earl planted. You will be amazed and enlightened.
A sincere thanks to Jim Anderson (Marge's son) as well as Dr. Dave and Jane Price (longtime patrons of the Garden and friends of the various owners) for providing relevant history.