As we take in the vibrant colors of the spring, who better to sit down with than Nancy DeBrule-Clemente from Natureworks. Natureworks is a garden center with a retail shop and greenhouse, offering many unusual perennials, shrubs, annuals. They provide design consultations and installation and maintenance services by appointment. Their focus is on organic gardening and providing a natural appearance to their designs.
Tell us a bit about Natureworks and how it got started.
I began Natureworks in 1983 in Stony Creek with $500 and an orange Datsun pickup truck. My store was half of a former gas station. I did gardening for people and sold plants on the weekends. In 1985 I hired my first part time employee. In 1989 the building was sold and I purchased a home on an acre in Northford on Rt. 22. I moved the store and opened in the new location in 1990. From the beginning I made a pledge to only use organic fertilizers and pest control products. In those days it was not easy; the only information out there was Organic Gardening magazine and the books published by Rodale Press. Eventually I discovered N.O.F.A. (Northeast Organic Farming Association) of CT and found a community of like-minded people. Together we built the organic landscaping side of the organization. I was on the N.O.F.A./CT board and I was its president for a while. Natureworks now employees over 25 people during the busy spring season. We have four crews that work in gardens doing installation and maintenance. I do consultations and design work and work with the installation crew. I have design assistants, office support staff, and many retail garden center employees. We are all passionately dedicated to organic gardening and we all love to garden.
What makes Natureworks unique?
It is rare to find a business that has gardened organically for over three decades. I was also one of the first women landscapers in the area; now women landscapers are common. Being a small, local business run by the same owner for such a long time is also unique. We also are total plant geeks and love unusual plants, so what you will find at Natureworks is really different from the big box stores. During the holiday season we harvest many of our own fresh cut greens to use in our designs. Education is our primary focus. I write a weekly email that keeps people in the loop about what is going on in CT. I wrote a book on Succession of Bloom in Ct that helps people have constant color all season. Our website has tons of informational handouts. We encourage people to share them. We have garden walks and seminars every single week.
Tell us about your demonstration gardens!
Our demonstration gardens surround our store. Because we are in an old house on an acre, it is easy for our customers to imagine that they could create gardens similar to ours- they are not big and fancy. We embrace a very eclectic style. Some call it a naturalistic or cottage style where flowers are allowed to self-sow and intermingle. Edibles and herbs are everywhere and we practice edible landscaping, also called blended gardens. When you drive in, the center of our parking lot is called Veggie Island. We have an enthusiastic foodie on our staff, Erich Bender, who has converted this space to an awesome food producing area. We have raised bags, Grow Bags, Grow Bag Beds, container gardens, and an herb spiral. Erich practices permaculture techniques. Our staff eats the food and we give the rest away to our customers! We use our demonstration gardens as living classrooms. I lead garden walks throughout the gardens every Saturday morning from 9:30-10:30, teaching people what is in bloom, how to prune and cut back plants, organic feeding and soil building, and scouting for insect and diseases. We also use our gardens to show people the plants we use in our landscape designs. Because our gardens are 100% organic, they are vibrant and alive with butterflies, beneficial insects, hummingbirds, and birds. We call it our “magic acre”.
Any advice for new gardeners looking to grow their own vegetables or reduce their lawn?
I a new gardener wants to grow their own food, we tell the start with easy seeds and plants like lettuce, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. We also tell them to plant blueberries- they are a great native shrub that is also pretty to look at. The secret to growing a great organic food garden is healthy soil. We encourage everyone to take a soil test and amend with organic compost and fertilizers. We also tell everyone to mulch to keep weeds down, add organic matter to the soil, and keep the soil moist. Keep on planting seeds and plants all season; don’t just plant in May. We publish on our website comprehensive handouts explaining what to plant when which helps with succession growing. You should be able to harvest food from May until November or beyond. No yard is too small to grow food. If you don’t have space for a big garden you can grow in containers. That is why we have Veggie Island. When newbies visit, they can see how we do it and learn by example. Mix food with your flowers and shrubs. Some vegetables are perennial: asparagus and rhubarb are two examples. Some vegetables and herbs are pretty enough to grow anywhere- the new colorful Swiss chards, kale, parsley, sage. Chives look nice surrounding roses. Hardy kiwi vines can cover an arbor. You can even grow edible fig trees in CT! I also talk about growing food in every weekly email. I have 15 raised beds at home and food in all my flower beds. I write about my home gardens to teach people what to do when.
If someone is traveling from out of the area to come visit your store, what else could they do in the area to make an 'afternoon' out of it?
Gouveia Vinyards is right up the road in Wallingford. Many people take the Thimble Island Cruise in Stony Creek and then come to us to visit and shop. We are 20minutes from New Haven and all of its attractions such as the Peabody Museum and Yale University. Garden enthusiasts often combine a visit to Natureworks with a visit to Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, another specialty nursery with lots of very unique trees and shrubs.
What is one of your favorite plants this season and why?
I am enamored of native elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). They are an awesome habitat plant. Our native bees nest in their hollow stems. The summer fruits are beloved by birds. The flowers are edible and the fruits are really good for juice, wine, and herbal tinctures. Plus, they are pretty and easy to grow.