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Exploring Kentucky | A Capital Escape

Long-time Frankfort nursery feeds the need to get back to nature

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Wilson’s Nurseries & Plant Co. offers more than flowers and shrubs. There’s also a butterfly greenhouse and a garden-to-table cafe.

During these tumultuous times, finding a place to simply chill comfortably—outside your home and away from news sources—can be a challenge.  However, sidling up to Mother Nature can always provide a mind-easing, trustworthy respite. And a destination in Frankfort just might be the perfect spot.

A family business opened 41 years ago in Kentucky’s capital city, Wilson Nurseries & Plant Co. welcomes visitors to its lovely acreage to relax amid lush flora and fauna seven days a week. Of course, if you’re looking for additions to your lawn and/or garden—whether plants, hanging baskets or sculptures—you’ll find them at this 100% women-owned nursery. But the fresh air aspect is glorious.

Launched in 2019, Wilson’s Butterfly Greenhouse has become a popular hangout from June through October. A self-sustaining pollinator conservation effort, the attraction features several dozen species of native butterflies and is predecessor to an arboretum and botanical garden, a larger project that’s been in the works for a number of years. The greenhouse, of course, features plants that butterflies love.

The nursery also has a native garden and a pollinator garden; a children’s garden is currently being developed as well. 

“The Butterfly Greenhouse is a great way to get up close and personal with the butterflies and observe their life cycle at any point: chrysalis, caterpillar, butterfly,” says Jennifer Wilson, who owns the business with her two daughters, Mary Catherine and Ella, both students at the University of Kentucky. “Right now we have 500 Monarchs in the greenhouse.

Some folks visit the butterflies in the morning, grab a lunch on-site at the Sage Garden Café’s wide patio or via carryout, and then spend a bit more time with the butterflies afterwards.

Wilson opened the café 10 years ago, just after the recession, as many customers were looking for lunch nearby. Truly a garden-to-table eatery, the Sage Garden serves food as local and as organic as possible, much from on-site gardens and greenhouses. Though meat is on the menu, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options are always available.

“It’s healthy food,” Wilson assures. “No freezer, no fryer, just fresh.”

Wilson’s transition during the current health crisis has been exemplary. Early on, states determined nurseries to be essential businesses, so this one never had to close. However, during the first five days of Kentucky’s sheltering-in-place order, Wilson’s had to develop and put a new business plan in place. 

Fortunately, the company already had an online store. Business on the site spiked, and immediately curbside pick-up was established for plants and garden supplies as well as café carryout orders. A significant part of this well-established nursery is its landscape and design segment. Wilson’s flagship store in Frankfort began in 1979; the Lexington store opened in 2001 as a wholesale distributor for landscape professionals and opened to the public five years ago. In March, consultation moved more to one-on-one designer/customer Zoom calls and on-site, six-foot-apart property visits in March.

“The beauty of nurseries, I think, is that while we were very busy—like on Mother’s Day—we still didn’t look like the big-box stores,” says Wilson. “It was very controlled. We worked hard to stay open and make this a place for our customers.”

Due to the aforementioned trend in establishing home gardens, mulch, topsoil, compost, cow manure and potting soil have been—and are still—in short supply from manufacturers nationwide. Supply-wise, a big plus for Wilson’s is that the company grows its own plants.

Until early March, Wilson’s propensity for educating and offering creative projects for her customers translated into a raft of “Make and Take” workshops at the nursery. Those have now become “Take and Make” experiences. Participants come in, pick up materials to make, say, a succulent wreath, and then work together from home virtually.

“We’ll have a solid year, but man, was it painful. I believe our success came through being able to manage curbside pick-ups and orders almost from day one. Fortunately, we were able to adapt fast,” Wilson said.

In the midst of it all, this amazing company continues to offer its customers and visitors a place to commune with nature, to be fed well, to learn more about their surroundings, and to add to or start a garden experience.

For directions and to find out more about Wilson’s, check them out at wilsonnurseriesky.com. You can also call (502) 223-1488 in Frankfort or (859) 269-5795 in Lexington. Don’t be surprised if a new bit of greenery follows you home.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]