For nearly 40 years, Hornbaker Gardens outside Princeton has been drawing visitors from far and wide to its plant paradise
Despite the dismal odds facing any start-up business . . .
Despite the prolonged illness and death of one of the founders . . .
Despite COVID craziness and shifting markets and a location well off any beaten path . . .
Hornbaker Gardens continues to grow.
Not like a weed. Like the well-tended garden it is.
Over nearly 50 years, Hornbaker Gardens has evolved from family homestead to pick-your-own berry farm to chrysanthemum wholesaler to hosta host to arboretum/botanical garden/wedding destination.
“We’ve been planting the whole time,” said 74-year-old Rich Hornbaker, with no small satisfaction.
Worth the drive
Peoria has fine floral options, but noodling north up Illinois Route 29 to Princeton is well worth the 55-mile drive. (If you need another nudge, Bradley University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has a visit scheduled for Aug. 23.)
“It’s such a unique place, people want to drive here for it,” said Jenica Cole, executive director of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce.
She calls it a “top draw” and “premiere venue.” She should know: The Chamber had its annual meeting there a couple days earlier.
On a recent spring day, the Illinois River valley was awash with misty green new leaves and pale pink redbuds. The drive alone was lovely enough to divert the unwary from the nursery turnoff.
“You’re not going to come on us by accident,” said a laughing Marcie Jaggers, the one-time secretary and current office manager. “People take the day off to come.”
A green industrial evolution
Now in her 20th year there, Jaggers’ more business-like title reflects the changing garden business and Hornbaker’s odyssey in particular.
In 1976, Rich and Kathy Hornbaker bought 14 acres in the country south of Princeton as their own private refuge. A dissatisfied lawyer and teacher, respectively, they opted to home-school their three children in the house they built there. The family grew berries for sale. Then it was mums, then perennials, mostly as wholesalers.
“I grew up on the farm,” said Dave Hornbaker, now 39, who recalls toting plant pots to trailers. “We’ve come a long way. A little bit added every year.”
Hornbaker Gardens opened to the public as a retail garden center in 1990. Although extensive collections of daylilies, iris and other perennials were in the mix, their hundreds of hosta varieties put them on the map. The “hosta ravine” showcased those sometimes exotic-looking plants in a way that made them accessible to novice gardeners. In 1998, Hornbaker was a host for the American Hosta Society Convention.
Both gardens and business expanded over the next few years. From granite statuary to pottery to bedding plants, gardeners could get practical advice and the wares to make it work. For a while, the constant growth probably obscured what may have been the family-owned business’s biggest crisis: Kathy Hornbaker suffered from dementia. Her personal contact with customers was a key feature of the company.
“She was the most social,” Dave Hornbaker said.
As her dementia progressed, the family had cards printed and offered them to those who might not understand why Kathy did not recognize them after years of patronage.
“It was really painful,” said Jaggers. “She was a special person and we didn’t know how we could go on without her. But we did. We had to.”
Growth for growing’s sake
Over that same sad time, more shopping options, more greenhouses and more gardens were added. That included a 2.5-acre native prairie and a children’s garden in memory of Kathy, who died in 2014.
By then, lushly landscaped Hornbaker Gardens was a destination. Along with plants and products, the nursery continued to add experiences. Open houses. Workshops. An artisan market.
And visitors prompted the family to develop a whole new venture.
“People were always asking, ‘Can we get married out here?’” Rich Hornbaker said. “We’d say, ‘Well, you can, but there’s no backup plan.’”
A ‘symbiotic relationship’
Irises beds gave way to a better-than-backup plan, an event center called The Barn, which opened in 2015.
Airy and spacious, The Barn can hold 350 people, including a banquet table and modest dance floor. The terrace and surrounding gardens have become showpieces for local materials like the massive tan boulders and Osage orange favored by hands-on designer Dave Hornbaker.
Not surprisingly, visitors to the garden center discover The Barn and wedding guests discover the gardens.
“It’s a definite symbiotic relationship,” Rich Hornbaker said.
A hiccup, but no holding back now
COVID put a pause on all this growth, but didn’t stop it. The pandemic was a mixed blessing for garden centers. According to industry statistics, about 18.3 million new gardeners started digging in the dirt — a 65 percent increase in millennials and 44 percent increase in GenZ — during that time. Most nurseries were unprepared. Stocks ran out; workers were hard to come by.
Hornbaker Gardens tried to keep staffers working, despite closures, which was toughest for events like weddings. But in some ways, it was like pruning back a mature plant because the new growth is so vibrant. 2022 was a big year for weddings, said Rich Hornbaker, and 2023 looks to be even bigger, with 75 weddings slated for the property so far.
In the meantime, the family improved all kinds of infrastructure. The winding road out to the nursery is repaved. A point-of-sales system instituted by CEO Molly Hornbaker Blogg — credited by all parties as the administrative mastermind here — is paying off with more responsive orders and data. The website has been updated and redesigned accordingly.
“Keeping up with technology over the years is something we’ve evolved into,” Blogg said.
Shifting from pen-and-paper to a point-of-sale system means you, the visitor/gardener, can peruse the perennials before you pop over from Peoria; can view hundreds of hostas in full color and sorted by size; can check out new plants and natives, trees and shrubs and aquatics — and ensure what you want is available before you arrive.
The revised Hornbakergardens.com launched late last summer. Making something easy to use is often a lot of hard work. Feedback from customers this spring has proved it was worth it, said Bragg.
“People are using it,” she said. “We’re excited.”
Sometimes growth comes full circle. The 75 weddings scheduled for this year included one for a very special couple: Rich Hornbaker and his new wife Ann on Memorial Day weekend.