UTICA— After 19 years, Bob and Janet Hill are closing the Hidden Hill Nursery in Utica. But that doesn't mean the owners are finished with their eight-acre arboretum and sculpture garden.
The couple will still have their whimsical sculptures created by local artists, and they'll still maintain the gardens planted throughout their property. But after this weekend, they'll stop selling plants.
"People really enjoy this place," Bob said. "It makes you feel good. It’s the real reason I did this. I like to joke, I’m in the 19th year of unintentional nonprofit status. It’s just been a great time, and it’s time for something else."
This Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be the nursery's final days of operation with a 50 percent off sale on the remaining plants, including magnolias, conifers, hostas, shade and sun perennials, hydrangeas and various shrubs. A large selection of garden art will be 30 percent off.
The Hills say it was simply time for them to retire from the nursery business. Business had slowed over the years, and at 75 years old, both Bob and Janet were tired of the large amount of maintenance required.
Janet said while she'll miss seeing their customers walking around the gardens, she is ready to retire.
"It's kind of a relief, I would say," she said.
The nursery still will be open for their annual Hidden Hill Bluegrass Festival, and they still plan to use it for special events such as garden tours, classes, charity events and small weddings.
Bob said he wants to continue his tradition of screening "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons at their barn.
"The sense and the feel of the place is not going to go away," Bob said.
'A HOBBY RUN AMOK'
Bob, a former Courier-Journal columnist, often says Hidden Hill is a "hobby run amok." It started in 1975 when the couple bought six acres of land and a farmhouse built in the 1860s.
He said the property was just acres of weeds when they first bought it. They planted a large garden in their yard, and it continued to evolve.
"It snowballed," Janet said. "It just kept getting bigger."
Bob grew up working with his hands on farms, and he eventually became passionate about gardening. Janet said she grew up with parents and a grandmother who also gardened.
While she has played a large role in the business and maintaining the garden, she said her husband is the visionary behind Hidden Hill.
"He was the creator, and I was the cleaner-upper," she said.
Bob said he started buying a variety of plants, and he traveled around the country and abroad to view various gardens and arboretums. He was particularly inspired by the gardens he saw in England.
"I like the mess of the British gardens — the overflowing mess," he said.
He wanted to sell unusual, hard-to-find plants that others places didn't have. He wanted to show people what the various trees looked like when they were planted and mature, instead of just selling them in 3-gallon containers.
Bob found plants from around the country to bring to Hidden Hill, and he worked with artists in the Louisville area to create his growing sculpture garden.
The artwork and garden design reflect Bob's love of whimsy. He intentionally didn't place directional signals on the property so people can get a little lost.
After the Hills stopped raising chickens on their property, they placed some ornamental tin chickens in the coop instead. Bob jokes with kids that if they don't pass through a large door leading to Hidden Hill's meadow, they will disappear the following Tuesday.
Bob said it was never their intention to compete with large retail stores.
"It's never, ever been about money, which is a good thing, because there ain't no money," he said. "At least not the way we do it — open three days a week for six months."
SHARING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Throughout the years, Hidden Hill has not only been a place to buy plants, but it's become a local destination.
Bob said people have come from "a hundred miles in all directions" to visit throughout the years. And after announcing the closing of the nursery last week, the Hills received a huge response from the community.
A mixture of old and new customers streamed in to Hidden Hill last weekend to visit the gardens and buy plants before it closed. Although the Hills were originally planning to keep the nursery open for a few more weekends, they moved up the closing date due to their limited selection.
Hidden Hill is one of only a handful of businesses in Utica. Town council president Steve Long said the nursery has been a major attraction for the small town, and he is sad to see the business go.
"It’s going to be a big loss to the community," he said. "It had a lot of followers."
Louisville resident Lynn Cralle visited Hidden Hill last Friday. She's been friends with Bob for years, and she came to their home before the Hills started the nursery.
She said she has enjoyed their sculpture shows, and she appreciates Bob's enthusiasm for plants.
"It’s different every time I come," Cralle said. "He’s continuing to play, which I love to see, and it shows everywhere."
Rita O'Brien, who lives in the Anchorage area of Louisville, visited Hidden Hill for the second time last Friday. She said she enjoys the whimsy of the sculptures and how the Hills sell hardy plants, many of which are native to the area.
"The personal touch, I think, is really the reason this business has been so successful," O'Brien said. "Looking around the yard, it’s just magnificent, with all the plantings and the unique flowers, trees and shrubs. It’s just fun to visit."
Louisville resident Karen Blair has visited Hidden Hill twice over the past two weekends. She was happy to see that the nursery has many plants she didn't already have on her five-acre property.
She said she knew she had to come back after her first visit this month, and she was saddened by the news of the business's closing.
"Sometimes you think things are always going to be there and you’re going to get to them, and then they’re going to close," Blair said. "Thank goodness I got here."
Janet said she has loved all of the new experiences that came out of their business. They've met friends through the nursery, and they even traveled to Peru to visit one of their customers.
Bob said he is proud to see what they have accomplished at Hidden Hill over the years.
"I shared it with the community," he said. "I shared it with gardening friends. I shared it with people who just like to walk around or bring their own lunch … That means a lot."