by Alex Huebner
Sugar Creek Gardens in Kirkwood, MO started as a business in 1990, but the land and farmhouse the business currently occupies has been involved in growing and gardening since 1904.
“They built the property as a place to grow roses for the 1904 World’s Fair,” explained Abby Lapides Elliot, who owns Sugar Creek Gardens along with her mother, Anne Lapides.
Now, Sugar Creek is home to a diverse garden center that specializes in rare and unique perennials, native Missouri plants, and creative classes and services.
Sugar Creek Gardens started from humble beginnings. Initially, it was only a stall at the Kirkwood Farmers Market. Anne was selling seedlings and divisions from her home garden until she was able to open a nursery in nearby Brentwood a year later.
In 1993, the current location in Kirkwood was purchased.
“When we first moved in, there were these beautiful glass greenhouses,” Abby said, “But they were in such disrepair. We had to tear them down.”
In their place are the garden retail area and a parking lot. The old farmhouse that stands at the front of the property was then converted into a small gift shop on the first floor and offices on the second floor.
Abby, Anne’s youngest child, joined the business full time after college.
“I graduated with a degree in something totally unrelated. I was burned out, so I came back here and fell in love with the business,” and she’s been at the garden center ever since.
Sugar Creek Gardens has since become a staple in the Missouri gardening community and was even voted #1 Best Garden Center in St. Louis. While the property may have only focused on roses in its early days, now they focus on a menagerie of plants.
“We do annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees. We do it all here,” Abby said.
Abby, her mother, and the team they’ve assembled to manage and maintain the business are all self-described “plant nerds.”
“We’re just really into plants,” Abby said. That enthusiasm for plants and gardening goes beyond what they carry and sell. “We like to get people involved. We are fanatical about it.”
The team at Sugar Creek Gardens has found inventive ways to express their obsession with gardening that attract customers from all areas and skill levels.
First, they make their passion for plants as obvious as possible. They have a detailed website that covers all aspects of the business. You can learn about everything from the associations they are a part of, to short biographies of the staff and when classes will be held. In addition, they keep an updated list of what they have in stock and guides on how to take care of your purchases once you get home.
“It’s great because the website is like a database for customers,” she said. “We get great feedback from it.”
Sugar Creek also has a news section covering different plant species and “The Garden Gossip”, a newsletter penned by Abby.
They maintain an active presence across social media and have created their own videos to showcase different plant varieties.
“Because of our variety and our website, we do get a lot of people who travel in. They’ll make a few hours’ trip to come in and see what we have to offer,” Abby explained.
Whether the customer is from near or far, Sugar Creek Gardens offers a free consultation service called “We plan, you plant.”
“[The customers] come in with ideas and pictures and we give them about an hour of consult,” Abby said. The design professionals on staff then help customers select plants from the garden center.
“The customers love it and the staff loves it,” she said. “The people who do our design work are artists; it’s great that they have a creative outlet.”
Sugar Creek also offers at home garden consultations and design services for a fee. The garden center doesn’t do installation and maintenance services, but have a list of trusted installers and landscapers available for customers.
Additionally, Sugar Creek Gardens has classes and events available for every type of gardener. Most classes are free, except those where the attendees get to take something home, like their terrarium-building class.
The classes have proven to be very successful and have been featured in local newspapers.
“When a class makes it in the paper, all of a sudden there will be a 100 people standing around in a class,” Abby said.
The garden center closes for a few months after Christmas Eve, but the classes run throughout the year.
When it comes to the plants they sell, perennials are “our bread and butter” according to Abby, but their native plant program has seen an enthusiastic response from consumers.
Sugar Creek Gardens is a member of Grow Native!, a garden club focused on marketing and education created by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. The group’s mission, according to their website, is to “restore biodiversity by increasing conservation awareness of native plants.”
In the garden center, the staff keeps a section devoted to native Missouri plants. They have signage explaining the purpose of each plant and their importance in local landscapes.
The program “has taken off. Their popularity has exploded over the last three years,” Abby explained. “It’s great.”
Another part of the retail operation that has been popular among customers is the VIG, Very Important Gardener’s Club, and Pansy Dollars. The VIG is a membership through the garden center where customers can get members-only sales and specials, special mailings about sales and events, and earn Garden Rewards points. These points can be earned throughout the year and are redeemed for gift certificates.
Pansy Dollars are another year-round program that Sugar Creek offers. Customers earn $1 in Pansy Dollars for every $10 spent. The dollars are then redeemed during “Pansy Days” and can be used towards the purchase of a variety of different flowers, garden ornaments, gifts and more.
With their huge variety of plants, events, and services, Sugar Creek Gardens has cemented itself among its customers as the biggest and best “plant nerd” on the block.
Sugar Creek Gardens uses creative solutions to draw in customers
by Alex Huebner