by Sally Colby
Warren Leach and his wife Debi Hogan got started in the nursery business in a rather unique way: they purchased an expansive property that had been a hobby business operated by a plant collector. But Warren wasn’t a novice when it came to plants. He studied horticulture at University of Maine and now teaches horticulture in the area.
“We came here in 1986,” said Warren of the Rehoboth, MA nursery, adding that the previous owner had started selling daylilies by order. “We have several thousand cultivars and that’s a very unusual business mode. Usually nurseries grow hundreds of thousands of ten different things as opposed to thousands of different varieties. It makes us unique.”
Today, Tranquil Lake continues to grow several thousand named cultivars of daylilies. “They’re field-grown,” said Warren. “It isn’t container production. They’re fresh dug in spring and fall for shipping. We can dig for our retail customers when the daylilies are in bloom so they can see what the plants look like in the field.”
Since purchasing the property, Warren and Debi have expanded the fields, added irrigation ponds and overhead irrigation in the field. “We have sandy loam soil with no rocks,” said Warren. “That makes it great for digging bareroot plants instead of having to knock heavy clay soil off from roots. Our fields are droughty, but we have plenty of water for production.”
The Tranquil Lake collection is very diverse, and are proven to be hardy in the Northeast. “Plants from southern breeders have to prove to be hardy,” said Warren. “Some plants from breeders in Louisiana may be perfectly hardy in New England but some may not be. The fact that we grow them in Massachusetts means that people are assured they have a hardy plant. We only sell plants grown by us here in the field.”
Warren says some customers travel as far as 100 miles to purchase plants. “We have quite a large draw when the season is in full bloom in summer,” he said. “Our season is very different from a garden center season when everyone tries to get plants out by May or June. We’re fully stocked with perennials because I use them in garden design, so we’re the place to find plants in July, August and September. Fall is great for planting as well.”
Because the daylilies and many other plants sold at Tranquil Lake are dug and sold as bareroot plants, there are no plastic pots to deal with, an issue Warren says the nursery industry has been looking at for decades. “We trim the foliage, put them in a bag, bareroot, and they’ll travel fine,” he said. “As long as they’re handled right, they transplant fine in summer. Someone can pick up 100 daylilies and put them easily in the back of their car.”
Iris, another prolific and popular Tranquil Lake species, are grown in a lower field that has had significant compost amendments. “That’s a crop we only dig in spring and fall,” Warren explained. “They’re fibrous-rooted so we can’t dig them in summer.” Warren noted that Japanese iris need moisture and are not drought-tolerant, but Siberian iris, once established, are very tough.
Viewing the display gardens at Tranquil Lake might be intimidating for the first-time gardener, but they help customers view plants in a true landscape setting. “We have about four acres of woody shrubs and hardy perennials,” said Warren, describing the display gardens. “Our gardens are designed to show homeowners tough plants. We water when we have to, but they aren’t on life support.”
Warren excavated one section of the display garden, installed a rubber liner and added compost to create a bog-like environment for some of the iris. “That way people can see how to grow Japanese iris if they don’t have heavy clay loam or wet soils,” he said. Warren believes that the display gardens are useful in helping people see what the plants look like as mature specimens in a garden setting. “Retail customers get ideas for their own gardens,” he said, “and I can show clients who might hire us to do landscape installation examples of plants in the ground.”
The display gardens attract a wide variety of birds and pollinators. “Our display gardens show people what they can attract,” said Warren. “We have small kettle hole pond that has gardens around it and a large swamp white oak, which is a nice shady place to sit.”
To further help customers make decisions, Debi created an extensive database of the daylilies available at Tranquil Lake and categorized them according to height, color, season (bloom time), eyed, shape, size, fragrance and nocturnal. Photographs of each variety help customers obtain a more accurate view and compare varieties. Iris are also included in a database, described in great detail, with photos and descriptions of each one.
“We have a display board of about 40 different flowers we pick every morning,” said Warren, describing an additional aid for customers. “The flowers are in glass test tubes, so if it’s 90 degrees and it’s overwhelming, they can see a selection up close without having to walk out into the field.”
The nocturnal daylily is one that Warren says not everyone is familiar with. “There are daylilies that open in the evening and stay open the whole next day,” said Warren. “Stella de Oro is actually a nocturnal daylily. The species citrina is very fragrant – we can watch it open at 7:00 at night and it stays open the next day.” Warren explains that plant breeders who have hybridized nocturnal characteristics have provided the key to late season blooms. “In September, when mornings are cold, a nocturnal will open in late afternoon or evening as opposed to being stubborn about opening on a 45-degree morning in September.”
Customers who visit Tranquil Lake can have plants dug and prepared for transport after making selections. “Or sometimes people have a large list they’ll email in, or call in, and arrange pickup for a certain day,” said Warren. “But if people come during the day, we’ll dig plants for them.”
The trees and shrubs available are mostly smaller trees and ornamentals in containers. “They’re smaller trees that homeowners can handle,” said Warren, adding that Tranquil Lake doesn’t offer large shade trees.
When it comes to helping customers making recommendations to customers about growing, Warren and Debi stress the importance of organic matter as a soil amendment. “We do a lot of educational workshops on plants and garden design, and also on compost,” said Warren. “We also have an ornamental vegetable garden that we pick and eat from. We really want to show people how to garden.”
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