Discover a garden center that’s also a beautiful landscape display and a popular venue for social gatherings, and discover how one good idea begot another.
When Mike Balleto opened his garden center near Woodstock in 2007, he wanted customers to do more than stop by to purchase a hosta or two for their yards. He wanted his business to be a destination location for guests who truly appreciate the outdoor experience.
The Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road, Lakewood, is a retail store and so much more. In addition to a huge variety of plants, trees and shrubs, the business has a garden shop that sells fountains, statues, birdhouses and other garden-themed items. It also offers design consultation, landscaping services and delivery of in-stock merchandise. But the true marvel of the spacious facility is a collection of gardens with five stunning waterfalls designed by Balleto. Located along the north side of the property, the gardens give customers a clearer idea of how various plantings grow over time. The beautiful gardens also serve as a stunning backdrop for weddings and other special events.
“Our main goal was to create display vignettes of garden themes that would help our customers to visualize how their garden at home may be improved,” says Balleto. “We can show customers how planning the landscape can actually be less daunting than they may think, as they’re able to step onto an actual patio or walkway, or sit at one of our many seat walls, or relax in our gazebo to view one of our waterfalls and listen to the soothing sound of falling water.”
A stroll along the brick walks and wooden bridge is a colorful experience. In fact, visitors often compare this aspect of The Gardens of Woodstock to the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Guests are welcome to tour the gardens during normal business hours. Regular visitors include members of local garden clubs and others who love to show off the gardens to out-of-town guests.
“It’s a great presentation for customers to see how certain plants and hardscapes will look in their yards, on a much smaller scale,” says Gwen VanSteen, manager. “We display shade and sun-loving plants. There are wicker chairs and a fireplace for guests who want to spend time relaxing in the gardens. Everything here was created through Mike’s eyes. He can look at a flat landscape and come up with a vision of how things can be developed.”
The Gardens of Woodstock was born out of another business, Krimson Valley Landscape, 24W430 Central Ave., Roselle, that Balleto has owned for the past four decades. Krimson Valley’s business offices are located at the Gardens of Woodstock, which has seven employees.
“The Gardens began as a nursery to supply the landscaping business,” he says. “But as the business grew, we saw the need and opportunity to expand our offerings.”
While the main focus remains the garden center, The Gardens of Woodstock also hosts weddings, receptions, reunions and birthday parties. The facility’s garage was converted into a banquet hall, to accommodate large events. “People were asking for it,” says VanSteen. “They’d walk through the gardens and say, ‘Why don’t you do weddings here?’”
Now, working with a local caterer, The Gardens of Woodstock has an event booked almost every weekend from June until October. “It is absolutely beautiful during a wedding,” says VanSteen. “The best part is that the brides don’t have to bring flowers; we already have them. Walking through the gardens at night, it’s the perfect setting and very romantic under the lights. It feels like you’re in Never-Never Land.”
The same goes for corporate meetings and retreats. “When it’s time for a break, they can just walk outside, refresh and rejuvenate, before it’s time to reconvene,” she says.
VanSteen knows firsthand how nature can improve one’s disposition. A former copywriter for a Chicago advertising firm, she left the corporate world after the firm closed, and pursued a degree in horticulture, for which she has a passion.
“I enjoy working with a variety of plants,” she says. “I love the unknown. They never grow the same way twice. Every day is a challenge.”
The Gardens’ nursery is home to a large number of plants, trees and shrubs, including dwarf and rare conifers (evergreens), Japanese maples and hydrangea. “Our goal is to step out of the box with plant material,” VanSteen says. “We try to get unique plants or something you won’t find in other retail centers. We’re quality-driven in our plant material.”
As VanSteen is speaking, a customer walks in looking for help identifying a twig she’s holding. “Many customers prefer coming here, instead of going to a big-box store, where they can’t get answers,” VanSteen says. “You can get a Knock Out rose bush anywhere, but I also have Rugosa roses, which is the mother of roses. You won’t find that just anywhere.”
VanSteen suggests that customers create a three-year plan, after arriving at a landscaping budget.
“Budget is always a factor,” she says. “In the first year, get trees and other major expensive elements taken care of. Foundation planting, patio and privacy trees come next. Then, we can add more shrubs around the trees. Other touch-ups should be built into your plan in the third year. People want the front of the house done first, before work begins on the backyard.”
“We offer a number of approaches,” adds Balleto. “Our most useful approach is to have our customer, who is interested in improving a section of landscape, bring in pictures and a lot survey of the home. We’re able to sketch a plan, and then select the plants right out of our garden center, so they can begin installing that same day. Another approach is to have one of our designers develop a more formal landscape plan for those customers who have slightly more intricate ideas for their landscapes.”
Customers come to The Gardens of Woodstock from Crystal Lake, Cary, Marengo, Huntley and even Chicago. VanSteen looks forward to seeing repeat customers, such as the Chicago lawyer who makes an annual visit each spring, while in Woodstock on business.
“We have customers who come back several times,” VanSteen says. “There are people who have found us and stuck with us. They get different plants, but they always get the same quality customer service.”
Still, like any business, there are hurdles. For starters, there’s location. “Our biggest challenge is our lack of visibility, tucked away on the southwest corner of IL Rt. 47 and Rt. 176,” Balleto says. “We’ve worked to overcome this by offering the most memorable experience for every guest.”
To enhance the customer experience even further, Balleto hopes to add evening entertainment that includes live music, beer and wine under the outdoor garden lights. “This will not only be a fun night out, but an opportunity for our customers to see how landscape lighting could be a wonderful addition to their own landscapes,” he says.
One visit to The Gardens of Woodstock could change the way customers view the landscaping shopping experience, says VanSteen.
“Do you want to stand around in a hot parking lot at another store, or do you want to come here and walk the beautiful gardens?” she asks. “It’s all about the atmosphere.”