A Wild and Wonderful Oasis
Walter Stephens founded The Natural Garden® in 1953 after rescuing a variety of native species from development and cultivating woodland natives for his own garden. Early on, customers would stroll through rows of native plants planted in soup cans contained in wooden crates buried in the ground. The staff would dig up the selected plants and either wrap them in newspaper or place them in recycled cans for transport home. Sometimes customers also dug their own!
In 1978, Stephens sold The Natural Garden® to Craig Sensor, who hired on his first employee of the Natural Garden Roy Diblik, Northwind Perennial Farm owner and prominent plantsman, horticulturist and planting design expert. “When I first started in 1978, The Natural Garden was a big weed patch and my job was to pull weeds,” says Diblik. “The sales area was a stump where we kept the change bag. Our biggest sales day was $90, and that first year we made about $1,000. Comparing The Natural Garden back then to today is like comparing the Flintstones to the Jetsons. It was a simple place.”
By the early eighties, the public’s concern for the preservation of indigenous plants stimulated and supported the work of park districts and forest preserves. A visit to The Morton Arboretum further inspired Sensor and Diblik to grow native prairie plants. Ray Schulenburg of the Morton Arboretum encouraged and informed their work. Diblik credits Horlock and Schulenburg with fueling both his passion for and knowledge of growing. “I learned everything about growing natives from Bob Horlock and Ray Schulenburg,” says Diblik. “These men were driven by passion, not money, and without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Bob Horlock –avid native plant proponent and namesake of the Horlock Hill, a restored prairie in St. Charles – ultimately became The Natural Garden’s® primary seed supplier by collecting from surrounding natural areas. The Natural Garden Natives® collection of plants developed into more than 280 native plant species. Today, all native plants with the Natural Garden Natives® designation are separately inventoried and identified as regional ''eco-'' or ''geno-'' type with seed origin of the parent plants gathered from remnant natural areas within 90 miles of the St. Charles nursery. These native plants occurred naturally in the Midwest region before European settlement and are genetically adapted to Illinois soil and climate conditions.
During the eighties, The Natural Garden® flourished. The nursery specialized in native prairie plant production, but they were also gaining recognition and financial success through the sale of perennials.
In 1983, the nursery transitioned from field to container growing and Sensor added landscape architects and installation crews to The Natural Garden® team. By the time Diblik left the company in 1991, The Natural Garden had reached over one million dollars in sales and had become one of the largest perennial retail and wholesale nurseries in Illinois. The Natural Garden® was the first nursery in the area to containerize natives and was considered the expert in growing native prairie plants.
Craig Sensor's goal was to cultivate The Natural Garden® into a premiere nursery while maintaining a friendly, relaxed environment for customers. The company boomed in the early '90s with perennials, natives, herbs, classes and landscape services. The Natural Garden's® unique atmosphere and broad native plant line created a loyal customer following that still exists today.
By 2010, native plants eclipsed ornamentals in popularity and sales. From the late 90’s through today, corporate and private sensibilities have shifted toward a focus on sustainable landscape practices, primarily driven by improved management strategies for rainwater. Counties, municipalities and organizations like state Departments of Transportation have mandated the use of native plants in government-owned landscapes and rewarded companies for planting natives. The Natural Garden® has provided quality native plants to a broad customer base that includes home gardeners, landscape and ecological restoration contractors, landscape architects, conservation organizations, public entities, and research institutions.
In the winter of 2011, Midwest Groundcovers acquired The Natural Garden, which facilitated a valuable expansion of their native plant lines. “The Natural Garden® is an invaluable piece of natural history,” says Roy Diblik. “They have all the genetics of Kane County on one site. Midwest’s business sense will help motivate the future of The Natural Garden®.”
The acquisition has increased the range of Midwest’s native plant offerings and has given Midwest customers access to a diverse array of local eco-type native plants. Former Natural Garden wholesale manager, current Midwest Customer Service Representative Chris Darbo says of the acquisition, “Both the world and our customer base are focusing more and more on natives. Midwest’s ownership of The Natural Garden® has saved the local eco-type seeds and plants, the expertise of the growers and the beautiful land. Midwest has the management skills to continue to improve upon what was started so many years ago at The Natural Garden®.”
Midwest Groundcovers continues native plant production, but not sales, at The Natural Garden® nursery site, now known as Midwest Natural Garden. Now sold through Midwest Groundcovers, keeping the Natural Garden Natives® production location separate from our other native plant lines keeps the local eco-type specification of these native plants separate. These natives include a wide assortment of species from which well-balanced plant communities can be established. Indigenous to Illinois, they occur naturally in the Midwest and are ideal for growing throughout the region. If these plants are properly sited with light and moisture needs met, once established, Natural Garden Natives® can be both self-sustaining and beautiful.
While The Natural Garden® has undergone a number of transformations through the years, founder Walter Stephens' passion for native plants remains in Midwest’s commitment to producing quality plants of local ecotype stock. We continue to work to make these wonderful native species more accessible to the homeowner through independent garden centers throughout the greater Chicago Region. See Where to Buy for a location near you!