Author: Grace Shackman
He's one of the nation's leading antique plant specialists
Walking by Scott Kunst's house on Third Street on the Old West Side, you might guess that the owner had more than a passing interest in historic landscaping. Up front are a wrought-iron planter and carpet bedding, both authentic Victorian styles. Peering at the backyard, you can see a more relaxed, early twentieth-century garden with some of Kunst's favorite plants--early pinks, irises, peonies.
In fact, Kunst is a nationally recognized expert in old-fashioned plants. He runs a rapidly growing business, Old House Gardens, out of his home, with the help of his wife, Jane, their nine-year-old son, David, and a few part-time helpers in the busiest season.
Since he founded Old House Gardens in 1983, Kunst has invented his own career, taking what for many would be a hobby and finding ways to make it pay. An English teacher at Scarlett Middle School for the last nineteen years, he went down to half-time four years ago as his business began to take more of his time. Last spring he took the final leap, buying out his retirement in order to devote all his time to his business. "It's riskier all on my own," he says, "but I like the unpredictability."
An avid gardener since childhood, Kunst became interested in historic plants when he moved into an 1874 home in Ypsilanti's Depot Town area and tried to put in a garden that fit the house's age. He started with the remnants he found still there--a privet hedge, tiger lilies, and single white peonies--the botanical equivalent of antiques in the attic. The next step, trying to figure out what else should go with them, was more difficult.
Although there were many books on period house styles and furniture, he found very little on Victorian gardens. He ended up doing a lot of original research, scanning photographs of period homes to see what was planted in the yards, reading old magazines to see what plants were discussed, and hunting down out-of-print books and old seed catalogs.
Kunst received an enthusiastic response when he began sharing his knowledge of antique gardens. He has since lectured from Nantucket to Omaha and given advice on historic gardens all around the Midwest, including such prestigious sites as Greenfield Village and Meadowbrook. A recent project was the Bloomington, Illinois, garden of David Davis, a Supreme Court justice appointed by President Lincoln. Kunst traced the garden's history through letters from Davis's wife and a plan done by a great-nephew in the 1920's.
Kunst has been adept at finding his niche. Three years ago, when he began selling antique plants directly, he limited himself to bulbs because he knew that no other nursery was selling them and that the regular nurseries were eliminating more varieties every year.
Kunst's bulb varieties were first introduced anywhere from 1500 to 1920; he finds them in obscure nurseries around the country and even abroad. (After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he found a grower in Latvia who had three varieties of crocus that Kunst had read about but never seen.) He sorts bulbs in his basement and runs the mail-order business from an office at the back of the first floor. He doesn't grow any of the bulbs he sells, but he does use part of his garden and those of a few lucky neighbors to test them.