A hobby blooms into a nationally-known business in the Tennessee hills.
By Adrienne Martini
APRIL 3, 2000: The drive to Corryton is beautiful on this spring day, sunny and warm but not at all hot. House Mountain looms in the distance, a greening hummock off to my right. I have the windows down, radio offa rare event but I wanted to just be alone with the day and let my mind drift, soon enough I'd be back in the big city, trapped in an office, out of the sun.
Eventually, it dawns on me that I'm lost. I've found my way to Corryton but, in my haste to get out of the office and into this soul-warming spring day, I have left my directions on my desk. So, I drive around, thinking that there will be a sign or something.
After all, Oakes is well-known for quality and consistency in gardening circles across the country. Even I know of the greatness of Oakes daylilies and I am a gardening novice, having only recently plunged my spade into the East Tennessee clay. I actually heard about Oakes in Texas, where gardeners would swear by the ruggedness of these fragile-looking flowers, able to withstand an Austin summer where everything but daylilies and cacti would wither. Plus, the Texans loved the size of the flowers; a daylily bloom can be up to 10 inches across.
After ten minutes or so of idly driving, hoping that some bolt of direction will strike, I see a greenhouse. Funny, I think, it's much smaller than I had thoughtafter all, Oakes grows 2,000 or so varieties. An man in overalls and rubber boots wanders over to my car.
"Help you?" he asks, squinting in at me.
"Is this Oakes?" I reply.
"I wish!" He laughs. "It's back down the road."
And he gives me great directions.
"This is where we used to grow everything," Ken says, "then we bought some property up in Grainger County, up on the Holston River. It was such a nice big open field that we pretty much went to there and grew everything there for years and years. Now we're coming back and starting to reuse some of this ground.
"It was a hobby for my father and grandfather. They'd always grown things, had greenhousesjust enjoyed all kinds of that gardening stuff. They bought a few, and one thing you'll find about daylilies is that they're very addictiveyou buy a few, you buy a few more. They had plenty of land where Papaw had grown tobacco and had cattle. And dad had property here. They had some time. Papaw had just retired and Dad was only working part time at the time. They just piddled with it. Grew a few. Then they took up the hay field, and the tobacco field. They took up the yard. And we thought they'd gone crazy.
"One day they bought the first variety they'd ever paid $75 for. We just knew they'd gone completely insane. Seventy-five dollars for one plant," Ken shrugs. "But it's all worked out well."
It's ironic, actually, that there is a daylily named "Stella De Oro." This gold flower is probably the one that most people recognize, even if they have no idea that it's a daylily. "Stella" is a favorite of landscapers and is the flower that Oakes sells the most of. For them, daylilies have been the heart of a family business, one which has been the livelihood of three generations, from Ken's grandfather William to his father Stewart, mother Priscilla, and sister Jennifer Estes.
"My dad and grandfather sold a fewfolks just stopped by and saw them growing in the yard and wanted to buy some," he explains. "They put out our first little black and white list in '81 and we put out our first color catalogue in '90. That was really a big step for usa picture is worth a thousand words. It really opened up just a tremendous amount of business. We're growing every year since then."
The pictures in the catalogue only hint at the glory of these flowers in bloomwhich they aren't yet, when Ken and I are standing at the edge of the small field. They become glorious in the summer; in bloom, I can imagine, this field and the "display garden"which houses all of Oakes' varieties and is about a mile walk from where we standis a riot of color, with giant blobs of gold, purple, lavender, deep red, pink, and even pale white and green.
"You need to come out in the summer. That's actually where our display garden is. In the summer we have a big display garden and we get folks from all over the country coming through there. It's about five or six acres and about 2,000 different kinds on display. The catalogue only lists about 125. There's a whole lot more to look at when you come to the display garden.
"Of course that's where you'll see a lot of the brand-new things," he says. "We try each year to buy the brand-new varieties from all around the country, which are very expensive$100, $200 a piece. But they're on display over there and maybe one of these days they'll work their way into our catalogue.
"One interesting thing about our display garden is we moved it across the road but this will be the grand opening of our new display garden. It was on my grandfather's property and he passed away a couple of years back, so we moved it across the road to my property and put it around a pond. So we're frantically trying to get it all pulled together for this year. All we have left to do is build a bridge over the creek, install the gazebo, and finish painting all the buildings." Ken quietly smiles. "Other than that, we're ready to go."
Was it hard to move all of those plants? I ask, while I squint into the sun, trying to look over the hill to the display garden.
"They don't mind," he says, and it sounds almost as if he's talking about a pet, rather than a plant. "There lots of stories of folks who treat them very poorly. They come up to the garden, buy 'em, then forget they've left them in their trunk. Come winter they look for the tire jack or something, and there's a big bag of daylilies. We certainly don't recommend that kind of treatment but they're extremely hardy. We ship them all over the country, overseas sometimes, oftentimes they'll be in transit a week to 10 days. They'll just dry out some but you just plant them and they'll pop back up."
Sounds perfect for mea plant that can withstand absent-mindedness and mild abuse. But I should watch out, apparently, daylilies can be addictive.
"I think we sell to a lot of backyard gardeners, people who want something special in their landscape, around the house. Of course, folks who buy a few get hooked. Pretty soon they've got 300 different kinds out there. But that's a lot of fun. Daylilies are so great because you get the joy of watching them come up, then each day you've got something new blooming. Each bloom just lasts a day. It'll open in the morning and close in the evening," he explains.
Daylily enthusiasts are constantly on the lookout for new varieties, which are part of what make Oakes well-known. Their catalogue is a lush primer on the differences between daylilies, proving that there is more to the category than the ubiquitous "Stella De Oro." While there are daylilies to fit almost every color schemeincluding flowers with smooth and ruffled petals, multicolored flowers with contrasting eye zones and throatsa true blue flower has eluded growers for years.
"We do some hybridizing," Ken tells me. "It's been one of the things we haven't had as much time to spend with since we've been so busy selling the ones we have. And I really hate that because we have some of the best stock in the world we could use as parents that it's a shame not to use it more than we do.
"In past years, we've introduced about a dozen things and they're in the catalogue. There's one we did called Red Volunteer, and that's been a real popular variety. It actually got picked as an editor's choice in Better Homes and Gardens this past month. That was real nice to see.
"Out of the thousands and thousands we create, we only keep a few because they really have to be new and different than anything out there. That's a pretty high standard to meet," he says.
Despite the family's interest in this plant, Ken never expected to make daylilies his life.
"When I went off to college in '86, it was really just a hobby. I didn't expect it to be a thing that supported me. I just figured I'd get a job somewhere when I graduated. But it grew enough to where I could join it in '90 when I graduated from UT [with a degree in business management]. It's been really a blessing to the whole family. Who'd ever think you could make a living growing daylilies, nothing but daylilies?
"I really enjoy myself, running the business. And I enjoy this in particular because it gives the opportunity to be outside and insidecome July and August, I'm about ready to go inside for a little bit, where it's cool. Come February and March, I'm ready to come back out. And in the summer, I spend a lot of time taking pictures, the whole bloom season.
"I enjoy them," he concludes. "I do."
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