Home & Garden: A Powell garden bursting into Summer

Sherry Beck Paprocki
Columbus Monthly
The colors of Lantana evolve as each flower matures. Butterflies are drawn to this plant, situated in the Powell garden that belongs to Lee Larson and his wife, Nell.

Atop one of southern Delaware County's rolling hills, Lee Larson sits inside his spacious home awaiting the dawn of spring. Larson, who retired three years ago after a long career as a top-ranked seed salesman for Monrovia Nursery Growers, now spends warm weather days working in his sprawling flower gardens.

In 1958, a 15-year-old Larson started at California-based Monrovia because it was near his family's home and his father was out of work. Through a connection made at church, he was hired to water plants. Over the next few years, he worked his way up and went into sales. Eventually, the owners expanded their company nationally and offered Larson all the territory that stretched east of the Mississippi River.

Twenty-two-year-old Larson moved to Columbus, knowing he could drive to a lot of the nearby states. “It was the adventure of a lifetime,” he recalls. “Once I settled in, it was the place to be.”

Within the first year, he landed 125 accounts by driving around several states and cold-calling nursery owners. Gus Reiner, father of Oakland Nursery's John and Paul Reiner, became one of his first clients. “Monrovia grew plants in pots so they could ship year-round,” explains Larson. Back then Monrovia was the first grower to ship potted plants nationwide.

At his busiest, Larson managed 228 accounts, among them plants sales for Frank's Nursery and The Andersons General Store. Spring shipping season was especially busy, and he visited each customer twice a year to touch base. “It was always fun,” he says, regarding his days of traveling several states, as well as the province of Ontario in Canada. “Everybody was always happy.”

Through the years, additional salespeople were brought on board, and his territory became smaller. Yet, it was still lucrative, making Larson a frequent top-seller for the California company. Monrovia, a family-owned business, opened nurseries in Oregon, Connecticut and Georgia. Before he knew it, Larson had 55 years invested in the seed business—and a lifetime of gardening knowledge in full bloom in his front lawn.

Around his Delaware County neighborhood —a private community with sprawling homes on large green lots and wooded backyards—Larson is known as the neighbor who might show up in a golf cart with his chain saw in tow. “One of the hardest things for people to do is to get rid of things,” he says, smiling about a neighbor who recently cut down several crabapple trees months after Larson made the recommendation. The neighborhood benefits from his knowledge; Larson wields a bit of authority as president of the local landscape committee.

Most days he works on his own 2-acre plot of land. A large and heavy 50-year-old push mower is a near daily companion, and he admits to having a guy who continues to repair it. He gives credit to his wife, Nell, for her visionary abilities. A few years ago, she suggested they remove original boxwoods planted along a stone wall in the driveway. The decision revealed the beauty of the stone wall and inspired the duo to create a patio area where they sip wine on warm summer nights.

He and Nell agree that a lot of people have difficulty visualizing a garden before they begin to plant it. “A landscape should be like a painting in a frame,” he explains. His current favorite is the Limelight Hydrangea, a new variety that has strong stems and is hearty to about 50 degrees below zero. Its large white blooms burst into flowers by July 15 and continue into fall before they dry on the stem to add some early winter interest. In their spacious home, the couple enjoys them year-round, with arrangements of dried flowers positioned throughout.

Twenty-five years after building his home, Larson can now spend his days enjoying the fruits of his hard-earned plant knowledge.