Nurseryman and author Lewis Hill was a young man not yet out of high school when he started growing plants for sale. Raised on a dairy farm in Greensboro, Vermont, his independent streak was allowed to flourish, he says, because he was the youngest of 11 children and his parents -- out of necessity -- gave him free rein. He used it wisely.
The lovely summers in Greensboro drew a summer population, and enterprising Lewis began growing annuals and perennials, and rhubarb, raspberry, and blackberry plants on his own plot of land on the farm for the summer folks to pop into their gardens when they arrived. He was especially fond of fruiting plants, and eventually he set about propagating and selling some of the 50 old varieties of apple trees, along with other fruits that grew on the farm that has been in his family for 200 years. Lewis had found his life's work. "A few of my older relatives had big orchards and gardens, and I learned from them," says Lewis. "There weren't many books, so I spent lots of time experimenting."
Lewis was operating his first nursery, Hillcrest, when he married his wife and partner, Nancy. Since then, they have founded two more retail nurseries, including one specializing in daylilies and their current enterprise, Berryhill, where he indulges his passion for small fruits -- gooseberries, elderberries, currents, high bush cranberries, honeyberries, seaberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Nancy came to the partnership with a background as an English teacher and editor, and before long she and Lewis began passing the long Vermont winters, when the nurseries were closed, by writing gardening books. Their down-to-earth style comes through in books about pruning, plant propagation, bulbs, cold-climate gardening, perennials, fruits and berries, and their newest -- The Flower Gardener's Bible, which is their sixteenth book. "We have to keep busy or people get suspicious," chuckles Lewis.
Eventually the popularity of their first nursery, Hillcrest, spurred Lewis and Nancy to start a new venture. They felt strongly about keeping their business friendly and personal, and that proved difficult to manage when their nursery grew too big. "One Mother's Day we had 400 people visit and we barely had time to say hello to them," says Lewis. Wishing to start small again, the Hills sold Hillcrest and started Vermont Daylilies. Lewis and Nancy developed new varieties on their quest for unusual colors, big flowers, ruffled edges, and the elusive blue daylily. Within 10 years that business also had grown too big for them, so they sold it and founded Berryhill. They are trying to keep Berryhill manageable, and the neighbors must have caught on because they've been known to tell passersby that the nursery isn't open to the public. "We aren't interested in selling plants as much as trying to get other people to grow them," says Lewis.
He and Nancy have been giving gardening workshops for years, and now he passes along practical tips about growing small fruits while Nancy passes around the fruit-laden baked goods. "I like gooseberries best for eating," says Lewis. "British varieties are as big as small grapes. But you have to cook and sweeten black currents and elderberries to appreciate them," he adds. Lewis and Nancy have been growing and selecting the best of the black currents and have named two new varieties: Nancy May and Hillcrest Black, which are only available from their nursery.
Lewis hardly ever met a berry he didn't like, but seaberry put him to the test at first. Also known as sea buckthorn, this plant was an introduction from Russia, where for years small fruits have been getting the attention of roses in this country. "When I first tasted seaberry, I almost pulled up the plants," says Lewis. "But a neighbor woman from Germany got all excited about them and told me what to do." The berries have to freeze, and then they become very juicy. The juice is 7 times higher in vitamin C than lemons, and its use as a healthful tonic dates back to Alexander the Great. Lewis and Nancy have added it to their health regime, which also includes a daily glass of another healthful berry juice -- elderberry. Judging by all they have accomplished, the tonic might be worth a try.
Article published on June 23, 2008.