Approaching Walnut Hill Farm, about two miles south of Bangor at 43148 County Road 681, the eye goes first to the walnut tree. It's huge. About 200 feet across in limb span, in fact, and at a height that speaks of more than one century rooted in this land.
Then, turning into the drive between two houses, it is the roses that overtake the senses. Not just hundreds of them -- thousands. Joyce Latta and Tom Conklin, business as well as marital partners, grow about 1,500 roses in the soil of Walnut Hill Farm, and another 1,500 or so still in pots, ready for sale.
Conklin and Latta sit down in the shade near their herb garden (they grow more than roses on these 310 acres) and sip black current iced tea as they talk about their love of the flowers they grow and sell.
Conklin, born in Chicago, is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School -- a lawyer by degree, but with a heart full of blooms. He is an American Rose Society rosarian and a national rose judge.
Latta, born in Tulsa, Okla., is a licensed landscape architect, specializing in residential design. She earned a fine arts degree (in painting and photography) at the School of Art Institute in Chicago and studied at Cooper Union in New York City. Her work can be seen in displays at O'Hare Airport, John Hancock Center and the Xerox Building in Chicago, and her gardens will be featured in an upcoming issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
Both Conklin and Latta are certified arborists, renewing their credentials every three years, and licensed nurserymen and horticulturists.
"I practiced law but grew roses in my garden," Conklin says. "I have always loved to grow plants. I heard about a rose show once, so I put some stems into a vase and won a trophy." He laughs softly, eyes twinkling. "Joyce, however, hated roses."
Latta hears her cue. She chortles. She clearly enjoys telling the story of her time as a young student, working as an apprentice for a landscape architect with thousands of gorgeous roses.
"She (the landscape architect) called me one morning and told me to strip the leaves and flowers from all the roses. They'd become infected with Japanese beetles, and by stripping the roses to bare stems, the idea was that the beetles would have nothing to eat and would move on." She shrugs. "It worked."
Coming to roses as life work required more than a love of gardening and plants. It took the meeting, and then the union, of Conklin and Latta as a team.
"We met when I was designing a residential landscape for a wedding for one of Tom's neighbors in Chicago," Latta recalls. She was invited to the wedding and became friends with Tom -- and his wife.
Later, when Conklin's marriage was uprooted, he felt lonely and lost. "I prayed," Conklin says, that twinkle returning to his eye. "‘Lord, I have no idea how to find a woman. Please send me a good woman.' Not two minutes later, Joyce walked by and called through my open window—"
"Want to go for Mexican?" Latta calls.
One rose soon leafing into another, the two decided to look for a farm in 1997 and were struck by the beauty (and good prices) of land in Southwest Michigan.
"We were considering the 120 acres across the road," Latta says. "Walnut Hill Farm had a bid on it by a large, corporate factory hog farm. We attended a town meeting in Bangor to warn the community about the environmental damage that can happen to the area surrounding a factory farm. Property values would go down, small businesses would suffer. The community was outraged, and that caught the factory farm by surprise."
Once the Bangor community made it clear the corporate factory farm was not welcome, the hog farmers released the property, and Latta and Conklin put a full price offer in. It was accepted. Today, they own both farms, both sides of the county road.
"Our dream was to have a rose garden where we could grow hardy roses and educate people about how to grow them. We want people here to realize how beautiful Southwest Michigan is, and to connect people to nature again," the couple says.
"In many of those box stores, you're lucky if the sales clerk can tell you the price of a plant if the tag has fallen off," Latta says. "But we can tell you everything you need to know about how to grow a rose, and we are here if you ever have a question later on. People have become afraid of growing roses if they have had a bad experience, but roses are one of the oldest, hardiest plants ever grown. Our roses can last through Michigan winters."
"We don't cover the roses in winter," Conklin says. "None of those white Styrofoam covers that make the garden look like a rose cemetery." He shakes his head.
"Our roses are right for this kind of zone, this kind of weather," Latta says. "If you buy roses through the mail, or in a box, or at the checkout lane with naked roots, you are buying an expensive annual. We are here to share our excitement and our knowledge about plants. All our roses are grown in pots above ground, exposed all year so that they will survive when you plant them in your garden."
"Our roses have been grown as far north as the Arctic Circle," Conklin says.
The two often travel to give talks about roses to eager gardeners. Locally, they speak at the Kalamazoo Rose Society, Meijer Gardens
, Morton Arboretum, or garden clubs and rose societies throughout the Midwest.
"A prize rose has not yet fully opened, the petals are perfectly aligned with a high center coming to a point," Conklin says. "My favorite," he carefully picks a rose called "Granada" and holds it up, the two walking the gardens.
"Mine is the Marie Pavie." Latta holds up a frilly, soft pink rose in a tanned hand. She describes the layers of petals as "petticoats" and tsk-tsks at the older blossoms not yet pruned away.
"Oh, she is upset with me now. She's a prima donna." Latta bends over to begin cleaning away the wilted blossoms, fussing over the rose.
She straightens again, surveying the garden of a thousand roses. "This is my art."
Tom Conklin and Joyce Latta greet new and experienced gardeners at Walnut Hill Farm, and can be reached at 269-427-4010 or here
Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Hopkins and editor of the literary ezine The Smoking Poet.
Photos by Erik Holladay