Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: An expert plantsman takes the reins at Sugarloaf Gardens

  • Sugarloaf Gardens manager Dan Ziomek checks on a autumn blaze maple tree Thursday morning in Sunderland. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • The Sugarloaf Gardens team on Thursday morning in Sunderland: manager Dan Ziomek, from left, Ryan Schneider, Olyvia Houston, Mya Houston and Val Miller. PHOTOS FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Sugarloaf Gardens manager Dan Ziomek moves a Kousa dogwood on Thursday morning in Sunderland. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • A hibiscus in full bloom at Sugarloaf Gardens on Thursday morning.

  • Sugarloaf Gardens manager Dan Ziomek on Thursday morning in Sunderland. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Sugarloaf Gardens manager Dan Ziomek waters a row of hydrangeas Thursday morning in Sunderland. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Sugarloaf Gardens manager Dan Ziomek checks on a autumn blaze maple tree Thursday morning in Sunderland. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Starting last year, Dan Ziomek began laying out Sugarloaf Gardens on the site of the former Sugarloaf Nurseries for the owners, Kyle Snow and Sons Landscaping.

For the Gazette
Published: 8/11/2022 3:31:50 PM
Modified: 8/11/2022 3:28:35 PM

After 35 years in the nursery business, including as manager of Hadley Garden Center and later at Wanczyk Nursery, Dan Ziomek is more passionate than ever about plants. Last year, when Kyle Snow of Snow and Sons Landscaping asked Ziomek if he’d be interested in creating and managing a plant nursery on an 8-acre site in Sunderland, he accepted immediately.

 

For someone with Ziomek’s knowledge and experience, it’s a dream job.

Snow’s vision was to launch a new nursery that would be open to the public while also serving as the central supply warehouse for his business, which has clients throughout Hampshire and Franklin counties.

 

“Instead of going all over the place to pick up plants, Snow’s people come here, we load up their trucks and off they go,” said Ziomek, adding that Snow’s has around 130 employees on the road every day. “It saves them a lot of time, and of course, time is money.”

After months of planning and hard work, Sugarloaf Gardens opened for business last March on the site of the former Sugarloaf Nurseries, which closed five years ago. One of Ziomek’s favorite things about his new job is the opportunity to experiment with different arrangements and layouts.

 

“This was an entirely clean slate when we started last year,” he said. The generous space allows for wide, straight paths throughout the nursery. He explained that at Hadley Garden Center, where he worked for 32 years, the constricted space meant that the layout was the same year after year.

 

“It’s fun for me to do this, to lay it out from scratch,” he said. “It’s interesting even though I’ve done it for so many years.”

Ziomek, who grew up in Amherst, said he’s been around plants all his life. He spent a lot of time working at his uncle’s farm and small nursery business in North Amherst. He received a degree in nursery management from SUNY Cobleskill and went on to get a bacheleor’s degree in plant and soil science at UMass Amherst.

 

In 1988, he became the manager of Hadley Garden Center, where he worked for 32 years. When itwas taken over by Gardener’s Supply, he moved up the road to Wanczyk Nursery, where he worked for a year and a half before going into business for himself.

Ziomek has approached his new position at Sugarloaf Gardens with enormous dedication and enthusiasm.

 

“Our goal is to provide great quality and a great selection,” he said. “With my expertise I can do that. That’s why Kyle wanted me. Snow’s is a very well-known and respected business. If they do a job, they do it right. They don’t pinch pennies, and they make sure everything they do looks good.”

To ensure the high quality of the nursery’s plant stock, Ziomek deals only with reliable sources who provide expert care for their plants.

 

“If trees and shrubs are started well and pruned properly they’re more likely to thrive,” he said, pointing to a row of sturdy, well-balanced redbud trees. Ziomek has established a reliable network of suppliers, from western New York to North Carolina. “I trust that they’re selling me a good tree,” he said.

Once the plants arrive at the nursery, Ziomek and his team ensure that they are well cared for. An automatic sprinkler system waters the shrubs and the trees have drip irrigation. Perennials are watered with a hose. The plants are sheared back occasionally or pruned to shape them and fertilizer is applied periodically to help themstay healthy and vigorous.

In addition to carefully maintaining the plants, Ziomek said it’s equally important to maintain good personal relationships with his salespeople and his owner.

 

“I count on them to tell me if something doesn’t look right,” he said. “It really helps you in the long run. This business isn’t Amazon. Plants are different. It’s not like ordering a pair of shoes.”

Customer satisfaction is paramount to Ziomek. When a person comes in looking for plants, he starts by asking about their growing conditions.

 

Do they have sun or shade? Is the area wet or dry? Is the soil sandy or clay? Next, he asks what sorts of plants they’re interested in. For fledgling gardeners, he recommends plants that are easy to grow, such as panicle hydrangeas, spirea, weigela, daylilies, sedums, catmint and salvias.

 

“It’s important to provide customers with what will work for them,” Ziomek said. “I don’t think it’s right to sell a wagon load of plants just to get rid of them. Every situation is different — you need to get the right plant into the right place.”

Sugarloaf Gardens’ extensive acreage allows Ziomek to stock a wide selection of plants, including many pollinator-friendly varieties and native shrubs and perennials.

 

As we toured the nursery, Ziomek noted certain plants that he thinks are underappreciated, including the Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodiummiconioides). This is a small tree whose attractive exfoliating bark, late-summer white flowers and bright pink seedpods provide year-round interest. “It’s a neat plant that not many people know about,” he said.

Ziomek and Snow have ambitious plans for Sugarloaf Nursery. In September, Ziomek will host a series of educational programs for the public. Topics will include how to plant a tree, including a demonstration; putting the garden to bed for the winter; and plants that attract birds.

The business also intends to build a greenhouse next year so that it can grow and sell organic vegetables, fruits and flowers. The operation’s five-year plan calls for a retail store that will be open year-round.

 

Ziomek also wants to have a shop on site offering bird feeders and birdwatching equipment to the growing number of birding enthusiasts in the area. As many Valley residents know, birds are Ziomek’s other lifelong passion. He regularly leads birdwatching trips, both locally and out of state, and guides a nighttime “Owl Prowl” to benefit the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst.

“We’re not a flash-in-the-pan operation,” Ziomek said. “We’re in it for the long haul. We’d like to make this place a destination spot.”

Sugarloaf Gardens currently has six employees, all of whom are experienced and knowledgeable about plants. Ziomek refers to his co-manager, Olyvia Houston, as “the brains of the operation,” explaining that she handles all the computer work, including the point of sale system, which allows for an instant check on inventory.

“I know my plants and how to help customers,” he said, “but computers baffle me,” he acknowledges.

Although the nursery is well-staffed at the moment, he’s always looking for well-qualified employees. “I’d like to take a day off next spring,” he said, smiling.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.


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