By Abby Chatfield
Betsy Ernst gazed at a lobelia cardinalis while we spoke, admiring the perennial flower’s cardinal red blooms as she worked at Peninsula Perennial Nursery (PPN), the business she owns with her husband, Kris Ernst. The 20-acre nursery, located on Swede Road near Northport, cultivates and sells a variety of perennials, flowering shrubs and trees, ornamental grasses, and groundcovers suited for the 45th parallel’s climate.
“We try to take moments of gratitude,” Betsy said. “People are really friendly. They come in with unique ideas and issues. We are very happy to be here.”
PPN focuses on native plants and improved cultivars. You won’t find annuals, heated hoop houses, or rare plants at the nursery. The Ernsts insist on only selling well-adapted or native plants, shrubs and vegetation. “Cultivars in the nursery industry are bred for their different characteristics that promote more pollen, bloom time and sustainability,” Betsy said. “Native species can outgrow your area quickly, but cultivars are bred to stay within a normal space.”
PPN is open April through October, but the work cycle continues all year. They are currently preparing for their annual Labor Day sale taking place Aug. 24 – Sept. 2, when perennials and shrubs will be available at discount. Betsy mentioned they are also spending a lot of time taking cuttings from their perennials and growing them for next season. When the selling season ends, the Ernsts and their staff will make cutbacks and tightly pack up equipment into the hoop houses, a job that takes up to two months to complete. If all of the ordering, inventory, marketing assessments, and hiring for the next season is taken care of over the winter, the Ernsts will take a month to travel and relax before beginning the whole process again, starting with unpacking the hoop houses and setting back up, another two-month process.
PPN also offers landscape consultation and design services in Leelanau County. As a landscape design artist, Betsy looks at landscapes as canvases. “I look at everybody’s property as unique. Just like a painting, you wouldn’t paint the same one over and over.” Combining a certificate in Landscape Design with a B.F.A. in Art, Betsy blends horticulture with design using her knowledge of colors, textures and principles of design for spacing. Her work includes vineyards around Leelanau, including Good Harbor and Aurora’s outdoor areas. Most recently, Betsy designed the tasting rooms for Amoritas and French Valley Vineyards, projects that required a total redo of what was already started. For French Vineyards, Betsy was tasked with recreating a French garden. She went back into history to see how to blend lavender, roses, evergreens and other plants together. She was also hired by the Bahle family to choose the exterior colors for their commercial properties along Suttons Bay’s main shopping corridor. Ernst is currently working with the Bluebird to redesign the outdoor area near the establishment’s boat slips and dock along the Leland River.
The Ernsts work closely with Leelanau Lawn & Irrigation, Serenity Landscapes, and Peninsula Planting on many of the jobs. It is their son-in-law, Joey Thomas, owner of Peninsula Planting and employee at PPN, who plants the majority of their trees and shrubs. Next September Thomas will marry Megan, the Ernsts’ youngest daughter who currently resides in Leelanau County. Their other daughter and her family live in Indiana, Kris’ childhood home.
Kris is a third-generation plant guru whose own grandfather moved to Ohio from Germany to start a fruit orchard. Although successful, Kris’ father moved his family to Muncie, Indiana, where he established a nursery and Kris gained his understanding and appreciation for plant production.
Kris and Betsy met at Michigan State University in the 1970s, where Kris studied horticulture and Betsy studied art. During her senior year of college, Betsy signed up for MSU’s summer art program that took place at the Old Art Building in Leland. She rented a room from the Sporks just outside of Suttons Bay and had to ride a bike to and from classes in Leland every day. At the end of the course, Kris picked her up to camp at Leelanau State Park. On the way, they drove by Charters Greenhouses in Northport and struck up a conversation with the new owner, who admitted he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t long before they moved up in 1977, with Kris as the Charter’s new manager. Three years later, they bought the business and renamed it North Country Gardens.
Betsy imagined herself making a living as a potter, but she soon fell into the nursery business alongside her husband. They traveled to Europe to trust gardens and came up with the idea for a tea room and garden with art and pottery, which increased traffic flow to their business. After several years, it got to the point in the landscaping business that you needed an investor, but partnership didn’t work out. So they moved to Grand Rapids for work. Betsy also earned her Master’s degree in art education and worked as an art teacher while downstate.
As their kids moved on, the Ernsts felt they had enough energy to move into a third career. Moving back to Leelanau in 2015, they purchased 10 acres from an old cherry farm that has since turned into 30 acres. Although the land was cleaned up when they bought it, the acreage was in need of a complete renovation. They started by building a barn and hoop house infrastructure. After one year of cultivating plants, they opened in 2016.
Eight years later, the Ernsts find themselves helping to create some of the county’s future iconic landscapes and enjoying every second of life in Leelanau. A passion project that currently absorbs their free time involves planting trees to fight climate change. They are working to take back a field on PPN property and hope to turn it back into forest, planting 750 trees just this year. PPN and Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy are partnering to make it happen.
Betsy’s tip for the upcoming season is to plant your trees instead of waiting for spring. According to her, planting in the fall creates less stress on trees and requires less watering overall. The trees are able to put out root growth in the fall and establish themselves for winter.
And although it is hard to imagine any free time in the Ernsts’ schedules, Kris also operates Great Green Sources LLC, a wholesale nursery brokerage, while Betsy throws her creative energy into the Northport Arts Association as their board president. When not involved in the plant world or the local arts scene, the couple still makes time to enjoy the landscape they moved here for by visiting Christmas Cove Beach for a sunset swim. As Betsy resonated, “I see this business being here for a long time.”