Top Of The Hill
From Connecticut To Corn Hill
by Shelley Egan
Photographs: Alison Lounsbury, Bob Osborne
As co-owner of Corn Hill Nursery, Bob Osborne carries out community projects annually, but the 2015 project remains close to his heart. A teacher raising money for an outdoor classroom had approached him and others. Her vision dovetailed with his conviction that children should learn about the natural environment.
“The fundraising process seemed so convoluted that I just said I’d do it,” he says. “We took the whole landscape team plus others, and in two days we planted their garden — trees, shrubs, everything. The school ground was beaten gravel, so we created the landscape. Other people donated mulch and so on. We set big stones around to create a henge kind of surface so the kids could sit in a little outdoor classroom. It was really cool.”
When the work was done, everyone was invited inside for a picture. “They took us through this door,” he recalls, “and all of a sudden, we were at the front of the auditorium and the whole school was there. It was great. It almost brings tears to my eyes.”
Born in Connecticut, Bob moved to Markhamville, New Brunswick, with his wife Kathleen and friends Beth and Peter Powning in 1970. Enthralled by the beauty around him, he made furniture and began growing and grafting apple trees. In 1980 he and his family moved to Cornhill and planted their first crop.
Corn Hill Nursery produces and sells a wide variety of plant material. It lies in a quietly stunning agricultural area surrounded by low green hills. Nearby, beside the narrow road, a grassy knoll rolls up to the sky just like Bliss, that iconic wallpaper.
The closest city is 45 minutes away. Bob says the decision to build in such an isolated place was based on “blind optimism and naïveté.” He circulated pamphlets locally. “People were curious about what I was doing down here. My neighbour thought I was insane. He really did. I know he was laughing at me, not to my face, because he was a dairy farmer. As a dairy farmer, you know what you’re doing and it’s a way to make a living. But a nursery? There were no production nurseries in the province.”
The set-up was basic. “We had a ten-by-twelve hut with a cash box. We had no bathrooms. On a dirty day, people would dash in, get what they wanted and leave.” In 1999 they borrowed money to create an irrigation system and build a big processing building.
After learning about European nursery cafés, they built the Cedar Café in 2000. “It was either we build another hut or invest in a place like this,” he says. “It was a gamble. Not many more people visited the year after we put it in, but we doubled our retail sales. And I thought, ‘This is going to work.’ You make people comfortable. They come in and get a coffee or something. They wander outside and then they might get lunch. There are places to sit and read. The café creates a long stay.” A long stay indeed. Saturday- morning seminar attendees, catalogue in hand, can often be seen in the display gardens or retail area well after lunch.
Some people visit the nursery just for the astonishingly good food. Bob smiles. “It’s become its own thing.” On Mother’s Day, the busiest day of the year, between 240 and 300 people typically visit.
His woodworking skills and design flair are apparent. An espaliered apple tree graces one end of the weathered grey building, and a cupola tops the gabled roof. The plant-filled interior features exposed wooden beams and sensible tile floors. A second level and balcony accommodate group functions and more diners.
The café has a family-cottage meets fine-dining aesthetic. The menu includes wines, beers, a Pear and Blue Cheese Salad, their legendary Jalapeño Soup, German chocolate cake and delicious gluten-free food. Delicate flowers garnish carefully plated meals. Mellow tunes play through good speakers.
Outside, pizza is cooked in a wood-fired oven. People enjoy drinks under a shaded arbour. Moss-covered stones edge a small waterfall. Atop a stone table, rose blossoms float in ramekins so gardeners can choose their favourites.
The café does a brisk trade throughout the season. Why? “Excellence, presentation, quality and friendliness,” Bob says. “You never want a customer to walk away without saying, ‘Wow, that was something. That was so great.’” Fresh air, bird song and scenic vistas soothe city dwellers, and he loves watching first-timers arrive. “I see people kind of melt, and that’s one of the most satisfying things about the whole job. They often say, ‘I feel like I’m in Italy,’ and that’s what we wanted to create with this space, something that’s really laid back. I’m still naïve in the sense I believe in the old saying that when you build it, they will come. I’ve tried to create a world that’s where I want to be all the time. I want to be eating good food, drinking great wine, sitting outside, listening to water gurgling, smelling flowers and meeting interesting people. This is where I want to be happy and to make other people happy.”
Bob attributes part of the nursery’s success to the information staff provide. When asked about the perfect rose, he says there isn’t one: “A lot of it is the plant that fits the site, the soil, the light and then the colour scheme or whatever. If somebody wants to plant a Royal Red maple, we’ll ask about the site and may tell the customer that that tree wouldn’t survive there. People are thankful for that kind of information. We want them to succeed, right? That’s key to people coming back.”
And he credits his staff for creating a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. “I have the most amazing staff in the world. It’s like a community. The rush for me is that everybody’s so into it. There are no foremen. There is no boss. Everyone, hopefully, is treated with the same respect. We talk about this too. You don’t have to like the person but you need to have respect, and you need to understand that every single person is important. Everybody, integrated, creates what we do.”
The business has four revenue streams. The biggest is selling trees, shrubs and perennials wholesale, mostly to landscape contractors. Retail sales during the season — which Bob describes as “short but very intense: June, July, August, September and a little bit on either side of that” — are a close second. Landscaping generates cash when the nursery slows in late summer. And mail-order sales, mostly roses, bring winter revenue.
To keep people coming back, he creates “fresh ideas and fresh things” and encourages staff to provide ideas. The menu changes and something happens almost every weekend. He’s seeing many new faces and praises the employees who look after his social media. Events like the Solstice Party, Artists in the Garden and the Maritime Cider Festival attract crowds, and at least two seminars, on topics like pruning and flower arranging, occur monthly.
The first offering of a new seminar, Growing and Curing Cannabis for Home Use, took place in September 2019. It sold out and so did two more. “People are interested,” Bob says. “I have a true expert on growing cannabis so people get the right information. If you’re going to grow it, find out how to grow it. It’s the same if you’re talking about roses. It just made sense to do it.”
The nursery also offers landscape design and installation, specializing in “the creation of unique structures in wood and stone” — slate patios, sandstone walls, cedar decks, entryways. “It’s so much about the texture,” he says. “What a building or a landscape is made of makes so much difference in the way you react to it.” The nursery received awards from Landscape New Brunswick in 2006, 2008 and 2017.
Since 1993 he has hosted the Corn Hill Chronicles, a personal essay and gardening phone-in show on CBC Radio. He says, “It’s weird but I have a little following. Admittedly, it’s a small place in a small province, but it’s a tiny soapbox where I may be able to affect people’s thinking. I’m trying to make people aware of the natural world, of what’s happening around them. And hopefully offering proposals or solutions, what people as individuals can do. It’s nobody’s fault that we’re in this ecological situation, but we have a part to play in changing things.”
Bob understands the connection between habitat destruction and diversity: “We need to respect the earth and understand that it supports us and that we do, at our peril, keep destroying it. We’ve almost destroyed the Acadian forest system here. You support all the fauna with the flora you have, so if you don’t have what warblers need, they disappear. It would behoove us to pay attention to what warblers need — and so forth. Habitat destruction is the number one reason we’re losing diversity, and we’re losing species.
“Deer have supplanted insects as being the number one ‘pests,’” he says. The nursery’s deer-resistant plant list is now obsolete. “A guy going down the list said, ‘Well, they ate mine. They ate mine…’ When I started this business, everybody wanted to know about the holes in their leaves, right? Now it’s like, ‘I’ve got no leaves at all.’”
Bob’s radio show, articles and books (the long-awaited third edition of his hardy rose book came out this spring) have made him a big fish in a little pond. That sometimes feels uncomfortable. A visitor recently said, “You’re more of a Maritimer than most Maritimers. You came and gave a talk. You didn’t push catalogues on us, bring product or talk about the beautiful café here. You just talked about plants.” He says, “If I’m talking to a garden club, I’m not there to sell myself or to sell the nursery really. It drives my people crazy because they think I should.” The young couple who created the nursery forty years couldn’t have imagined that it would become such an oasis. When asked why so many are willing to travel so far, Bob says, “I guess it’s a testament to the value they place on the material, the service and the ambience.
Many were pretty skeptical because this is a small place. We don’t have millions of people around us to feed the café. But this is a happy place. And most people who come here come here because it’s so happy — because there are flowers, good food, friendly people and a beautiful landscape. Our very isolation makes us more interesting, more beautiful and so forth. You can actually hear the birds. If we were in or near a city, it would be very difficult to create the same kind of feel we have here.”
Hardy Roses: The Essential Guide for High Latitudes and Altitudes is available now.
Photos: Beth Powning. Publisher: Firefly Books. cornhillnursery.com
Facebook: @cornhill.nursery Instagram: @cornhillnursery, @cornhillcedarcafé