The Glasshouse has Closed

After 46 years in the mail order business, we sadly say goodbye to Glasshouse Works of Stewart, Ohio. The remaining founder, Ken Frieling (left), passed away on May 3, at the age of 79. Ken was preceded in death by his partner, Tom Winn (right) in 2013. Tom and Ken were both former teachers, but self-taught horticulturists, who saw their part-time greenhouse business take off to the point that they gave up their teaching gigs in 1998 to run the business full-time. To say Tom and Ken were obsessive about plants is a grand understatement.

Glasshouse Works was anything but your normal nursery. It operated on a propagate-on-demand model. Once they received your order, they propagated the plant. While this helped keep their costs low, it drove many customers mad, who were used to receiving plants as soon as they ordered them. Before on-line sales were a thing, I’d spend days going through their eclectic newsprint catalogs, filled with thousands of rarities from around the world. If there was a plant that you couldn’t find anywhere else, you went to Glasshouse Works.

Their nursery was made up of several adjacent properties that they purchased through the years, including an 1875 hotel, that served as their office. In and around the houses were their amazing, brilliantly-designed gardens of rare treasures, all ringed by a cacaphony of small greenhouses. This was the first time I’d seen a plant collectors garden, laid out and designed so beautifully. Their amazing drift of one design would become a great influence on my own garden design philosophy.

My first trip in 1992 left me dazzled, as did numerous trips in the years after. My most vivid memory was being rushed into one of their off limits greenhouses as soon as I exited by car, to see their first flowering of the turquoise vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), which fortunately coincided with my visit. It took so long for me to absorb everything in the garden, I’d sometimes get invited to join them for a late lunch in their home on the property, which provided a great opportunity to share nursery war stories.

Strongylodon macrobotrys

In 1998, we arrived with a bus load of 50 crazed gardeners, each departing with an armload of treasures. Each time I visited in the later years, it was evident that Tom and Ken were becoming more and more overwhelmed, as the formerly immaculate garden began to decline in maintenance, followed by the greenhouses. On latter trips, they explained that when their old greenhouses became too much of an overgrown jungle, they just abandoned them, left a sprinkler inside, and simply built another nearby.

Glasshouse Works abandoned greenhouse

After Tom’s death in 2013, we all thought Ken would close the business, but instead, with the help of dedicated friends, he soldiered on, even dramatically upgrading the formerly ADD-prone, eye-straining website. Forty-six years, and well over 100,000 plants shipped all over the world is one incredible feat. My hat is off to two amazing people, that I was so blessed to know and call friends. What a gift you shared with the horticultural world!

13 thoughts on “The Glasshouse has Closed”

  1. Suzanne R Dworsky

    Thank you so much for sharing this tribute to your friends at Glasshouse Works. The images were inspiring, especially the one of the Turquoise vine.

  2. I had forgotten about Glasshouse Works having not been there in over 20 years. It was always an interesting visit. Soto hear that it has shut the doors.

  3. Enjoyed the YT visit from Summer Rayne Oakes to PD/JLG. Regrettably she wasn’t able to visit and film Glasshouse Works in its prime.

  4. Marilyn Newman

    I am so sorry to learn Glasshouse has closed. I have been buying plants there for a number of years. I had a list of plant to order and just learned they closed.

  5. Gerald Stewart

    Thank you for this post, and the pictures. I have bought hundreds of plants from them, probably starting in the 1980s. Tom and I used to have hours long phone conversations, sharing nursery war stories. I learned about nurserymen in North San Diego County where I live from stories of Ken and Tom’s visits with them long before I moved here. I will miss not getting the two orders placed with them earlier this year. But I revel in an immense golden-leaf variegated Wisteria purchased from them long ago, a variegated species rose that commingles in a bronze-leaf plant, and other treasures that keeps them a part of my daily life.

  6. A sad loss for horticulture all around. The Coleus Society bought lots of their new creations over the years and sometimes we’d get a personal note from Ken with an experimental selection included to try out. They changed the world of many genera with their brilliant selections, cleverly named and described, but Coleus was one of their prime achievements with more than 40 named cultivars, some still very unique and other worldly.

  7. Debra Peterson

    Tony, I’m sorry to hear that your friend at Glasshouse Works passed away. As you said they offered a huge catalog of interesting plants, that I too, used to pour over for hours. Unfortunately, I was one of those gardeners that was driven crazy by their business model. I would place an order in late winter & months would go by without a word from them. Then, after I’d forgotten about the order entirely, a package would arrive. Inevitably the temperature in Florida was already in the 90’s and it was a real trick get the plants acclimated amidst torrential rains and hurricanes. I did not understand that they were propagated to order and stopped ordering out of frustration. I hope someone can salvage what sounds like an incredible collection.

  8. ANNIE GUTHRIE

    What a wonderful comment on these two fascinating gentlemen. I hope their home/ garden will be continued and open to the public.

    1. Unless there’s an endowment of around $5 million, there wouldn’t be funds to maintain and continue the garden.

  9. Richard Stickney

    I visited there in 1998 as well! I still have some plants I purchased them and I always enjoyed their website. Sorry no one could continue the business.

  10. I somehow stumbled onto Ken and Tom’s greenhouse on a hiking trip to Shawnee State Forest in the fall of 1980. They were not at home, but a neighbor was watching the place and gave my friend and fellow plant enthusiast a tour of their two? greenhouses. He wouldn’t sell us anything, so we returned in the spring, and added many beautiful plants to our collection, and met Tom and Ken. Such terrific guys; and always knowledgable and helpful. An annual trip from central Indiana to Stewart became a tradition.

  11. The Glasshouse Works Collections were amazing bargains. My place has many great plants that were <$10.

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