Plants, People and Place
On a Sunday morning in early spring, parakeets are chirping somewhere in Helmi’s Gardens as the wind picks up and buffets the plastic on the greenhouse outside. The warm morning sun causes the roof to creak and shift as it expands in the slow heat. Tropical plants, potted trees and the occasional antique almost fill the space between it and the concrete below where seedlings and recently planted cuttings cover almost every square inch of floor space, leaving only a narrow path.
“It’s a little cramped in here right now,” says Helmi Sheely, the resident green thumb at the garden center just south of Columbia.
Origins of a Green Thumb
Born in Germany, Sheely immigrated to the United States with her parents and siblings when she was small, first to New York, then New Orleans and eventually to Salem, Mo. It was in New Orleans she says she discovered her knack for growing things. She joined the local African Violet Society and started growing the violets in her bedroom.
“They’d do shows in the local malls. They’d score them and I’d win,” she says. “It used to make these old ladies so mad. I was the youngest African violet society lady by like 40 years, easily.”
Her secret? Fish. “I had a fish tank in my room, and I would use the fish tank water to fertilize. It did really well. I’d tell everybody, ‘Fish tank water is the best thing ever.’ ” But the ladies were not as amused.
At 50, she still shares her secrets when customers have questions.
“There is no common question. You get all sorts of questions. Basically people—now with phones, which is nice—they come in with a picture of a spot in their yard. They want something for that spot, and they’ll say ‘What can I put here?’ And so we’ll walk around and find out what they like, what their level of interest is and, you know, you go from there.”
A horticulturalist for more than 20 years, Sheely has nurtured the landscapes of prominent clients and local businesses in addition to managing Superior Garden Center for 10 of those years and hosting “The Garden Spot” on KFRU for a couple. But, Sheely had to find her way back to her passion early on after getting her first bachelor’s degree in business economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“I always liked plants. I always had a little garden at every house we had, a vegetable garden,” she says. “That was one of the reasons I had such a hard time. I got out of school. I had an economics degree. My dad was a CPA and he wanted us all to help him in the business. I did it for a little while and I was like, ‘Oh my god I can’t stand this. I cannot imagine working that many hours of your life doing something you absolutely hate.’ So this is what I always liked. So, you just gotta figure out how to make a living at it.” She earned her plant science degree from MU in the early 1990s.
Even with her business degree, Sheely doesn’t care for that part of what she does. “Honestly … if I were happiest, I’d be picking around with the plants, but I don’t get to do that as much as I want to.” She credits the “good people” she works with keeping her on track.
“If she could do the job without having to worry about paying bills and the money, you know working the numbers she’d be much happier,” her husband Mark Sheely agrees. Mark is one of those “good people” she is talking about, along with her bookkeeper, her accountant and key staff members like Jeanne Clark, who works with merchandise, and Jan Sapp, who takes care of maintenance.
Bromeliads and Bob McConnell
For all of them, high season is ramping up. Foot traffic is increasing as homeowners, gardeners and those with and without a green thumb begin filtering in to find something to grow. That’s one of Sheely’s favorite parts about what she does.
“It’s nice that they hopefully get a plant that they can succeed with,” she says. “People feel like failures when they get plants that they don’t succeed with.
“Gardening should be fun. It doesn’t have to be just drudgery.”
This season Sheely is promoting bromeliads as the plant du jour. “They’re very trendy right now, very Pinterest,” she says while flipping through images on her phone of various varieties of the “air plant.” She also has some plants that are perhaps more novelty than trendy, like her corpse flower, amorphophallus titanum. “It’s just a cool thing to have,” Sheely says.
In addition to the plants, Sheely has always liked animals. (Remember the fish?) Cats for mousing, chickens, a handful of rabbits and a peacock call Helmi’s Gardens home. There are plant “pets,” too. “We have a lot of legacy plants that have been donated and propagate them back out and give [customers] pieces back that they can handle.” Sheely points out one she calls “Bob McConnell.”
“It’s just a brown turkey fig, which is a very common readily available fig, but we renamed the one we have ‘Bob McConnell,’ because his original plant is gone.”
Bob McConnell, known in local gardening circles, died in 2015. For many years, he had a fig tree for which he was known, growing in the ground in his greenhouse. “I have a little piece of his fig, his plant, that a lady brought in and said, ‘It’s just too big for me,’ ” Sheely says. “So now we’re propagating Bob’s fig, and it’s just fun to give it out to the gardeners in town because they remember Bob. … I think that’s what makes it fun. It’s the history of the town and the plants and your family.”
In the garden center, a Meyer lemon is blooming and several orange trees have fruit on them. The corpse flower is merely a bulb in dirt waiting for its season. Full of figs, Bob McConnell’s fig sit near the center, a smaller version of the original at McConnell’s Plantland. At night from the terrace on the hill south of town, downtown lights and Jesse Hall can be seen in the distance.
Sheely is creating a destination and propagating memories for her clients. She wants her garden center to be a place people remember when they’re old: “Remember that garden center we used to go to when we were kids?”