COMMANDA – Judy and Jim Merrick are getting back to their roots. But when the couple bought property in Almaguin to start a flower farm, they had no idea just how close to those roots they would come.
Hundreds of tiny pots hold the sprouts of what will become beautiful plants at Commanda Country Garden.
Judy’s ancestors had been some of the first settlers in the Commanda area, owning hundreds of acres on Barrett Road.
The couple searched the area for the perfect property for the better part of the 1980s before settling on a 200-acre parcel on Alsace Road with a fully restored farmhouse built in 1878.
When Judy called her mother to tell her the good news, she found out the property they purchased had originally belonged to Judy’s great-grandfather, Adam Grabowski.
“I knew my grandfather had owned the land next door, but I didn’t know anything about this house,” explained Judy.
“Back then, they could only get 100-acres and then when each male child turned 12, they could apply for another 100,” she said, noting it was assumed the male would eventually take over the additional 100 acres. “That’s how the area was settled.”
According to Judy, the neighbourhood has much historical significance for her family. Her parents first met while her mom was still living at home next door.
“My dad was the mailman,” she explained. “She was only 18 when they got married.”
Having purchased the property in 1987, the Merrick’s moved in two years later with their five children, the youngest being eight at the time.
Today, the property is home to Commanda Country Gardens – a business that has flourished over the years.
The Merricks started selling their perennials, herbs and native plants grown from their own seed at the Powassan farmers’ market in 1990. When the market started to dwindle, Jim ventured north and was one of the founding members of the North Bay farmers’ market, now celebrating its tenth year. In addition to those markets, Commanda Country Garden products are now available at the market in Port Loring as well, each plant having grown on the farm under the watchful eye of the Merricks.
“I just love to see the plants grow from seeds,” said Jim, who also offers landscape and design work using the plants from the farm, which are specially selected for the area’s unique temperatures. “We grow in the flower beds as a trial for two years just to make sure they can survive the weather in the north.”
Blossoming from humble beginnings, the garden centre now grows more than 1,000 species, including specialty types, and the Merricks’ devotion to gardening knows no bounds. The duo brings home seed from everywhere they visit, including a recent trip to Mexico, just to try them out.
“We don’t have a lot of the same type, but that’s what keeps it interesting for us,” said Judy.
The upkeep of plants from seed to flower takes great care and the Merrick’s do it all organically, including making their own soil mix with compost from the farm. They also don’t use any chemicals on the plants.
“We like to work with nature not control it,” said Judy.
After losing 3,000 plants to mice, the farm also took on a natural form of pest control with their resident cats Flora and Ebony, who are valued members of the family.
In order to stay “green,” the Merricks control the temperature in their greenhouse manually, which cuts down on energy-use, but is time consuming.
“In a big greenhouse this would all be done by computer, but we do it the old fashioned way,” said Jim.
According to the Merrick’s, a lot of the plants purchased in Ontario have been shipped in from elsewhere, but they said people seem to like buying locally grown products.
“We didn’t realize people would drive all the way here to buy plants,” said Judy, noting they have customers from Sudbury and further north, as well as cottagers who take the plants home with them. “We just grow what we like and people don’t seem to mind. They say the plants live well in the north.”
The success of the business isn’t a compete surprise, considering Jim’s background in horticulture. He got his start working at the famous Dale Estates, which defined Brampton as the flower city of Canada, before branching out on his own with a landscape design company the pair ran together.
“It was very successful,” said Judy of the landscape business. “We were doing well on paper, but the fun had gone out of it.”
As the Brampton-based business grew to employ a crew of 10, the Merrick’s found themselves dealing more with the business end of things and less with actual landscaping.
“I spent most of my day in an office on the phone,” said Judy, noting the couple’s love for Almaguin culture has kept them content in their decision to move north.
“We’re not city people. We like to visit, but we like the quiet, slower pace here,” she said.
As Commanda Country Gardens grew, Judy continued to work as a teacher off and on to make ends meet.
“I’ve resigned three times,” said Judy with a laugh. “We didn’t want to borrow a lot of money to grow the business, so we used the money from teaching as our bread and butter.”
With more than two decades invested into their gardens, the Merricks plan to keep the business in the family.
The couple’s youngest daughter Jenny and her husband Brett Hanson purchased the home next door with plans of eventually taking over the business.
“She took a course in ecological restoration and part of it was on greenhouses,” said Judy. “One night she called her dad and said, ‘why didn’t you tell me I liked this stuff?’”
In addition to selling plants, the Merrick’s also send knowledge home with the gardener on how to properly care for the plants and they offer a one-year replacement guarantee on all of their perennials.
The garden centre, located at 3507 Alsace Rd., is open from Mother’s Day right through to September.
For more information, call 705-729-5714.