SYCAMORE – Joel and Joan Barczak met during their days studying horticulture at Kishwaukee College in 1981 when, after class, Joel boldly asked Joan for a ride home, and, as he says, “the rest was history.”
The married duo are celebrating 30 years at their popular garden center and banquet spot Blumen Gardens, 403 Edward St. They credit their education at Kishwaukee, their love of plants and the house across the street for the success of their business and their marriage.
“That’s the bond: horticulture,” Joel, 61, said. “Everything else, the garden center, event stage, everything came off of gardening.”
Originally from the southwest side of Chicago, Joel went to Northern Illinois University for marketing and business. He sold Spam for Hormel for two years, traveling across Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri, before deciding to return to his old stomping grounds in DeKalb County and attend Kish College.
“The first day of class was Aug. 24, 1981, I remember because it was Joan’s birthday,” Joel said. “The teacher called her to the front of the class to embarrass her.”
“He actually hit me up for a ride,” Joan, 68, recalls. “I thought it was quite odd that anyone would go to Kishwaukee and live in DeKalb and not have a ride home. But that’s the salesman in him.”
In retrospect, Joel says it actually was Joan’s love of gardening that sparked the idea for the garden center. After Kishwaukee, her career took her to Elgin, then to St. Charles, where she did garden designs for a nursery and cared for the plants. Meanwhile, Joel traveled to the Chicago Botanic Garden, and then to a horticultural apprenticeship in Muenster, Germany, where Joan briefly joined him.
“We’re just a couple of plant nerds,” he said. “When you’re into plants, you kind of vacation around them.”
In September 1988, the two had returned to DeKalb County, married and had their first daughter. They purchased a yellow house, built in 1873, right across from what would become Blumen Gardens, a building built in 1860, originally as a factory and then used as a weigh station for railroads.
“We started the business in our backyard, and started to rent part of the gardens [across the street],” Joan said. “Retail just kind of happened because we grow our own perennials and we’d have them out, and people would stop by and asked if they could buy them.”
In 1999, the Barczaks bought a portion of Blumen Gardens, the small, white shop that is now part of their retail space. Steadily, as business grew, they purchased more of the space, eventually landing the whole thing. Over the next 20 years, the couple kept busy renovating the space.
Now they employ about 38 people during the growing season, with minimum staff during the winter. Their daughter Jill is managing the retail side of the family business. They have four children total, including two from Joan’s previous marriage.
“Our children were always involved because they had no choice,” Joan said, laughing.
Blumen Gardens sits on four and a half acres, with a nursery for growing perennials; two retail shops with a plethora of home and garden decor; a rustic event banquet hall for weddings, fundraisers and other events; a design studio; and landscape services.
“Instead of making it look like a garden center, we obviously made it look more like a garden,” Joel said. “There’s brick [in the building] from downtown Sycamore in 1905.”
After three decades in the industry, the Barczaks aren’t stopping anytime soon, partly due to Joel’s inspiring outlook on the industry.
“Many of the social ills of the world could be solved through gardening,” Joel said. “Working outside, growing your own food, great exercise. It’s very fulfilling.”
The two have got some plans blooming for their 30th year in business, and will be making announcements soon on their website and social media pages.
“Blumen Gardens is a bit of a mecca for gardeners. We like bringing people together,” Joel said. “That’s what Blumen Gardens is about.”