A life of hostas

CHESTERLAND, Ohio – While Peter Ruh was overseas in World War II, his young wife sat home reading Louis Bromfield and dreaming of the simple, but beautiful, life they would live.

“We’ll have chickens and pigs and live off the land,” she promised him in love letters.

When he returned three years later, they did just that. They bought a Guernsey and drank the cream, and bought sheep and spun the wool, and started a nursery next to their home in Geauga County.

Looking at the Ruhs, now in their 80s, and listening to their stories, and watching Jean Ruh as she says she found “that beautiful thing” with Pete when they were in just 10th grade, their life sounds like it was spun from a romance novelist’s pen.

All green. Sitting outside their quiet Dutch Colonial home, nestled between blooming gardens, life does seem idyllic.

Green is everywhere, the grass, the trees, the shrubs. And then there’s the home’s heart: hostas.

Under a 3-acre canopy of trees, the hostas thrive, climbing the yard’s gentle hills, spilling over rock walls and filling brick-lined gardens.

More than 1,800 varieties grow here, in hundreds of shades of greens and whites and yellows, some with leaves as big as elephant ears and others the size of a woman’s palm.

Some are common and found in shady spots all across town. Some are grandiose and named after Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland and grow in a special presidential garden. And one is so rare it grows here and only one other known place in the world.

All make up the couple’s Homestead Division – part hobby, part business, part passion.

Making it happen. The Ruhs spent their lives doing exactly what they wanted: gardening.

In 1946, Pete came home from the war and the couple began making their years-worth of dreamy letters a reality.

They moved to Chesterland, Ohio, and jumped into the nursery business.

Backed by Pete’s gardening love and Jean’s Ohio State horticulture degree, their excitement carried the nursery in its early days.

“There were lots of challenges, but we thought we could do everything. We were never discouraged,” says Jean.

Young, still giddy from being reunited and buoyed by thoughts of dirt under their nails, they built Sunnybrook Nursery.

But the hostas didn’t come along until the late 1970s, when the couple was ready to retire.

Although Pete and Jean spent years growing plants for everyone else’s flower beds, they never took time for their own gardens.

Now it was time.

Pete has a thing for collecting, Jean admits, and he got swept up in hostas.

From the sound of things, Jean also got carried away.

In 1975, the couple joined the American Hosta Society and were soon traveling to a convention in Minnesota.

On the way home they made a quick stop in Oshkosh, Wis., to see a lady about a hosta.

“When we saw everything she had, it just ran away from us,” Jean said.

She rode the rest of the 500-mile trip home in the passenger seat of their Volkswagen Rabbit with $1,000 worth of hostas in her lap.

A collection. Most of the hostas in the “collection,” as they call it, started from a single plant they divided and replanted across their gardens.

And every once in awhile, when they order a seed and plant it, something strange comes up.

This was the case many years ago when Pete planted a seed packet, and an unknown hosta came up. It turned yellow in the spring and was unlike anything hosta growers had seen.

Pete got out a shovel and moved the plant to a special spot by itself, and then registered it with the American Hosta Society.

Soon a Dutch company got wind of the phenomenon growing in small-town northeast Ohio and came for a look.

The company wanted to make it available to homeowners everywhere, and paid the Ruhs $5,000 for the hosta’s rights.

First, it went to Georgia, but hosta hunters were looking for the marvel, so the company took it to Holland, Pete said.

They haven’t heard from the company or seen the hosta since. Except for one clump still sitting in their garden.

Changing. They started out as a mail-order business without competition, but things are changing from the days when Jean rode eight hours hugging pots of hostas.

Now Pete has a pacemaker and Jean has two fake knees. They speed across their garden paths in golf carts, and it takes a little longer to weed the flower beds.

But business is busier than ever.

The walk-in, retail business has tripled over the last few years, and customers show up on the Ruhs’ doorstep even when they’re closed.

And they swore they wouldn’t sell hostas in containers, but with all the business, there’s no choice.

“We’re ground growers and ground growers like having plants grow in the ground,” Jean said. “You can never grow a hosta in a container like you can in the ground.”

They haven’t had a choice, though. It’s too hard to take all the customers out to the gardens and let them pick their hostas and then dig them up.

As it is, the Ruhs offer several hundred varieties a year at their home and through their catalog. If they sold any more of the 1,800 they grow, it would be overwhelming, they say.

The man and legend. Pete’s a bit of a legend in hosta circles.

He’s registered 350 hostas of the 2,800 on the books.

Not only did he grow the patented Yellow Flash, he also was the second recipient ever of the Alex Summers medal, honoring a hosta hot shot.

The first winner was Summers himself.

Foreshadowing. Fifty-eight years after Pete returned from the war, the Ruhs are still living out their dreams.

Perhaps young Jean even read this passage from her mentor Louis Bromfield in his 1948 book, Malabar Farm: “A well-managed small place with vegetables, fruit trees, chickens, perhaps a pig or two and a cow provides not only a source of large saving in the family food budget, but it also is a source of health, recreation, outdoor life and general contentment for the whole family.”

Maybe Bromfield should have included hostas in that list, too.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

A chance to visit

Visit Homestead Division June 26-27 during its annual Hosta Weekend, which will include tours, workshops and a lecture by London’s Mike Shadrack.

*      Location:

      Homestead Division

      9948 Mayfield Road

      Chesterland, OH 44026


*      Hours (May-August):

      Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

      Group tours available by appointment


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