I'm ankle-deep in coral bells, squinting at a plant tag, mentally weighing the price against how much I really want Heuchera 'Amethyst Myst'. Yes, it's one of my favorites, but here at The Flower Factory, 15 miles south of Madison, Wisconsin, I can choose from 66 other varieties.
It's a happy problem. For that kind of selection, I take at least one road trip every spring. It feeds a gardener's primal urge: Must hunt for plants.
Boring but necessary stuff -- like potting soil -- I can get from a blocky building with a parking lot the size of Nebraska. But for stuff that grows, give me a destination. I'm not alone: More gardeners are shopping at a local garden center than a mass merchant, according to a recent survey by the Garden Writers Association.
Pictured at left: Nancy Nedveck, co-owner of The Flower Factory, holds one of nearly 100 hardy geranium varieties they sell.
Part of my fun is a lazy drive along a wooded country road where trees unfurl shimmering new leaves and I inhale the scent of freshly turned earth. My ideal garden center (sometimes called a nursery or farm) has a country-cute setting, display gardens and unusual plants. It's even better if there's a chicken scratching for grit, a friendly dog that comes over to sniff my feet and a style as charming as I'd like my own yard to have.
Pictured at left: Monches Farm, 15 miles northeast of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Monches Farm 
To plan my trip, I dredge the Internet and mine suggestions from friends. This year, I unearth a mother lode in southern Wisconsin. I craft a driving loop between Madison and Milwaukee, with the idea of hitting as many places as I can in just two days.
To haul everything, I rent a small SUV. It'd be more fun with a girlfriend, but none is available, so I settle for books on CD and set out from my Des Moines home.
Among the places on my itinerary: K&W Greenery , Janesville; Enchanted Valley Gardens , Evansville; The Flower Factory , Stoughton; Schonheit Gardens , Sun Prairie; Country Gardens Perennials, Oconomowoc, (920) 474-7324; Monches Farm , Colgate; Mayfield Nursery , West Bend; The Flower Source , Germantown; Minor's Garden Center , Milwaukee; Shady Acres Perennial Nursery , New Berlin; Yerke Frog Alley Greenhouses , Mukwonago; Wayne's Daughters , Caledonia; Mileaeger's , Racine and Sturtevant; Northwind Perennial Farm , Burlington.
One of my first stops is The Flower Factory near Stoughton. My fellow plant nerds rave about this farm, which has more than 4,000 varieties of hardy perennials -- one of the largest selections in the Midwest.
I park beside a 100-year-old red barn and gape at row after row of plastic-covered hoop houses packed with garden treasures. Luckily, there's a map. A scale-model train (left) rolls along a track near a weathered shed, and a sandbox awaits children.
The Flower Factory 
In the sales areas, I don't hold back. New to me: dragon's head (Dracocephalum grandiflorum). It grows in partial shade with intense blue flowers. The Flower Factory sells 10 types of dragon's head. Really, I'm restrained getting only one. The price for my signature plant, 'Rozanne' geranium (the Perennial Plant Association's 2008 plant of the year) is excellent: only $7.50 for a 4-inch pot. I've seen them sell for twice the price. I'd better get two.
I want more (that's me, pictured at left). I buy more -- oh, so much more -- but at some point, I stop. Must pace myself.
At Schonheit Gardens (left), just east of Madison, there's a sweet-tempered dog named Shadow. Red outbuildings. Nice display gardens. And 'Dre's Dagger' for my fern collection. Then I find the troughs, lightweight plastic containers that resemble real rocks cut in half. They'll look way cute with miniature conifers and rock garden plants. I nab three.
Schonheit Gardens 
Alliums and irises bloom in display beds at Schonheit Gardens. Purple looks so striking against the nursery's red buildings.
A short jaunt along winding, blacktop roads brings me to one of my all-time favorites: Monches Farm, 15 miles northeast of Oconomowoc.
The grounds ooze charm, overflowing with classical sculptures, urns and terra-cotta pots. Brick-lined paths lead to fields of potted plants.
Fancy chickens, including one that looks like it's wearing a large Russian fur hat, squawk near a stone coop. Elegant home decor fills a gift shop. Display beds and mature trees ring a farmhouse.
Monches Farm 
An iridescent peacock struts around at Monches Farm, sometimes cutting loose with an eerie shriek.
It's drizzling, but I don't care. I pull a red Radio Flyer wagon to haul my 'Raspberry Ice' pulmonaria (deer don't like the fuzzy leaves) and a 'Scaredy Cat' plectranthus. A flat of hot-pink verbena (left) all but jumps into my arms.
I hit more garden centers before I call it a night. The next morning, I check the soil of each pot, watering lightly if one seems too dry. Got to keep my babies happy.
At this point, my loop gets a little jagged. North of Mukwonago, Yerke Frog Alley Greenhouses devotes an entire greenhouse to organic vegetables. I choose tomato plants and give the place mental points for its red barn. At the checkout, I smile when I overhear a customer tell her friend: "I don't smoke. I don't drink. So I buy plants."
I drive to garden centers in Caledonia and Racine, then move on toward Burlington. I thrill at the sight of puffy white clouds in clear blue skies and Holsteins grazing green grass. It's a living Wisconsin postcard.
By the end of the day, the SUV is full. My wallet is flat. I'm happy. It's time to head home, plant my goodies and plot the next trip
Steal great ideas from four public gardens located near my Wisconsin garden center loop: Rotary Botanical Gardens, Janesville (left, the early-blooming wildflower hepatica at Rotary gardens); University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison; Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison; and Boerner Botanical Gardens, Hales Corners.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2008.)