As I climb out of my car at Northwind Perennial Farm, spiky flaxen grasses waving gently in the breeze greet me. A towering blue spruce lends a frosted look to the scene. And a wide patch of delicate lavender daisies provides a pop of color. Anchoring this profusion of springtime greenery is a weathered barn decorated in a shabby-chic style with a plethora of garden art.
“Some of these plants aren’t that pretty individually,” I say to my mom. “I’d never think to buy them on their own. But now that I see them together, I’m changing my mind.”
And that’s what sets Northwind apart from most garden centers. The staff helps people garden smartly by using native plants that naturally grow together. Roy Diblik, a leading Midwest horticulturist who partnered with spouses Colleen Garrigan and Steve Coster to open the destination-worthy nursery in 1991, dubbed this method “know maintenance gardening,” which results in hardy plants and less fuss.
Northwind grows nearly all of its stock—more than 400 species of perennials, shrubs, native plants, ornamental grasses and shrub roses suited to the local climate—on 10 acres of rolling farmland in Burlington, located just north of Lake Geneva and 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
Looking around, I realize that I practice “no-know gardening,” so, clearly, I need to pay attention while I’m here. We begin looking at the plants with a critical eye. “I like these things over here that look like giant chives,” Mom says. I agree. The 18-inch circle onion blossoms sport flat foliage topped by 2-inch purple blooms. The label says they look good on their own or with prairie dropseed and speedwell. “I know just where I can put all three,” I say, scribbling furiously in a notebook.
Next, I spy a thick, rubbery-leaf plant with pink flowers that’s already in my garden. I learn it’s called stonecrop, a type of sedum that grows well in heavy soils. I make a note to buy a few more.
Eventually, Mom nudges me into the former dairy barn now filled with gifts, many of them garden-related and made by local artists. We get lost among decorative birdhouses, hand-stitched garden aprons, glass globes and stone cairns.
Where I had been planning planting beds, now I soak in decorating ideas. A once-unsightly tree stump topped with a stone basin can become a birdbath; a section of old fencing has new purpose as a railing; an enormous potted plant placed in the middle of a grievously split tree creates a striking piece of artwork.
As I drive home, ideas for revamping my garden tumble around in my head. But this time, it doesn’t feel like another seasonal task to check off of my list of things to do. It feels exciting and hopeful—just like spring itself.
Spring into action
These Midwest garden centers turn simple plant shopping into a special trip.
Chalet Landscape Nursery/Garden Center Beautifully designed, this destination in Wilmette, Illinois, showcases native plants and plant-based products for pets. (847) 256-0561; chaletnursery.com 
The Flower Factory Nursery Wandering chickens and red wagons ready for plant hauling greet visitors to Stoughton, Wisconsin, 15 miles south of Madison. Specialties include daylilies. (608) 873-8329; theflowerfactorynursery.com 
Munchkin Nursery and Gardens You have to call before you go, but when you arrive, you’ll find rare and unusual shade plants and woodland plants in Depauw, Indiana, 30 miles west of Louisville, Kentucky. (812) 633-4858; munchkinnursery.com 
Scentimental Gardens French, American and English antiques mix with garden decor, salvaged architecture, plants and artwork in a 1905 Queen Anne home in Geneva, Illinois. See Midwest Living’s review . (630) 232-1303; scentimentalgardens.com 
Stream Cliff Herb Farm Ladies who lunch fill the tea room in Commiskey, Indiana (20 miles northwest of Madison); then they buy plants, taste wines and browse in the gift shop. See Midwest Living’s review.  (812) 346-5859; streamclifffarm.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2013. Prices, dates, and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)