Tom Eblen: Michler family welcomes fifth generation into greenhouse business

For Michler family, green thumb is passed down in the genes

Herald-Leader columnistMay 6, 2012 

Plants flourish when placed in the right location. The same seems to be true for the Michler family's plantsmen.

In 1901, Carl Michler started a botanical business on an acre and a half between Maxwell and High streets near Woodland Avenue. His century-old greenhouses are still being used by the third and fourth generations of his descendants.

Michler's, which calls itself Kentucky's oldest continuously operated florist and greenhouse, is an Aylesford neighborhood institution. It also has become a regional destination for people seeking John Michler's gardening expertise and his vast selection of plants, virtually all of which are raised on the premises.

"One of my cousins claims horticulture runs in the male genes of the family," he said. It certainly seems that way.

Carl Michler immigrated from Württemberg, Germany, in 1869 and settled in Lexington in the late 1890s. With an inheritance from his brother, Wilhelm, a well-known German scientist, he started his business at 417 East Maxwell Street. It was called Michler Brothers for two of Carl's sons, Louis and Charlie, who worked there. Later, Charlie opened Michler Nurseries on Richmond Road, which no longer exists.

Louis' son Karl and his wife, Jean, took over the florist shop and greenhouses after he returned from military service in World War II. When they retired, John, 57, and his wife, artist Claudia Kane Michler, inherited it and the family home next door.

John studied horticulture at the University of Kentucky and spent a couple of years after college helping a friend start a strawberry farm in New England. "I fell in love with perennials in Massachusetts," he said.

John expanded the business to include a garden center with an extensive stock of perennials, herbs, native Kentucky species and exotic plants.

"People come here and see plants they say they have never seen before," he said. "And they know we offer plants that are well-suited to Kentucky because they are grown right here."

Inventory has expanded over the years with John's curiosity and continuous study of horticulture and gardening techniques. "This winter's subject was Japanese gardens," he said. "I read a bunch of books and tried to learn that esthetic."

As his knowledge has grown, so has the demand for his consulting and garden- design services. That work now supplements Michler's traditional florist shop, garden center and propagation greenhouses.

Over the years, the Michlers have had many longtime employees who lived nearby and reflected the diversity of Lexington. Five of the nine current employees walk or bike to work. "This has been a nice neighborhood for us," he said.

John, a former neighborhood association president, was active in getting historic zoning designation for Aylesford, a mixture of 19th- and early 20th- century homes and newer big-box student apartment complexes. "I enjoy living in a student neighborhood because there is such an interesting mix of people," he said.

The recent economic slump hurt business, as many customers had less money to spend on landscaping and flowers. Michler's now faces competition for common plants from big-box suburban stores that truck them in from out-of-state nurseries.

"I think having a small family business has always been a challenge," John said. "There are no deep-pocket investors. We have to make a living for ourselves and our employees from what we do."

But the rewards outweigh the challenges. "A huge part of a family business is that you get to spend a lot of time with your family," he said. "That's a valuable thing."

Two of the Michlers' three children are now involved in the business. Jessamine, 22, is the wedding flower specialist. Robin, 26, moved home last August from North Carolina, where he studied and worked in urban planning. (Daniel, 24, is doing research abroad.)

"I've really enjoyed being back," said Robin, whose wife, Penina Goldstein, also is from Lexington. "We came back because of family and this business — and because of Lexington."

John hopes the business can continue adapting to the times while retaining the valuable aspects of its heritage.

Robin recently added an online sales application to the Web site (Michlers.com) and updated the company's database systems. That is why you now see a laptop computer on the antique table that serves as a checkout counter in one of the greenhouses Carl Michler built more than a century ago.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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