Although Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, a family of his green-thumbed elves has been planting holiday traditions in the South for decades. Lexington, Kentucky-based landscape designer Joseph Hillenmeyer and his wife, Shannon, run a family Christmas store that is part workshop, part plant nursery, and completely charming.
Any child who visits the shop during the holidays will walk away with a plant-able present. “As they leave, we give the kids little evergreen seedlings for them to plant at home,” Hillenmeyer says. “Each year, they’ll watch how it grows into a new fir or spruce.”
It’s no wonder Hillenmeyer wants to pass along a love of growing things—his own horticultural background traces back to nineteenth-century France. In more modern times, the Kentucky branch of Hillenmeyers has operated a holiday garden nursery in Lexington since 1950.
Located in a grassy expanse off New Circle Road, the plein-air roadside stand becomes a wonderland of greenery each holiday season. Hillenmeyer covers the building in barn wood, hangs hand-painted signs, lights a fire in the brick fireplace, and lays straw for a stable of donkeys and sheep. He sets the scene for Santa’s sleigh, a family heirloom passed down from Hillenmeyer’s great-great grandfather.
“We want to pull people away from the mass market that’s dealt during the holidays,” Hillenmeyer says. “We completely change the ambience, to help families build a tradition that looks back to the Christmases of the past.”
Stroll with a cup of hot cider to check out what’s on offer—lush trees and wreaths from a stock of native plants that Hillenmeyer replenishes throughout the season. The Frasier fir wreaths are fresh and made on-site. He visits North Carolina tree farms to select the best trees and lush boxwood wreaths. Trims include sprays of juniper berries, clusters of shiny magnolia leaves, branches of incense cedar, and bunches of fragrant eucalyptus.
If you visit, sit for a spell by the fire and roast a marshmallow. Say hello to Hillenmeyer. He’ll likely share a family story or ask about your own holiday memories. And, after you leave, don’t forget to help a budding young gardener plant their sapling. A new tradition just might grow.
The Hillenmeyer Christmas Shop will be open through Christmas at 3391 Tates Creek Road in Lexington.