Rich and Kathy Hornbaker started Hornbaker Gardens in 1987. Prior to that, Rich practiced law in Princeton for thirteen years, and Kathy had taught school. In 1976, they bought 14 acres of isolated ground, upon which stood an abandoned homestead--a perfect place to build a house and raise a family. Little did they dream that someday they would be inviting the world to come share their lovely hideaway.
After they purchased the farm, Rich started thinking about the possibility of making a living on it. He and Kathy were both avid gardeners, so he thought perhaps they could develop a market for organically grown fruits and vegetables, while Kathy thought that growing perennial flowers was a possibility.
Over the next few years, while they started raising their family, Rich was busy planting fruit trees, strawberry plants, and raspberry bushes. A small pick-your-own business, known as Horn's Berry Farm, was started. It was a lot of work for not much money, but was a great learning experience.
From 1984 through 1986, they experimented with growing hardy mums in pots, and were encouraged by their success. In July of 1986, Rich attended a week-long symposium of the newly formed Perennial Plant Association. He came back very enthusiastic about the future of perennials, and in love with a plant called a hosta. That fall, the berries were plowed under, and plans were laid for the start of a perennial nursery. Rich informed his very surprised law partners that he was leaving the law practice to start a new business—Hornbaker Gardens.
Initially, Hornbaker Gardens started as a wholesale-only business. But in 1988, an Open House was held to let the local folks come out and view the operation, and to see if a retail operation had possibilities. The overwhelming response at that time made it clear that a retail operation should be started.
Everything seemed to take off from there. By 1990, Hornbaker Gardens was open seven days a week, and the wholesale part of the business was soon eliminated. A daylily collection was begun and established over a period of several years. The business expanded with the purchase of an entire iris business in 1990.
It is their collection of hostas, however, that has done the most to make a name for Hornbaker Gardens. Rich and Kathy joined the American Hosta Society, and have attended many of its annual conventions. Rich served on its Board of Directors for six years. This has helped them stay current with the latest developments in the hosta world. Besides the hostas and daylilies, Hornbaker Gardens also carries several hundred varieties of other perennials, including many ornamental grasses. Their ever-expanding offering of trees and shrubs has become as big a draw as the hostas. It includes a wide variety of unusual plants, including dwarf conifers, along with the more standard varieties.
The Hornbakers try to plant, in their own gardens, as many of the varieties of the plants that they sell as possible. Over the years, the display gardens and plantings of trees and shrubs have turned Hornbaker Gardens into a botanical gardens and arboretum that attracts gardening enthusiasts from all over the Midwest and beyond.
Since 1997, Hornbaker Gardens has had a crew that installs ponds throughout the north half of Illinois and into eastern Iowa, and they now carry a good supply of aquatic plants. Two display ponds have been built. The largest one, built in October of 2001, is 40' in diameter, and is fed by a stream that is 150' long and has eight waterfalls. Two pondless waterfalls have also been added to the display gardens.
In 2006, the business started carrying a line of annuals in order to be a more complete garden center. That year, a special greenhouse was built, devoted to annuals, and in 2011, one of the large hoophouses was converted to a greenhouse for a major expansion of space for annuals.
Whatever the Hornbakers get interested in as gardeners, they seem to start providing for their customers, as well--thus, the offerings of granite and pottery, bronze sculptures and rusty metal artwork. In 2008, they put up a new building which known as The Shop at Hornbaker Gardens. It is stocked with garden art and other garden accessories, where you are sure to find something unique for your garden.
2012 was the last year for the iris field. Where the iris field used to be, now stands The Barn at Hornbaker Gardens, an event center available for wedding receptions, corporate meetings and other community events.
In August of 2014, Kathy Hornbaker died after suffering from frontal lobe dementia for several years. Rich continues on, and is fortunate enough to have a daughter, Molly Blogg, and his son, David Hornbaker, helping him run the business.