The secret’s out in Merna
Thirty miles north of Lexington the world opened up. Cresting a hill, we gasped at the breathtaking panoramic view that lay before us. We’d entered Nebraska’s beautiful Loup River Valley en route to our NRL adventure for the day: The Secret Garden.
My companion for this trip was my good friend and Junk Jaunt partner, Kim. I thought it appropriate that Kim should come along, because 1.) Our destination was Merna, always one of our stops on September’s Junk Jaunt, and 2.) With her superior sense of direction, Kim would do the driving to ensure we didn’t end up in South Dakota (her words, not mine).
It was May now, and the familiar landscape greeted us like an old friend. Reaching Merna, we headed 2 1/2 miles west on Highway 92 to The Secret Garden, a wildly popular gift shop, green house, café, caterer, food truck, and party site, which would leave us in awe.
The Secret Garden started out simply enough. Owner Kelli Safranek, a busy wife, mother, and elementary teacher, grew plants under a grow lamp in her basement and sold crafts at weekend shows. Her business ventures were small, but the satisfaction it gave her was immense. She began dreaming of expanding her business, and in 2008 took the plunge. Resigning from her teaching position, she and her husband added a gift shop, café, and two greenhouses to their property, and landscaped their acreage into a magical outdoor gathering place.
We easily found the well-marked business and headed into the drive. The gardener in me thrilled at the flower pots and sculptures for sale out front. I knew something spectacular must lie inside and I was right.
Entering the store, Kim and I took in the warm and inviting gift shop with its timbered ceiling and gorgeous displays. WOW. Kelli was busy with some customers in the café section so we began browsing. There was an astounding variety of gift items, which I later learned came from local as well as national craftsmen. There were even antiques mixed in with the new — a veritable feast of shopping! Kim, unbelievably, found a Ms. Pac Man arcade game hidden in a far corner and disappeared for the better part of fifteen minutes, but I continued to explore, making frequent stops at the cash register to drop off items I intended to purchase.
How does your garden grow?
Finished with her customers, Kelli gave us the tour I was most looking forward to: the greenhouses. This year alone, she hand-planted over 12,000 annuals in her two greenhouses, most of which had sold by the time Kim and I visited. “If people bring us their own pots, we’ll fill them for just the cost of the plants,” Kelli said. “And of course, people can just buy plants and take them home.” I looked around the greenhouse sale floor with growing pleasure. In addition to the healthy and thriving plants, there were all kinds of pots and garden décor to satisfy the imagination of any gardener.
Kelli took us outside to see the property available to rent for parties, meetings, or other events. A meandering walkway offered guests access to a graceful patio, gazebo, pergola, and even a playground for kids. Additional indoor seating space was also available. I asked Kelli if she catered the events. “We offer catering services or customers can arrange their own food,” she said. Food — that reminded me I was getting hungry.
We headed back inside to the small café to order lunch. The place was packed. We’d already been advised by several people to try the delicious scones. We did so, along with two savory sandwiches, chips, and drinks. Yum!
The Secret Garden is busy year round. The gift shop and café are open the first and third weekend of every month. Don’t expect to see the same things every time you visit. Kelli overhauls the entire store every four months to coincide with the change in seasons: With spring comes the greenhouse goods. In summer, Kelli hits the road with their food truck. You’ll find her and her crew at the Nebraska State Fair, FRAT (Follow The Rails Art Trail), Merna Heritage Days, and other fun venues. In autumn my personal favorite, Junk Jaunt comes to the valley, which brings an astounding 1,000 people to Kelli’s doorstep over the span of three days. And in winter, the store is decked out floor to ceiling in holiday magic.
As I chatted with Kelli, it was obvious how much she adores what she’s doing. Her high energy and dedication to her customers are a sure recipe for success. She might have named her business The Secret Garden, but thankfully the secret’s out!