An Afton family renovates and reopens Squire House Gardens as Horta Culture.
Jill Livingston has always had a green thumb. Growing up on 65 acres in Hudson, Wisconsin, which was made up of a small vineyard, an oak and birch forest and a prairie, Livingston recalls the times when she would help her family run its vineyard and looks back on her first job at a floral shop in Hudson. “It was a wonderful exposure to botanical design,” she says.
Turning away from horticulture, Livingston received a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology from Hamline University, then later a master’s degree in law and anthropology from The London School of Economics and Political Science. “I felt … that I always worked or volunteered in horticulture, and that world was calling me back,” she says.
Her first step back into the world of horticulture was as a produce buyer at Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis; she then spent time in the South of France, where she studied butchery and charcuterie and had the opportunity to redesign the 2-acre campus, which included a kitchen garden; in 2015, she began working with Dean Englemann, owner and farm director with Tangletown Gardens, at its farm in Plato, Minnesota; in 2018, she took on a role with Tangletown Gardens as a detail designer, while also teaching classes and workshops.
After the birth of her first child, Livingston and her husband, Nicholas, moved back to Hudson with her parents, where she worked out of the family greenhouse, selling medicinal and culinary plants, and also ran a spring greenhouse seedling sale. “It was really beautiful and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about greenhouse production and growing a quarter of an acre of plants on my own,” she says. Although she had hopes of growing the retail business out of that property, the couple ran into zoning issues.
When Richard Meacock, co-owner of Squire House Gardens in Afton and Nicholas’ high school teacher, passed away in 2019, Martin Stearn became the sole owner; Stearn decided to retire from the business, and Meacock’s daughter reached out to the Livingstons to see if they were interested in taking over the property. “We’d been a part of the property remotely as customers and friends for decades,” Livingston says. “It was a bit of a stretch for us, but it was zoned appropriately as commercial and residential, so we decided to do it.”
Now named Horta Culture, the shop and garden feature many of the aspects that have been on the property for the past 30 years. The fan-favorite plant yard features annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs in the spring, summer and fall, and is focused on growing organic, sustainable plants. In the winter, seasonal greenery dresses the area.
Inside, the shop features three different shoppable rooms. Upon walking in, customers are greeted by a room full of houseplants, fountains and more. “It serves as a segue between indoor and outdoor plants,” Livingston says. The space also includes products brought in from small businesses and family-owned businesses. All of the items have a focus on sustainability, a practice that is close to Livingston’s heart.
“Looking around the shop, most of the products in here I order from a person who made it or someone who is close to that person, such as a friend or family member,” she says. “It’s really important to me that, if someone has a question about how a pot is made or what a fabric is made of, I can call or email a person to get an answer.”
In addition to garden products, shoppers can expect to see home and kitchen items, beauty products like handmade soap, children’s toys, books and tools. Horta Culture has also started hosting events throughout the seasons, such as a tea workshop, design classes and private events. Customers can also expect its monthly garden yoga classes to return this spring.
“A lot of the previous customers are also excited that we’re still here, and it’s still a garden center and people can still spend time in the garden,” Livingston says.