by Victoria Howell
Joel Schnackel is something of a renaissance man. People who have lived in the valley awhile and enjoy gourmet cooking will remember Schnackel as the chef/owner at Food Fetish in Stevensville, which was one of the first restaurants to introduce American fusion cuisine to the valley.
Others may know Schnackel as a musician with an abiding love of music. He could be found playing his stand-up bass in local jazz combos or sitting in at more classical music venues, like the Missoula Symphony.
Schnackel left the valley about 20 years ago in pursuit of other ventures. Now he’s back, returning in 2020 with a wife and three children, and together they are diving into the greenhouse business that his mother Margie Cook and his aunt Charlene Riggle have been operating in Hamilton for more thans 25 years.
Cooks’ (“s apostrophe” because there are at least two Cooks involved) Gardens, the Greenhouse, on Golf Course Road in Hamilton is a growing concern. The three generations of family members and loyal staff working there have over 100 years of experience between them.
Cooks’ Gardens is open for the season, with a sale on clematis vines in progress. Schnackel points out four varieties, with flowers in varying shades of violet, purple and red. There are also lots of healthy perennials and annuals.
“We hand water everything,” he said, “so when the customer gets it, it doesn’t freak out. Every plant is watered when it needs to be.”
Schnackel said his expertise is with the vegetable side of things. They start over 20 varieties of tomatoes from seed, from hybrids and heirlooms to giant beefsteaks (Schnackel’s favorite tomato variety is Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye). He also grows a huge variety of peppers. This year he plans to offer packs of mixed spicy peppers. “I plant as much stuff at my house as possible,” said Schnackel, who lives next door to the business, “so I know what works best.” He’s planning to hold an open house at Cooks’ Gardens later in the season that
will feature different kinds of food he has prepared with all the veggies he grows.
Schnackel’s mother, Margie, said that they do a lot of custom work, filling planters for ranches and offices. She said one customer brings her over 40 pots to plant. She invites people to bring in their pots and she will plant them.
The crew still gets a chance to sample Schnackel’s cooking on a regular basis, since they all have lunch together in the greenhouse every day. Cook says it’s a time when they can discuss the business and make plans.
Schnackel said that he’s pleased to be back in the valley. “Hamilton’s a fantastic town for family businesses,” he said, “like Ford’s, Johnson Appliance and the Paper Clip. This is working out great for us. Maybe someday my kids will be able to take over.”
And what about that bass that Schnackel used to love to play? He still does, and he can be heard playing with the Missoula Symphony where he is first chair. His wife Rachel plays violin with the Missoula Symphony. They also play for Glacier Symphony and sometimes they play at chamber music gigs around the valley.
Cooks’ Gardens, the Greenhouse, is currently open every day except Thursday and Sunday from 10 to 4. In May they will be open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 6 and Sundays from 10 to 4. The business is located at 177 Golf Course Road, Hamilton; phone 406-363-0212.