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Esko man pivots nursery into wedding venue, Airbnb

"It's actually a really good fit — a landscape company with a wedding venue on the same property,” said Ken Hammarlund.

greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
Timbers form an archway in the main event space at Sitio in Esko.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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ESKO — Ken Hammarlund grew up 3 miles from here. The greenhouse, vineyard and ponds came after his family purchased these 15 acres in 1977.

“This was all cornfields. There wasn’t even a driveway,” he recalled of when he was 18 years old.

Since its start in the family’s front yard more than 60 years ago, Hammarlund Landscape Nursery has diversified as a necessity.

greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
Timbers form an archway in the main event space at Sitio on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Esko.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

When business dropped more than 50% during the 2008 recession, Hammarlund started growing and selling heirloom tomatoes to Pier B, Corktown Deli and Brews, and Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth.

Before that, he cultivated the family’s 15 acres into a destination garden center, completing landscaping design and installation jobs for Bayfront Festival Park, the city of Duluth and the city of Cloquet.

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greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
A decorated restroom at Sitio in Esko.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The business’s latest iteration: a farmhouse Airbnb rental and a wedding venue and event space. "It's actually a really good fit — a landscape company with a wedding venue on the same property,” Hammarlund said.

They were in the right place at the right time as outdoor venues took off as the result of COVID, he said.

Jodie Cowan.jpeg
Jodie Cowan.
Contributed / Jodie Cowan

These pivots take advantage of the nursery’s existing infrastructure, said Jodie Cowan, Sitio venue manager. “Plant life is so important to the ambiance of what we're doing," she said.

Couples can tie the knot in the greenhouse with a heated floor or in the vineyard-adjacent ceremonial space. They only needed to remodel the nursery’s bathrooms and convert some buildings into prep areas.

Cowan is in charge of Sitio, which hosted five weddings in 2021 and 27 last year.

Lyla Abukhodair.jpeg
Lyla Abukhodair.
Contributed / Menique Koos

Lyla Abukhodair was among the couples. She’d played Sitio’s concert stage during a 2020 singer-songwriter circle, so when she and her then-fiance searched venues to accommodate live music, Abukhodair knew of a perfect fit.

She and her partner were also drawn to the natural beauty of the nursery and the land. "We liked that we didn't have to pick every detail. It's nature doing its own thing and that's more our style," Abukhodair said.

Their August wedding processional featured music and dancing — reflective of Abukhodair’s Palestinian heritage — and the ceremony was held by the vineyard followed with music by Gavin St. Clair and Adam Herman.

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Lyla Abukhodair is joining with her mother, Ann, and other family members to sell their locally made Palestinian food at pop-ups. Next: a downtown deli, Falastin.

Sitio’s outdoor design, with its grounds, ponds and greenhouse, worked well for guests with different personalities. You could be on the dance floor all night, or have a quiet conversation near the gardens, and there’s also so much to look at, she said.

greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
A serving area in the greenhouse event space at Sitio in Esko.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Ending the night sleeping in the farmhouse was an appreciated touch. "Waking up the next day together in the space where it happened, you could still feel the love and the warmth of the day before,” Abukhodair recalled.

MORE ABOUT WEDDINGS

The two-bedroom farmhouse was built in the cupola style with tamarack logs, ash and redwood. There’s an open loft, wood-burning stove, sauna, mosaic stone backsplash and a birch log ceiling. It began as an office and expanded into a farmhouse in 2001. Hammarlund slowly added cabinets, the stove and furnishings.

“It was what you had to do to survive an economic crash,” he recalled.

Art runs throughout the farmhouse, reflecting Hammarlund’s family and his international travels: paddles and a spear from Brazil, stained glass from his departed uncle, his grandfather’s mandolin, a Peruvian flute, a Costa Rican crown, a cactus from Daytona Beach.

The News Tribune visited during a fluffy, snow-packed day. The dressing room and prep areas boasted repurposed vanity mirrors, rummage sale furniture and chairs from a public school sale — all with a Bohemian-chic flair.

greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
The kitchen and dining area of the farmhouse at Sitio.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

One bathroom was painted a deep-metallic blue, and in the greenhouse, string lights-covered pines lined the walls, sandwiching rows of wooden chairs. On the DJ station rested braided sweetgrass — a gift for Hammarlund after achieving reiki master status.

After years driving the business, he has stepped back to focus on the tasks he likes and enjoying the property — and helping host the weddings. Pleasantly surprised, Hammarlund said he likes the industry more than he anticipated.

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He and Cowan are proud to be the hosts for a couple’s special day. “Every Saturday night, you have great food and a party," he said.

For more about Sitio, visit sitioevents.com.

greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
The master bedroom in the farmhouse at Sitio.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
The farmhouse at Sitio.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
greenhouse and farmhouse converted to event center
A detail of antique stained glass in the farmhouse at Sitio.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Related Topics: ESKOWEDDINGSBUSINESSTOURISM
Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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