North Creek Nurseries Is Cultivating A Niche In Natives
North Creek Nurseries sets itself apart from other perennial propagators by focusing on ecology and environmental solutions and building a national brand for native plants.
September 13, 2011
If growing plants with a purpose is the future of gardening and landscaping, North Creek Nurseries is ahead of the curve by producing perennials that are not only beautiful but highly functional.
The nursery specializes in perennials, ornamental grasses, ferns and vines with an emphasis on plants that are native to the eastern United States and their cultivars. In addition to promoting plants that attract birds and butterflies or repel deer, demonstration gardens at the Landenberg, Pa., farm show how plants are used for stormwater management by creating rain gardens and bioswales or meadows that serve as buffers for constructed wetlands. A living roof and green wall near the homey office show how these can be constructed in a residential setting.
North Creek was founded in 1988 by Steve Castorani and Dale Hendricks to provide starter plant plugs to wholesale nurseries and retail mail-order businesses. Its trademarked Landscape Plugs are used in restoration projects and by highway departments, municipalities and conservation societies. Castorani became the primary owner in 2009. He and his wife also own Gateway Garden Center in nearby Hockessin, Del.
The Landenberg farm used to be a mushroom farm and has 32 quonset-style greenhouses on 17 acres. The 28-acre farm in Oxford, Pa., used to be owned by Yoder-GreenLeaf and came with a 3-acre greenhouse range. Between the two farms, North Creek produces 7 to 8 million plugs. Plants that are grown to maturity are finished and shipped out of Oxford. All plugs are grown in standard 10- by 20-inch flats in sizes ranging from 72 to 18. Landscape plugs are sizes 38 and 32 and are also ideal for growers who would like to finish in larger pots for a quick turn.
The crop mix spans 409 perennials, 25 ferns, 64 ornamental grasses and six vines. For retailers, North Creek offers a custom line of pot tags with gorgeous photography of plants taken in its gardens. “If you want to sell, you have to have good photography,” Castorani says.
In North Creek’s catalog, plants are listed botanically and then sorted by purpose/conditions – sun or shade; dry, moist or wet soils; bloom time; deer resistance; rain gardens; xeriscapes; green roofs; woodlands; meadows; groundcovers; and butterfly attractants. Seventy percent are considered native plants. A number of plants are unique to North Creek, including a hardy native orchid, Spiranthes cernua odorata ‘Chadd’s Ford’ and a less aggressive solidago ‘Solar Cascade.’
Building A National Brand
The American Beauties Native Plants brand began with a dare from a fellow grower six years ago. “It was a challenge from Mark Sellew of Prides Corner Farm, mister brand, at New England Grows,” Castorani says. “He said you guys are the native plant guys and need a brand with a charitable cause.”
North Creek started regionally, serving its market in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and the charitable beneficiaries were the Delaware Nature Society and National Wildlife Federation, which promotes gardening to create backyard habitats.
The idea is to take the guesswork out of selling native plants, as more consumers come to garden centers asking for them. The collections also appeal to consumers who would like to plant a butterfly garden, bird garden or a rain garden. Options for dry shade are indicated, too.
The brand is now national and backed by finished plant growers in key regions: Prides Corner, Midwest Groundcovers, Willoway Nursery, Quality Greenhouses, Nashville Natives and Fisher Farms. Plants selected must be appropriate to the region. Spring Meadow Nursery also offers American Beauties native shrubs.
Retailers receive branded kits with more than 50 varieties of native perennials, ornamental grasses, ferns and vines. Each plant comes in a light green branded container with the American Beauties Native Plants logo and a large, fact-filled tag on a stake. The cost of the kit is $1.18 per plant, which includes a 30-cent marketing royalty. Each plant sold benefits the National Wildlife Federation (NWF.org) Bench tape and brochures support the merchandising at retail. For more on this program, visit ABnativeplants.com.
A Sustainable Path
North Creek’s mission is to propagate and market plants that develop the relationship between people and sustainable outdoor environments with a vision to be the leader in developing sustainable horticultural systems. This approach requires a high level of plant and landscape expertise, and many of these plants, which aren’t widely available commercially, can be more difficult to produce. But leading in a less crowded market brings rewards. “We get a good margin,” Castorani says. “There’s less competition, and instead of churning and burning, we get a fair price.”