Growing With Ecology In Mind

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Steve Castorani of North Creek Nurseries

North Creek Nurseries, based in Landenberg, Pa., is making a name for itself providing sustainably grown plants for ecological installations, including working with LEED-certified engineers and landscapers. We talked to the operation’s owner, Steve Castorani, about how this market impacts his business, and how you can take advantage of the growing ecological trend.

GG: When did North Creek Nurseries begin growing native plants and plants for ecological applications?

Castorani: We founded our nursery with an emphasis on ecological plantings. One of our bylines is, “Where horticulture meets ecology,” and we’ve stayed true to that value statement. We use it as a barometer when we introduce plants to determine how sustainable they are and what their life span is in the market. Our mission is to propagate and market plants that develop a relationship between people and sustainable outdoor environments, so we look for plants that will thrive and last for many years.

We also sell into the horticultural market, which has given us a continuous business. We are continually working to build and understand the ecological market. It’s a project-to-project business.

GG: What tools does North Creek use to educate customers about the use of ecological plants and their applications?

Castorani: We built a learning laboratory on site at our Landenberg, Pa., location. It includes living examples of rain gardens, bioswales and other applications, constructed in anticipation of building projects. We invite engineers and landscape architects (LA) in and give presentations on these living landscapes. They offer proof that the plants become the backbone of the landscape.

Claudia West is our salesperson and resident LA, who provides a great deal of education and works daily with contractors and engineers. She consults on projects throughout the country and has a great understanding and a different perspective, as a plant person who grew up in the nursery business in Germany.

GG: What criteria has North Creek Nurseries met to grow plants for LEED-certified customers?

Castorani: Twenty-five years ago, one of our first ecology efforts was a reclamation project to revegetate Richmond National Battlefield Park in Virginia. We were working with Andropogon Associates, a landscape architecture firm. More recently, when we started looking at a LEED project, it required us to be Sustainable SITES compliant, which is an initiative developed by landscapers to meet specific sustainability requirements. In this case, the requirement was coming through Andropogon Associates — the same firm, just 25 years later. The firm told us, “If you want to do this project, you must do due diligence to meet the criteria.” 

We were being driven by specific market conditions and although we were moving that way anyway, now we had a fire under us to really scrutinize our operation. 

Our general manager, Tim McGinty, was instrumental in this effort and really took the lead on meeting the criteria, along with Lauren McIlwain in our marketing department. To meet SITES criteria, we were required to reduce waste and electrical and water use, and remove peat from our growing media. We also needed to reduce pesticide use, so we implemented tighter controls on the Landenberg farm and made it all bioactive, using biological controls and predatory insects.

These controls have been very successful in controlling vectors for disease, and have provided better control than we had before with chemicals. As a propagation nursery selling to the horticulture market, we have had to sell clean products, so making this change has been nerve-wracking. But we believe in the process.

We couldn’t have done it without our IPM coordinator, Matt Bouboulis, and Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, who was our consultant in converting over to biological controls. She really understands the industry and what we’ve gone through, and was an instrumental support person. We have good people working here who have really made this effort click.

GG: What are the opportunities for growing plants for ecological applications, like the LEED landscape market?

Castorani: Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Portland, Chicago — every large municipality is reevaluating its stormwater runoff system and looking for solutions.

Riparian buffers, rain gardens, green roofs — all of these applications really require perennials, native plants, trees and shrubs to mitigate runoff and keep it from going into storm sewers.

GG: What is the profit margin for ecologically produced plants, compared to traditional perennials?

Castorani: The price points are relatively the same. There is a lot of price competition because we are not dealing with cultivars and most plants are seed crops, which are easier to produce. They are not patented and not exclusive. So we may not sell higher dollar plants, but may sell a lot more product. For instance, we might be doing a large municipal project that requires hundreds or thousands of plants.

GG: What should growers know about producing plants for this market?

Castorani: Growers wanting to look into this market really have to learn about and understand it first. You have to evaluate your own business and decide if you want to get into this area. It’s a challenge and you really have to understand the marketplace, market yourself to a different audience, develop relationships and speak a different language. Growers can’t just go to OFA Short Course for this — you have to network in the right environment and meet the right landscape contractors driving the business. If you’re already selling to landscape contractors, it’s easier because you can quiz them about what kinds of projects are coming up.

Typically, the customer mix includes engineers and LAs for municipal projects. You may be working with an LA and an engineer to help them understand the plants to employ in the process of building this system. Ultimately, the landscape contractor is often the one coming to us with a plant list, asking if we can grow it. Obviously, plants don’t sit on a shelf, so we have to talk about how long it takes to grow. Then you get into local and indigenous species and it can be relatively complicated.

GG: What are the benefits to you, as a business owner, to focusing on ecology?

Castorani: Being in the ecological market early has established North Creek Nurseries as a leader. This market is challenging and we are always learning something, which keeps business fresh and interesting.

I like what I do and what I talk about. I like that there is money to be made and that there are opportunities for my employees. This is a really positive market and I’m helping to make an impact to beautify the world by increasing and helping to restore landscapes. We work with major centers and preserves — the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, the Cincinnati Zoo — promoting ecology and restoration. There is a lot of joy in seeing the before and after, and I feel we’re really making an impact. 

Laura Drotleff is editor of Greenhouse Grower.
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