Visiting Hoffman Nursery in Rougemont, NC, feels like going on a nature retreat. The 45-acre property, a former tobacco farm, is situated in Durham County, just north of the busy Raleigh-Durham area. Quiet and serene, with rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see, the nursery is abuzz with the pollinators and wildlife that the operation works hard to protect. It’s here, in this dreamscape, that John and Jill Hoffman set up shop 30 years ago.
The Hoffmans built their business and raised their family on this land. They cultivated a market for a crop category that wasn’t well known at the time. As community champions, they created a fair place for team members to work that was based on education and mutual respect, while looking broadly to provide sustainable products and an ideology that would make a difference. And they have become innovators and groundbreakers in a new market for the industry, leading others in the Southeast, and throughout North America, toward what they believe is the mecca of green infrastructure.
Expanding And Evolving A Business
Today, Hoffman Nursery specializes in ornamental and native grass liners for the wholesale trade, producing more than 150 different species and cultivars of grasses, sedges, and grasslike plants, and shipping them to wholesale customers across North America.
Hoffman keeps its own nursery stock on site and contracts with another grower down the road, where the soil is loamy and light, to grow and maintain additional stock. Liners are produced from seed and by dividing stock plants.
The operation has expanded to include 125,000 square feet of hoophouses, heated space totaling 45,0000 square feet, which includes a recently completed 17,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art production greenhouse, and several acres of display gardens, landscape vignettes, and trial grounds.
A newcomer to automation, Hoffman Nursery is working to streamline efficiency as its business increases, while improving jobs for its 44 full-time team members and 20 seasonal workers, to help maintain labor and make the operation a pleasant place to work. The Hoffmans’ son David, a graduate of North Carolina State University’s (NC State) Horticulture program, has been working in this area of the business, developing time- and money-saving practices, and integrating them into the operation’s existing production flow.
A believer in sustainable production, Hoffman Nursery has integrated a number of practices into its property to help facilitate this. For example, its onsite water system recycles water used in the hoophouses by draining it into nearby water gardens and bioswales, which in turn cleans and filters the water into the retention pond on the property. This approach helps reduce erosion, as well, and is part of an overall focus on developing stormwater solutions that includes bioswales, wetlands, and buffer zones around ponds and waterways, says John Hoffman.
The operation also practices integrated pest management (IPM), avoiding chemicals wherever possible to maintain the ecosystem that has developed within the property’s demonstration gardens and landscape vignettes.
“We value the birds, butterflies, bees, and other creatures that share the land with Hoffman Nursery,” Hoffman says.
Growing Horticultural Opportunities In Green Infrastructure
Hoffman Nursery is considered to be a leading supplier and resource in the green infrastructure (GI) movement. In June, the operation was named the North Carolina Green Industry Council’s Blue-Green Innovator of the Year, recognizing Hoffman Nursery’s position as a supplier to GI markets nationwide, and the work the operation has done to address water conservation and efficiency.
Indeed, the team at Hoffman Nursery has created a name and reputation for itself through its work both with landscape architects to educate them about how to work with wholesale growers to supply green infrastructure projects, and with wholesale growers to help them see the potential of growing grasses, sedges, and other plant species, to meet the supply needs of local and regional governments for GI projects.
“We have watched colleagues like North Creek Nurseries develop this market in the Northeast, and we are energized,” Hoffman says. “We want to take the lead in the Southeast.”
Locally and in adjoining states, Hoffman Nursery has been working with landscape architects, hosting lunch-and-learn events to educate them on what different plants can offer to green infrastructure projects, which plants to use for the zone or climate, how much time plants need to grow, the lead time growers need to produce plants for projects, and where to plant and combine plants.
“Many are shocked by the timelines for production,” Hoffman says. “We try to communicate the need to resource earlier in the process than they’re used to thinking about it.”
Hoffman Nursery has developed a number of demonstration areas on site, to show customers and visitors how plants work in GI projects like bioretention gardens and bioswales, and to provide feedback for selecting new species and cultivars for GI. The operation plans to add more perennials and natives to its gardens over the next few years to show a broader offering and demonstrate how plants can work together to add value, as well as aesthetic and health benefits.
“Typically, the people who have been developing planting manuals have been civil engineers, who don’t have the knowledge about plants,” Hoffman says. “The horticulture industry is not as involved as it should be.”
The Hoffman Nursery team is starting to work with landscape architects on following products from installation and over time, to see what the end result looks like and if the right plants were chosen.
“Each project is unique, so the feedback is valuable,” says Shannon Currey, Marketing Director at Hoffman Nursery. “The landscape architects get the plants they spec, the plants work, and they get called back for future projects, which means more business.”
Tracking the progress of the install includes the aesthetic and health benefits, as well, and the team has been active in presenting the value of plants and what they offer to environmental design, as well as the lifestyle-enhancing value to municipalities and communities, Currey says.
While Hoffman Nursery has supplied grasses to well-known projects like New York’s High Line, Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and the North Carolina Museum of Art, ultimately the team strives to be a champion for the horticulture industry to gain a piece of the GI action that’s already underway, and to be an information resource for wholesale growers looking to break into this burgeoning market.
Hoffman Nursery’s catalog is focused on its wholesale grower clients and acts as a resource for how these operations can get into the market and capitalize on the demand for plants in this sector. It includes definitions of different GI projects, and provides a chart that features plants suited for GI.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the operation launched a newly designed website in June, featuring plant information, ordering, and availability, as well as a learning section and a blog that provides news and updates on events and milestones within the GI business.
The team also travels often to speak at industry trade shows, to help growers navigate the intricacies of working with the landscape community in GI.
Research Benefits Customers And The Industry
As part of its expertise in green infrastructure, the Hoffman Nursery team is gathering intelligence about stormwater mitigation, and how plants help with this. It has hosted researchers developing stormwater solutions, as well as classes of students learning about building and developing rain gardens through work with Dr. Helen Kraus, a Horticultural Science Professor at NC State.
Overall, Hoffman Nursery is deeply involved in research in a variety of fields, helping to keep the team connected to the cutting edge of the industry. Other projects with NC State faculty and students include research in Horticultural Science, Weed Science, Plant Pathology, Entomology, and Landscape Architecture.
With 150 varieties of ornamental grasses and sedges in its catalog, Hoffman Nursery is always trialing new varieties. The operation has its own carex gardens with 25 varieties brought in from other nurseries and other zones. They get the rough treatment and are observed throughout the year to see what works well and what doesn’t. While Hoffman Nursery focuses on native and adaptive plants, because most green-building Best Management Practices manuals specify using these for LEED incentives, some new varieties work, as well. The operation has been part of trialing and introduction of a few new varieties for the marketplace.
Adding to this work, Hoffman Nursery hosts a collection of 75 varieties of carex for Derick Poindexter, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who is currently researching the genetics of North American carex. With more than 2,000 varieties in the world, and 500 that are native to North America, the genus offers a host of benefits to landscapes including green infrastructure, Hoffman says.
“Carex are workhorse plants,” he says. “They provide a ground layer, acting as a foundation, and they are background-dense and aerating plants that can be grown both wet and dry, which is ideal for GI. Plus, they have attractive color and seedheads, and a variety of textures and habits.”