North Creek Nurseries Unites Horticulture With Sustainability

Every business leaves its mark on the environment. North Creek Nurseries goes the extra mile to tread lightly. The company’s commitment to leaving the lightest footprint possible through innovation and embracing new practices, even though change can be difficult, sets it apart as the type of operation worthy of Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Operation Of The Year Award.

The faces behind North Creek Nurseries reflect the wisdom of experience and the exuberance of youth. With several next-generation growers working shoulder-to-shoulder with veteran growers and propagators, the operation blazes the trail for other companies, illuminating the path to survival in a new era of growing where ecologically responsible practices and sustainability must be as important as profits.


Concrete Proof That Differentiation Drives Growth

In addition to being named Operation Of The Year, North Creek Nurseries also received Greenhouse Grower’s Excellence in Sustainable Production Award. Owner Steve Castorani’s foresight 28 years ago, to focus on sound ecological practices from the beginning, has led to the company carving out a niche for itself by supplying sustainably grown liners to the nursery industry and its trademarked Landscape Plugs to the landscape design industry for ecological installations. Its long years of investment to establish itself in these markets are paying off, with rapid growth propelled by a burgeoning interest in native plants and sustainable growing practices by wholesale and retail nursery owners and by landscape architects and designers.

A new state-of-the-greenhouse at North Creek’s Landenberg, PA, location is the result of the operation’s need for more efficient growing space. Prior to its construction, North Creek focused on changing its production and shipping processes to productive lean flow practices. Castorani says the facility has helped the company maintain a lean flow culture and produce quality plant material more efficiently. The new greenhouse is the first step in a long-range expansion plan. The company would like to eventually build a similar greenhouse at its shipping facility in Oxford, PA, and a third in Landenberg.

Where Horticulture Meets Ecology

North Creek’s mission to propagate and market plants that develop the relationship between people and sustainable outdoor environments has largely shaped what the operation is today. The company’s philosophy is that its customers have a broad spectrum of plants to choose from that offer function, reliability and beauty — not all have to be natives.

North Creek’s Research and Development department, headed by Manager Anne Sharp and Gardener Chelsea Ruiz, with summer support from intern Amelia Thomas, plays a critical role in vetting which plants align with North Creek’s mission. The three-person team maintains more than three acres of trial and demonstration gardens, and a living laboratory that includes rain gardens, bioswales, storm water management-constructed wetland, a meadow, living wall, side-by-side evaluation gardens, and a green roof.

The research and development team works closely with New Products Manager Brigitte Crawford to source, evaluate, and trial potential new introductions against North Creek’s new plant principles. Plants must be excellent garden and landscape performers in the mid-Atlantic region, not be invasive or aggressive, and once established in an appropriate site, they must require no material inputs to maintain their ornamental value or garden worthiness.

“The diverse plant communities in our trial gardens not only help us evaluate potential new plant introductions, they are a valuable and inspiring resource for our customers,” says Claudia West, a landscape designer who works as Ecological Sales Manager for North Creek. “Planting designers and engineers visit to learn about individual species and complex plant communities that solve their current landscape design challenges. Our gardens get customers excited about new planting solutions. They spark an in-depth knowledge exchange between designers and growers, which is essential in moving our industry forward.”

A Team Dedicated To Its Mission

West is part of a bigger team at North Creek helping to bridge the gap between horticulture and ecology. She is typical of other staff members there — passionate, dedicated, and hardworking.
A team’s effectiveness often determines its output of quality, and North Creek is fortunate to have a diligent staff that works well together and has fun along the way.

Chief Operating Officer Tim McGinty oversees the production team. Over the years, he has steered the company through the creation of its trademarked Landscape Plug, a large-sized plug that facilitates quick establishment of landscape plantings and its establishment as a SITES (Sustainable Sites Initiative)-compliant grower. More recently, he oversaw the construction of the operation’s new greenhouse.

McGinty’s son Ryan runs North Creek’s Oxford, PA, farm, where a team of employees finishes and ships the company’s plant material. Last year, the Oxford team shipped more than 7.5 million plugs in top-quality condition.

Mentoring Future Growers

Ryan is a next-generation grower and one of 40 employees at North Creek under age 40. With North Creek’s mission and commitment to sustainability, the company attracts the best and brightest talent. Castorani, Tim McGinty, and Castorani have a true vision when it other master growers are pivotal mentors to these future industry leaders.

“Companies need to be willing to take a chance on younger folks and offer them an opportunity to learn, grow, and advance,” Castorani says. “Although it is a challenge, creating an atmosphere that fosters such talent is possible. It requires investment — a time and training investment that will pay dividends in the long run.”

Those dividends are already paying off for North Creek Nurseries, in the form of a strong, cohesive team that gets results. The company has quickly established itself as an emerging leader in sustainable growing, and its team is ready to start the next chapter in the operation’s success story.

North Creek Next Generation Growers

Three of North Creek Nurseries’ next-generation growers: (left to right) Sarah Horstmann, Amelia Thomas, and Erin Kelly.

Next-Generation Growers Thrive At North Creek Nurseries

North Creek Nurseries’ commitment to championing the development of the next generation of growers ensures the company will be in good hands for the future. Several young staff members have already made their mark on the operation. These are just five of the 40 talented young employees working at the nursery.

Inventory Manager Sarah Horstmann has a B.S. in Environmental Design and Horticulture from UMASS Amherst. She found true love at North Creek — she will marry Oxford Farm Manager Ryan McGinty this fall.

Erin Kelly manages North Creek’s production team, which produces and monitors more than 500 crops on open availability, in addition to the company’s custom-grow program. She has a degree in horticulture from Temple University.

Amy Hoeschel came to North Creek in a roundabout way — via her wedding flowers, which sparked an interest in horticulture. She works as Production Administrator and coordinates North Creek’s seed and tissue culture propagation and fern program.

Production Coordinator Maddie Maynor is the bridge between production and growing. She studied horticulture at Sandhills Community College and previously worked as a grower at Longwood Gardens.

Victoria Bolden is two months into her position as a Production Assistant. Her qualifications include internships at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens, Mt. Cuba Center, and Tyler Arboretum, plus a B.S. in Horticulture with a minor in Entomology from Penn State University.

North Creek Head Propagator Francisco Castillo Ramirez100 Years Of Loyal Employment

The Castillo Family has been an instrumental part of North Creek Nurseries’ team. Head Propagator Franciso (Pancho) Castillo Ramirez, an immigrant from Michoacán, Mexico, celebrates 23 years of employment with the North Creek team this year. Ramirez’s father, Raphael Castillo Tovar, moved to the U.S. and quickly found work in the mushroom industry. It wasn’t long afterward that North Creek’s owner, Steve Castorani, hired him to work at Gateway Garden Center, his retail operation in Hockessin, DE. The family has had strong ties with North Creek ever since. Several members of Ramirez’s immediate family and extended relatives have worked or currently work at North Creek. Not including his mother and father, the Castillo family has more than 100 years of combined employment history with North Creek and the Castorani family.

“The Castillo family has been integral to North Creek becoming the organization it is today,” says Marketing Manager Carrie Wiles. “Their loyalty, work ethic, and dependability are second to none and very much the essence of our collective North Creek family.”