By Kristen Hampshire
Plants with a purpose. This growing mindset is rooted in “the why” of plants — how they support ecosystem services like filtering water or encouraging beneficial insects, and beyond. “The relationship between plants, wildlife, and the environment is fundamental to our business,” says Steve Castorani, president and CEO of North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, PA. Specifically, Castorani is talking about pushing native plants into the mainstream, elevating awareness.
“We are focused on helping the public and other growers see that there is value in native plants and wildflowers, and they’re not necessarily weedy things, but beautifying plants that can help maintain our environment,” he says.
North Creek has been living this mission since before consumers began buzzing about sustainability. Adopting sustainable growing practices involves self-assessment and introspection, Castorani says, adding “You have to ask, ‘Who do you want to be, and how does this affect your customers?’” In doing so, North Creek developed a mission, “to propagate and market plants that develop the relationship between people and sustainable outdoor environments.” That includes the co-development (with Prides Corner Farms President Mark Sellew) of the brand, American Beauties Native Plants, which has donated more than $270,000 to support the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Habitat Program.
Good Plants Can Do Good.
“Our grasses and sedges serve a purpose in the environment naturally, and they are perfect for use in areas that need green infrastructure to help slow down and clean up runoff in an urban environment,” says Jill Hoffman, owner of Hoffman Nursery in Rougemont, NC, where the motto is We Grow Good Grass, and a core value is, “Make it better.” (“We should probably add an always to that,” Hoffman says, indicating the company’s commitment to sustainable practices.)
Organizations like Hoffman Nursery, North Creek, and Prides Corner understand that sustainability goes beyond growing practices and includes running the business, positively influencing company culture, and benefiting communities.
“Sustainability is important because the future depends on it,” Hoffman says. “Whether it’s the business, the environment or access to basic resources — plans need to be in place for anything to last or succeed. If not, then resources run out, competition comes in, the weather happens, or a failing economy gets you into trouble.”
There’s no end-game with sustainability, because it’s a constant effort. That involves a willingness to risk “the old way” for newer methods. It means ongoing education and getting employees to embrace and carry out new best practices.
“It takes courage and effort to say you want to change and do something different,” acknowledges Tim Kane, inventory manager at Prides Corner Farms in Lebanon, CT.
Uprooting the Norm
Different is beekeeping at a nursery — and hiring a pro beekeeper to maintain 20 hives. What was the point? To find out whether stopping neonicotinoid use would give bees a better run. This “experiment” is happening at Bell Nursery in Elkridge, MD, which solely supplies plants to The Home Depot. Cole Mangum, vice president of Bell Nursery, describes his nursery’s effort in 2013. It was ignited by the bad press neonics were getting and a desire to stay ahead of regulations, should this class of chemicals be banned.
There was a lot of experimentation—and loss.
“We ended up losing a lot of plants because of phototoxicity issues from using chemicals to replace neonics,” Mangum says. “I remember throwing away thousands of geranium baskets. That was part of the learning curve for us.”
By 2014, Bell Nursery was neonic-free and had found alternatives so its crop would thrive. “What should have been a long, multi-year process to trial chemicals was consolidated into one year and a single growing season,” Mangum says, relating that the growing team did an outstanding job. Bell Nursery, which is Veriflora certified, has seven production locations.
The beekeeping initiative at Bell Nursery launched in 2015. “We bought 10 hives and brought in experienced beekeepers to take care of them,” Mangum says. That first year, not a single bee survived in the neonic-free nursery.
“We thought, maybe 10 hives is not enough, so we tried 20 the next year,” Mangum says. The beekeeper took wax samples and sent them to USDA labs for chemical testing. The chemicals that were present are not ones Bell Nursery uses. The bees were bringing those chemicals back from the outside, after foraging. In 2017, one hive survived. This year, Bell Nursery has 19 hives to fill so it can continue its research.
“We are a large greenhouse that does not use neonics, so the purpose is to raise bees and see how they do,” Mangum relates, noting that varroa mites are destroying the bees. These are grain-sized parasites that nestle into the necks of bees and literally suck the life out of them.
Bell Nursery has invited activists and those interested in its work to visit the nursery and the hives, and to learn. They want to meet with us because we are taking a different stance,” Mangum says. “We are responsibly growing without the chemical, and we are paying a beekeeper to maintain these hives. We say, ‘Here are our results. What do you think?’ We want that honest, open dialogue.”
North Creek works with botanic gardens and university researchers, supplying neonic-free plants for their various projects, Castorani says. The nursery donates or provides plants at a reduced cost. “Then, we get information back about the best plants for nectar that attract butterflies and which plants might be providing more ecosystem services.”
Fewer Inputs for Better Output
Sustainable growing at Hoffman Nursery is rooted in water quality. “Growing good plants all starts with water,” Hoffman says. “At the big-picture level, the nursery industry needs quality water, and lots of it. With droughts and increasing demand, we need to do everything we can to protect our water. As we recycle more of it, we become more concerned about what is in our water — the disease, pesticides and excess nutrients become more of an issue for our plants and our water.”
Good water grows great plants.
“We do our best to take care of our water,” Hoffman says. At the nursery, this means water conservation by recapturing, recycling, and cleaning water. Hoffman Nursery has a series of ponds and bioswales that capture and clean the water. This year, it will add cisterns.
“Fortunately, most of the grasses and carex [we grow] don’t require a lot of water and actually prefer less than other nursery crops,” Hoffman says. “This helps a lot in keeping our water usage down. So does watering in the early morning when there is less evaporation.”
To protect water quality, Hoffman Nursery uses slow-release fertilizer and reduces pesticide use. It has a copper ionization system and a new ozonation system is coming online this summer.
Kane adds, “Water conservation is very close to our hearts at Prides Corner, and because we work all on surface water — we have no wells — we recycle. Everything that hits the ground and doesn’t get absorbed is funneled back into our ponds.”
At Willoway Nurseries in Avon, OH, a new Electro-Chemical Activation (ECA) system disinfects water without using chemicals. Water is oxidized by running it through an electrochemical cell. “It’s like having a water treatment plant on site,” says Emma Degeronimo, a grower at Willoway’s tree farm, who heads up crop healthcare with Head Grower John Terhesh. Willoway is working toward MPS (More Profitable Sustainability) certification and has been honing in on not just water conservation, but all inputs used in the growing process.
As for the ECA system, it cleans up algae and biofilm, along with killing fungal and bacterial pathogens, Degeronimo explains. “This can reduce the amount of spraying we do,” she says. “We are testing it now to see if we can get a reduction of black spot on roses and fewer leaf spot issues on trees. Instead of using a general spray, we’re hoping we can rely on the [clean] water.”
Sustainable growing involves evaluating everything added and everything lost — the pesticides and fertilizers applied, the water used, the growing medium, and how natural resources like light and heat are leveraged efficiently. That means creating an optimum growing environment, which is what growers like North Creek are trying to achieve. It built an energy-efficient greenhouse in 2014 and is LEED Site Certified (read Sustainability and The Bottom Line on page 5).
Prides Corner’s 2-acre shipping facility has solar panels that supply one-third of its power. Not only is this good for growing, and business, consumers want to know their plants are being raised in a mindful environment, Kane points out.
“It’s a challenge to garden centers and people who sell plants to pay attention and find ways to better connect with consumers, and do something that they feel is really important to the environment,” Kane says. “What excites us is how we can fulfill the reasons we went into the industry to begin with — to grow a living product that does a little part in making the world better.”