Q&A: Shannon Currey

Cultivate'17 Preview - Speaker spotlight

Tips for tapping into the growth potential of green infrastructure.

June 7, 2017

Interview by Brooke N. Bates

Green infrastructure (GI) represents a new market opportunity for nurseries to supply a growing demand. As more sites invest in GI projects to provide a range of ecological benefits, the green industry is uniquely positioned to add value.

Hoffman Nursery saw opportunity in the GI market early on, identifying these projects as a great way to showcase how its native grass and sedge liners contribute to stormwater control, soil stabilization and wildlife habitat.

Shannon Currey, marketing director at Hoffman Nursery in Rougemount, N.C., will speak at Cultivate’17 to explain the potential that GI holds for the industry, and to offer tips for discovering opportunities locally.

Here’s a preview of what she’ll cover.

Q: What is green infrastructure?

A: For me, it’s using plants, soils, and natural systems to add ecological function to new or existing development. It’s using green to do the work that might have been done with concrete or traditional built structures.

Q: What are the biggest benefits, or reasons why developers pursue GI?

A: One of the most obvious and what drives a lot of GI projects is improved water quality. Clean water regulations are driving a lot of the development that uses green infrastructure for stormwater control to decrease flooding.

Better air quality is another one, because plants help clean the air and reduce the effects of heat islands. You’re supporting wildlife and building a healthy ecological community.

There are also health and well-being benefits, because if you have better air and water quality, you have lower instances of respiratory diseases. When people have green spaces and parks to play in, there’s more recreation, so you tend to get lower levels of obesity and related disorders. There are some benefits in terms of cognitive functioning, too, and there’s a lot of research now about those effects.

Green space increases property value, so there’s an economic advantage, as well. By investing in plants, you get better aesthetic value and better return on investment – about 109 percent compared to other improvements you might do instead.

Q: How did Hoffman Nursery get involved in the GI market?

A: We started to see an increase in requests for native species and plants that would be easy to maintain and adaptable in a lot of different situations. People were asking for plants that would thrive under various conditions but not require a lot of inputs like water or fertilizer.

It wasn’t what was blooming all the time or what color it was; it was, ‘Do we need to fertilize it? Can we cut it back once a year? Will it work in a rain garden and handle being flooded but also being dry at times?’ It was that adaptability that we saw driving a lot of the demand. Because we grow grasses and sedges, those fit that requirement really well.

So we increased the number of native species that we carry, and in particular a lot of the sedges from the Carex genus, because we kept getting calls for these relatively uncommon sedges. We also started talking to the landscape architects and engineering firms in our region to understand what they were seeing in those kinds of projects.

Q: Why are native plants, particularly grasses and sedges, a good fit for GI projects?

A: With a lot of stormwater-related GI, there are often lists of prescribed plants that are regionally-determined. The folks writing these manuals come from engineering backgrounds, landscape architecture backgrounds, and a lot of times there’s an ecological consultant involved; and they are looking at function. They tend to focus on natives for obvious reasons, because they have some adaptations to the local conditions and they support local wildlife.

We put an emphasis on natives in our plant offerings because so many of these guidelines ask for native species. There are a lot of introduced plants that do well, but they don’t tend to be part of the guidelines for these projects.

Grasses and sedges have great branching fibrous root systems, and that has implications for holding in the soil and controlling erosion. They help improve the soil profile because the roots are getting down into the soil and opening up pore space, allowing water and nutrients to infiltrate. Increasing infiltration is part of a lot of stormwater measures, so they’re useful for that.

Q: Why should nurseries pay attention to the GI market?

A: It has the potential to be a big market because many of these projects are large; we’re talking about cities investing millions of dollars. This is an opportunity to sell a lot more plants than you might have sold for a typical ornamental landscape in the same situation, because rather than having oceans of mulch, GI projects have dense plantings covering the ground.

We think it’s also indicative of a shift in customers looking for more beyond ornamental. Lots of the research shows that people want their landscapes to serve multiple purposes. They enjoy being out in them, but they like them to also attract pollinators and support wildlife and birds. There are all kinds of benefits with plants, and people are starting to get that.

That’s why we think this is such an opportunity. A lot of the folks doing these projects are engineers and landscape architects that don’t tend to have training in horticulture. As horticulturalists, we understand how plant communities work together. We know the plant palette; we know which plants are resilient and adaptive, what works best for different conditions. Our industry, and nurseries who are growing the plants, have the expertise to help these projects be successful from the plant perspective.

Q: How can nurseries get involved with GI projects near them?

A: Water quality is often the driving force of what’s happening in the GI market, so it’s helpful to learn about the regulatory environment you’re selling in because that informs the kinds of projects that are happening. Check your state website for the stormwater regulations, or talk to your local stormwater authority to find out about the guidelines for projects in your area.

You can try to go to the agencies that control those guidelines, but you can also take a landscape architect to lunch to find out what they’re looking for and when. We know that engineers and landscape architects are specifying the plants for these projects, so that’s where we’ve chosen to focus by partnering up with them and talking to them about plant availability.

For example, there are a lot of warm season grasses that we produce in the fall for the following spring. Well, if someone pops up in early March and needs 10,000, that’s not going to work. So we try to help them understand the cycles of the nursery industry, and then partner with contractors early in the process to help them be more successful finding and specifying plants.

Developing relationships with those kinds of firms helps you get a feel for what’s happening. It’s about understanding your customer, knowing what their needs are, and being able to anticipate those and figure out ways to help them before they even realize they need it.

Q: Why should attendees to come to your session at Cultivate to learn more?

A: GI is going to happen whether we’re on board or not, and I’d love our industry to be part of that conversation.