Sustainable success

2020 Horticultural Industry Leadership Awards - Steve Castorani

Steve Castorani took a balanced path to success with North Creek Nurseries.

Steve Castorani, North Creek Nurseries

Even when he’s not at work, Steve Castorani has always gotten satisfaction from working with his hands. Growing food in his gardens, a project in his woodworking shop, renovating a 200-year-old house, tinkering around on his 1946 Chevy truck or his motorcycle — the 64-year-old president of North Creek Nurseries is a worldly, well-rounded individual. It’s a trait he says has served him well and he recommends it to any young aspiring horticulturist.

“Try and learn as much as you can about as many things as you can,” he says. “It’s great to be a specialist, but to run a farm or nursery you need to have an understanding of many different things. Plant geek plus engineer, business specialist. Be open to new experiences.”

Growing up

Steve Castorani’s parents were Italian immigrants. His mother was born in the mountains, his father nearer to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. His father, a mushroom grower, died when Steve was two years old. His mother, who ran a liquor store in Wilmington, Delaware, raised him with the help of his grandparents.

The family gardened and grew a lot of their own food. Coming from Italy and growing up during the Great Depression, they were self-reliant — a virtue that Steve learned well.

There were several older Italian men, friends of his family, who taught him the value of work and the rewards of gardening. Steve helped one of them on the farm and learned how to grow vegetables and make wine. Another one taught him about greenhouse growing and plant care.

He learned an important lesson from those days. If you work hard you also have to play hard — it’s the key to a balanced life. His family influenced him. But his education and that well-rounded nature came from Girard College.

When he was eight years old, Steve’s mother enrolled him at Girard, an orphanage for fatherless boys in Philadelphia. Stephen Girard was a tremendously wealthy business titan. However, he had no heirs and used his vast fortune to set up a school that would mentor and educate fatherless boys from poor families.

“What that meant back then was to prepare us for life by training for a trade or a vocation so we would find employment for the rest of our life,” Steve says. “When you graduated, you knew how things worked.”

The Girard curriculum was quite different than what a young boy would learn in a typical orphanage or boarding school. Steve learned woodworking, electrical, even became a mechanical draftsperson before he was 16. Although being away from family was difficult and he didn’t always enjoy his time there, Steve’s experience at Girard shaped him into the man he is.

“My deeds must be my life, when I am dead my actions must speak for me.”

Those words were inscribed into the chapel at Girard College and Steve read them every time he walked into the building. He’s always remembered that quote, and Girard’s words remind him to put value on his time and the actions taken in his own life. From having a family and raising two sons and seeing them be successful in their own lives to being an entrepreneur with the opportunity to make a difference in others’ lives. He encourages others to find their passion and focus on what’s important. He’s proud of his accomplishments at North Creek, as well, and the difference it has made in the lives of many people.

“Whether we’re providing plants, we’re repairing ecosystems or we’re just giving people jobs — and helping them to learn new skills, give them opportunities — even if they move on,” he says. “And to be working in ways that I am able to give back, help others, plus have businesses that grow and sell plants that enhance people’s lives as well as enrich nature and the environment.”

From rain gardens and restoration projects to displays showing the benefits of native plants for pollinators, North Creek features plants prominently in trial gardens around the nursery.

Business beginnings

After graduating from Girard at 16, Steve began studying at the University of Delaware. During that time, he started his first business. With his mom’s help, he bought a $500 pickup truck and a rototiller. He worked other odd jobs through college, then after graduating in 1979 with a Bachelor’s in Plant Science he began a landscape design and installation business that was an outgrowth of his first venture as a student.

In 1979 Steve began Gateway Landscaping and Woodworking Inc., a landscape design-build firm located in Hockessin, Delaware. Later he founded Gateway Garden Center, a natural outgrowth of Steve’s landscape business. Established in 1986, Gateway specializes in perennials, conifers, native plants, aquatic plants as well as water gardens. Today, Steve’s wife Peggy manages the business.

In Gateway’s early years, Steve met a few influential Philadelphia-area plantsmen that guided him on his path. Dr. Richard Lighty (affectionately known as “Uncle Dick”), the founding director of the Mt. Cuba Center, was one of Steve's professors at UD. Dr. Darrel Apps (“the good doctor”) was a prolific daylily breeder and former nursery owner who was leading the education program at Longwood Gardens. After attending one of Dr. Lighty's lectures at the Delaware Center for Horticulture, Steve expressed interest in incorporating grasses in his landscape designs. Dick suggested he seek out Dale Hendricks from GreenLeaf Perennials (now Aris), who was growing grasses on the side.

Dale was interested in native plants and ecological landscapes and wanted to start a specialty nursery. After a few months of conversations, the two men decided to start a business together. Steve and Dale founded North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pennsylvania in 1988.

During those early years Steve was busy full time with Gateway Landscaping and Garden Center. Several Gateway folks were part time with North Creek as the two companies shared bookkeepers, office space, trucks and much more.

“What I admire about that organization is they started with hardly any money and built up what they have today, from scratch,” says Dr. Apps.

The first year’s crop was produced at Gateway’s greenhouses during the spring and summer of 1988. Steve kept his landscape crew busy in the fall of ’88 by building greenhouses in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, on the farm that would become the North Creek Nurseries you see today.

In those early days, Dale was the driving force behind North Creek’s plant selection. He had many business contacts and plant geek friends. Steve kept the business organized and handled building and equipment. He also had contacts and good relationships with accountants. Steve’s clear head and conservative approach to the business made for a strong foundation.

“He obviously took risks on the likes of me,” Dale laughs. “But of the two of us, I’m the crazy risk-taker and he was the level hand. You can see how well he’s done in the 10-11 years since I’ve been gone. That level hand is really what’s needed to run a business of that size.”

In 2008, Dale wanted to retire from the business, and Steve purchased his share of the company they built together.

“His influence is still present in the nursery and he is still a close friend — we still do some collaboration on plants,” Steve says.

Along the way, Dr. Apps convinced Steve and Dale to get involved in the International Plant Propagators’ Society. That proved to be an organization that benefited all sides. Steve developed friendships and found mentors like Dick Bir, a N.C. State University professor and extension specialist who was one of the godfathers of the modern native plant movement. And Steve was true to the IPPS ethos “To Seek and To Share,” taking leadership roles, including president, giving talks at meetings and tours to teach the younger generation, as he once was taught. He was awarded the honor of Society Fellow in 2005 and became the recipient of the society’s prestigious Award of Merit in 2012.

From its conception, North Creek Nurseries was a wholesale propagation nursery with an emphasis on Eastern U.S. native plants. However, several factors needed to converge for the business to grow into its current form. Sustainability and ecology certainly weren’t buzzwords in 1988.

“The markets had to mature to a point where it became important to more people than just us,” Steve says.

That happens through education and unfortunately, a degradation of the environment that these things became more relevant in the public’s mind.

“You have the hive collapse of the bees, you have water issues or lack of water. All those things play into what we do,” Steve says. “But until it affects somebody’s food supply or the air they breathe or the water they drink, most people don’t think of those things. Then it becomes relevant.”

There been temptation to expand the business into other realms, but North Creek has always tried to stay true to its initial mission. When Steve and Dale started the business, there wasn’t much of a native plant movement. Sustainable growing practices wasn’t a hot topic in the 1980s like it is now.

But when government or public perception starts to put demands on businesses, those businesses need to react. Steve has always tried to anticipate regulations at North Creek and Gateway.

“It’s a lot easier to be proactive and fix a problem than be reactive to something that happens,” Steve says.

North Creek Nurseries strives to stay true to its initial mission: propagating native plants that help repair ecosystems, provide wildlife habitat and promote environmental benefits.

Tried and true

Steve’s experience running a landscape design and installation business gave him an advantage some pure growers lack.

“He has a great perspective having the retail store, former landscape company and working in the wholesale liner world,” says Tim McGinty, North Creek’s general manager and COO. McGinty started at North Creek 17 years ago and says he and Steve balance each other out well. Steve agrees, and says Tim’s experience has been instrumental in the nursery’s growth.

North Creek makes a point of trialing all the plants it propagates. Dale says that Steve pushed to make sure the nursery was growing landscape-friendly plants, not just ones that would excel in “the rarified environment of the greenhouse.”

“We grow plants that stand the test of time,” Steve says. “And that’s kind of a guiding principle.”

The trial process helps eliminate the urge to grow every new perennial that comes down the pike. The goal is to be reliable and selling customers a flash-in-the-pan plant doesn’t help achieve that goal. Steve wants to avoid the treadmill of trying to figure out every year what the hot new plant will be.

“We have plants that have been in our quiver that have just been bulletproof,” he says. “They last in the landscape, they’re colorful, they’re textural, they have all those criteria. But they actually live for the customer and they live in the environment.”

North Creek maintains its landscape trial gardens on the property and invites potential customers to tours and open houses.

“Coming from a landscape background, he always wanted the place gussied up nicely with good trees, shrubs and perennials,” Dale says. “The fact that people could come see the plants we were trialing really helped our reputation. These guys aren’t just propagating things, they know how they grow.”

From rain gardens and stormwater management and restoration projects to displays showing the benefits of native plants on the pollinator population, North Creek Nurseries’ grounds have much more to show than just rows of plants.

“Steve doesn’t just take a little segment of the business,” Dr. Apps says. “He thinks through the whole picture of how it all fits together.”

As the Recession retreated and sales increased, North Creek built several new energy-efficient greenhouses, doubling production capacity, improving work flow and reducing environmental risk to plants.

Building a lean machine

North Creek wasn’t immune to the recession. Many of its key customers struggled to stay in business, some ended up closing. In 2009 the company determined a transformation was necessary to stay profitable and maintain relevance. North Creek committed to adopting LEAN culture and began looking for efficiencies. LEAN is all about finding ways to get jobs done with the least amount of labor spent.

“That can be sort of top-down, but not with Steve,” Dr. Apps says. “It’s more getting everything he can from employees and how they think they can do it better. From my observations, [Steve is] one of the best people managers I’ve ever seen. He really is good with people. Everyone is involved in the decision making.”

Steve respects his employees and the decisions they make. It’s a good leadership mentality, he says, and it helped when it came time to find areas from production to shipping that could become more efficient.

“Make sure you are a good listener,” he says. “It’s best to gain a thorough understanding of people and processes before making judgments. Everyone has a story and you will be amazed what you can learn by asking questions.”

Sustainable solutions

At times, Steve’s commitment to sustainability was tested. In North Creek’s early days, the nursery grew a lot of miscanthus.

“Then our landscape architect restoration buddies started beating us up for it,” Dale says. “‘We’re making a lot of money selling these plants and now you’re calling them invasive?’”

Steve and Dale began researching the situation and eventually determined that the plant really was a problem. The company made the decision to stop growing it to stay on the side of conscientious plant selection and preserve their reputation as responsible stewards of the environment. It was a hard decision to turn away from that business, Steve says, but it was the right thing to do.

“We could have kept selling miscanthus and made a lot of money on it,” Steve says. “There are other nurseries that are still doing that… they’re more economically-focused rather than ecologically-focused.”

In 2004 Steve co-created the American Beauties Native Plants brand with Mark Sellew of Prides Corner Farms. This was a way to spread awareness of the benefits of native plants and popularize the category.

Mark Sellew had the idea for a native plants brand percolating in his head for a while before he approached North Creek Nurseries’ Steve Castorani with the idea.

“Frankly, Prides Corner hadn’t been doing a great job of selling native plants,” Mark says. “So I wanted to start a native plants brand. I approached Steve and told him, ‘You’re the native plants guy and I want to start a brand. Are you in?’ And Steve took the challenge, and it’s been an incredible partnership and friendship.”

American Beauties Native Plants are currently available at independent garden centers in Eastern, Southeastern, Midwestern and select Western States. When the brand was established, it partnered with the National Wildlife Foundation’s wildlife habitat program. During the first 10 years of the program, AB donated more than $275,000 to NWF.

In the early 2000s, Steve was working on a mission and vision statement for North Creek. He was focusing on sustainability, which was nowhere near as popular a term then as it is now. Ed Snodgrass, a good friend of Steve’s and the owner of Green Roof Plants, made a point that still resonates with Steve.

“The most sustainable thing that you could do is in your business is not recycling, using less water, or all the things that we think of when we think of sustainability. All that stuff’s great. But his point was the most sustainable thing you can do is actually provide paychecks to these people, give them opportunities to work and to empower their lives and give them learning experiences.”

In 2009, North Creek committed to adopting LEAN principles, which made the nursery more efficient.

Looking ahead

Succession planning is difficult for Steve, as neither of his sons are involved in the business, but it’s been on his mind since 2016, when he had a major health scare. Right before Christmas, without even knowing he was sick, he started to hemorrhage and was hospitalized with diverticulitis.

It was a major shock for someone who had always been extraordinarily healthy to have a near-death experience. It was the catalyst that got him thinking more seriously about succession planning.

“After getting knocked down in 2016, you wake up and you say, well, you’re not going to live forever.”

Still, he has no plans to retire soon. He would like to spend more time on his hobbies and less time managing the business. The current COVID crisis is another example of how successful nursery owners need to be able to roll with the punches.

“You have to be adaptable, have faith in the future, stay focused and work hard,” Steve says. “It helps to have great people supporting you.”