Game changers

Game changers

Features - Plant Production

Marketing solutions for nativars begin with proper production planning.

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Physocarpus opulifolius Tiny Wine (ninebark)

For Loma Vista Nursery, “right plant, right place” is more than an education hook to help consumers understand what and where to plant. Offering a mix of natives, cultivars and nativars is a successful business model that informs this wholesale grower’s production and marketing strategy.

“Nativars are more than fancy marketing. They provide gardeners with needed solutions in the landscape,” says Lyndsi Oestmann, president of the 300-acre container facility in Ottawa, Kansas, and its 600-acre tree farm in nearby Willow Springs. Bred to fit smaller spaces, provide more flowers, deliver vibrant fall color and have strong disease and pest resistance, nativars, she says, are win-wins for every link in the plant sale chain.

“There’s no doubt that natives do the heavy lifting when it comes to the ecological benefits,” she says. “When we do our production planning, we keep in mind that plants are used in residential and commercial landscapes for many different reasons, and we produce and market to those diverse needs.”

Centrally located in the heart of America, the nursery propagates and grows perennials, trees and shrubs that are distributed to Midwest independent garden centers and landscape contractors. When selecting native cultivars to include in their planning process, the grower looks at the overall picture and considers the end-users’ goals.

“Residential yards are not always large enough to afford the spread of native plants. In that case, consumers’ goals will be different,” Oestmann says.

They may range from extending the home environment for family enjoyment and entertaining, to supporting storm water management or enhancing front-yard curb appeal.

Cornus stolonifera Arctic Fire Red (red-osier dogwood)

Balancing act

Whether a consumer selects a perennial or woody shrub at a local garden center or hires a landscape contractor to install a tree in their yard, plant presentation at purchase is the key that turns the buy, Oestmann says. Native little bluestem makes a generally poor presentation in a nursery container, where it tends to flop.

“As an alternative, we grow Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’, which has a columnar shape and stays upright in a nursery container,” she says. “When it arrives on the consumer’s property, it presents itself well. The fall color is intense, changing from silverly blue to bright purple. This bluestem also supports pollinators and provides winter habitat for birds. Like the species, it tolerates drought well.”

Consumers naturally want to know that the plants they buy are grown and cared for in an environmentally friendly and conscientious way. They are not willing, however, to compromise health and beauty. Nor should they.

“It’s a real fine line,” says Duane Huss, plant production operations manager. “We are very mindful of what we spray on plant material. Producing nativars that are bred to be more disease resistant helps us do this. We can successfully grow Physocarpus in our nursery now because we have nativars that were bred to not succumb to powdery mildew.” The nursery’s Proven Winners brands include Physocarpus opulifolius Tiny Wine and Physocarpus opulifolius Tiny Wine Gold.

“We cannot ask consumers to plant natives in their landscape to provide habitat and food sources for pollinators, birds and beneficial insects and not provide a plant that actually fulfills their landscape needs,” Oestmann says.

At the back end, that requires consideration and research – and both go into the grower’s annual production plan. While they strive to meet the requests of their customers, they also get to know their customers’ customers.

“At the nursery, we balance plants that can be grown profitably with consumer demand while taking into consideration space available for propagation, overwintering and growing,” Oestmann explains. Other considerations are how plants are distributed to market, and where in the Midwest they are destined.

Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ (sumac)

Reviving the American elm

Nativars are less problematic to grow, enabling Loma Vista Nursery to offer more plants that will thrive in Midwest markets.

“Having a nativar available allows us to successfully grow species that we may otherwise not be able to offer,” Huss adds.

Diervilla rivularis Kodiak Black and Diervilla Kodiak Orange present no pest concerns. These nativars are great replacements for cultivars of Euonymus alatus, which has been historically used as a landscape staple, but is found to be invasive in certain parts of the United States.
Viburnum dentatum Blue Muffin (arrowwood viburnum)

“We can offer this nativar as a replacement to a high demand item that isn’t as friendly to the local ecosystem,” Oestmann says.

Brooke Stamm, production manager, says seed varieties of coreopsis, rudbeckia, liatris, baptisia and Schizachyrium easily germinate with high success rates when planted shallow.

Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ – a dwarf staghorn sumac– is a game changer for its compact height and width (at maturity, between 3 to 6 feet tall and wide). Its showy display features deciduous foliage that turns from green to gold, and then to vibrant red and orange. Loved by birds, the shrub has no significant pest problems in production or in the landscape. Used often in residential landscapes, it requires maintenance to control spread.

Decades ago, American elm was all but wiped-out by Dutch elm disease. Today, newer, disease-resistant hybrids are rekindling the American elm’s resurgence in the marketplace.

“The American elm is a great comeback story,” Huss says. “People over-planted a native tree, and it didn’t work out. Now we have tools to hybridize the American elm and make it viable again. The moral to the story is species diversity, because even natives can have issues in production and within the landscape. Improving natives is good for the grower and it’s good for the gardener.”

Hypericum x Sunny Boulevard (St. John’s wort)

Plants with purpose

Loma Vista Nursery’s production plan focuses on producing plants that provide purpose in the environment. With cultivars of native shrubs, ornamentals, grasses and container trees, their production plan enables the grower to adapt to meet unforeseen demands in production due to weather, labor and distribution.

“Pest conditions can be variable and new ones pop up all the time. For that reason, nativars can be very helpful in the grower setting,” says Thomas Minter, plant health manager. “Clearly native plants are in high demand and that’s great. But growing a plant that is not adapted to handle specific conditions in the nursery’s production can give rise to certain traits the end user may find undesirable. Drawing that trait out of the plant oftentimes makes the plant more appealing. It can also make it more economically feasible.”

Native rudbeckia, he cites, is highly susceptible to septoria leaf spot, as well as a host of other fungal leaf diseases. Foliage infection can be an expensive problem for any grower and is almost impossible to eradicate.

“Consumers are generally unwilling to accept plants with cosmetic issues even if they do not cause injury to the plant. If you’ve drawn forth all the healthy traits of that plant and left is susceptibilities behind, you’ve got an improved plant that needs less inputs,” Minter says. “That’s also incredibly helpful in getting beautiful, healthy plants to our customers and into landscapes. Adding strong plants to our production allows us to focus on other things around the nursery.”

Ilex verticillata Berry Heavy (winterberry holly)

It's not an overstatement that climate change is presenting new and often difficult production and marketing challenges to U.S. plant nurseries, where “outside” is the office and Mother Nature can be the moody boss. This also factors into the grower’s production plan.

“We are experiencing more extreme weather events than we have historically,” Oestmann says. “It has always been cold in Kansas in winter and hot during summer, but our hot and humid conditions are lasting longer. Nature is amazing because it can adapt. Technology is amazing because we can learn from something good and adapt it to be better.”

Oestmann believes the industry has a prime marketing opportunity in the palm of its hand. Good research is emerging to help answer consumers’ tough questions about plant habitats and food sources for pollinators, birds and beneficial insects. The benefits of plants to local ecosystems, the environment, and human health and wellness present a motivating marketing platform.

“We don’t want consumers giving up because the native plants they bought outgrew their space or because the flowering plant they purchased didn’t perform as they expected,” Oestmann says. “As solutions for consumers’ diverse gardening and landscape goals, nativars bring a lot to the table.”

Sue Markgraf, journalist and founder of GreenMark Media, specializes in writing about industry spaces, places and issues™. Her focus includes growers, environmental sciences, public gardens and independent garden centers.