Kuenzi Turf and Nursery

Features - Cover Feature

Kuenzi’s oaks grown in root bags help nurseries find success with this stubborn tree.

August 16, 2011

For Kuenzi Turf & Nursery in Salem, Ore., the grass is greener on the other side. On the other side of the sod farm that is. Kuenzi’s is proof positive it pays to diversify and be horizontal instead of vertical in business, especially during tough times.

Owner Myron Kuenzi said at his company, his crew has never wanted to grow the “easy” plants. His philosophy has been to grow what is more difficult because he feels there will always be a market for those items.  And so far, this has held true during the most recent economic struggles in the U.S.

Building a better mouse trap
Kuenzi acknowledges the horticulture world is changing, and to survive, his company must also change.

“Change is constant, relentless and the only game in town,” he said. “If we don’t change, we’ll be out of town, out of luck and out of business.”

Myron and Zach Kuenzi are a father-and-son team at the nursery. Zach manages the finished shade tree division.
To that end, Kuenzi’s had to evaluate what was working well and what it could potentially produce better or differently. The grower started by analyzing the “root” of the problem. Oaks are a popular tree, but they are known for having a thick, coarse root system which doesn’t have a high transplant survival rate. The Kuenzi staff asked themselves, ‘Could we solve this problem and provide a benefit to our customers in doing so?’ ‘Do we have the tools to solve this age-old dilemma?’ Thus began the company’s quest to build a better ‘oak’ mouse trap.

Kuenzi’s had been growing specimen trees in a 21-inch, in-ground fabric bag for years. From that experience Kuenzi’s knew first-hand the benefits the bag system provided and how it improved root structure and transplant survivability. Working with its fabric bag supplier, High Caliper Growing Systems of Oklahoma City, Kuenzi’s decided to scale down the bag to a 10-inch size and try this production method with oak liners.

What’s on the inside counts
Another component to why oaks are successful in the bag is what’s in the growing medium. Rather than a soilless media, Kuenzi’s uses field soil, which provides a seamless transition for the tree. The tree doesn’t even realize it’s been picked-up and moved from Oregon to the customer’s fields, he said.

“The oaks grown in the in-ground fabric bags provided us plants that easily re-established roots after transplanting,” said Tom Demaline, president of Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio. “The Kuenzi trees that were planted March 2011 rooted in and had exceptional growth after they broke dormancy. In fact we were able to trim the new growth in mid-June.”

Field soil is certainly heavier, but it also means once a grower takes the bag off and plants the tree in the field, it’s there to stay. Trees won’t suffer from tipping, which is more likely to occur with a soilless media.

The root-bag oaks help reduce growing time in the field.

Kuenzi Turf & Nursery

In 1990 by Myron Kuenzi.

Location: Salem, Ore. Production space: 600 acres in sod and nursery stock production.

Sales area: Specimen shade trees sold primarily in the Western United States. Bare root liners and Japanese maples sold throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada. Sod sales area is Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Primary customer: Specimen shade trees to landscape professionals, shade tree brokers or procurement companies. Bare root liners to primarily wholesale nursery growers. Japanese maples to landscape rewholesale yards and garden centers. Sod customers are landscape professionals.

“Kuenzi’s oak liners have excellent branch scaffolding as well as a perfect central leader. The trunk caliper is quite large for a liner oak, which means turn-around time to a finished product is quicker,” said Bob Pettorini, vice president of production at Lake County Nursery in Perry, Ohio.

Kuenzi’s understands that to have a quality product, the company must invest in a good foundation. The nursery is germinating some of the oaks itself, but also using neighbor nurseryman John Lewis of JLPN Inc. in Salem.

“We are very particular on the entire production process, and John is the only grower creating the right beginning root system for oaks in an Anderson band pot,” Kuenzi said.

Kuenzi’s has expanded its root control bag line including Acer griseum, Cornus florida, Fagus sylvatica, Nyssa sylvatica and Stewartia pseudocamellia. Kuenzi’s also plans to offer Franklinia, Ginkgo and Taxodium in root bags.

Evolution of a numbers man
Kuenzi graduated from Oregon State University with a business degree and a concentration in accounting and a minor in industrial engineering. After passing his CPA exam, he practiced in the public accounting field for about six years before becoming CFO and general manager for a multi-state sod growing farm. In addition, his family had been operating a u-pick/we-pick strawberry farm close to Salem along with a 5-acre Japanese maple B&B nursery. After eight years in the sod industry, he did a small startup of 35 acres of sod, and gradually added other shade trees to the mix, growing to its present size of 600 acres of sod, shade and ornamental trees.

Two of his six children are active in the day-to-day family business. His oldest daughter Sara is the office manager. His oldest son Zach primarily focuses on contractor sales and service for the sod and the finished shade tree divisions.
Kuenzi guides his company with what he refers to as “salt-of-the-earth values.”

“Plants are our ambassadors; they represent us,” he said. Because of this philosophy, he firmly believes the nursery can’t possibly skimp on anything that will help his plants thrive and survive since they’re the reason customers come back.

“At their core, Myron and his family are farmers, yet are very mindful of their growing practices,” said Steve Taber, co-owner of Southwest Wholesale Nursery in Dallas. “They evaluate their procedures regularly to maintain an efficient method of growing quality trees and turf.”

Kuenzi’s Finds a Niche

While root control bag liners are Kuenzi’s top-selling line, B&B Japanese maples -- in particular ‘Bloodgood’ and ‘Emperor’-- are a nursery specialty.  Kuenzi’s technique for producing an outstanding “full and fluffy” specimen is simple; space and prune them to become wide. To be a specimen grade tree, it must be nearly as wide as it is tall on all sides and have no holes through which one could toss a football (not even Tom Brady).

Kuenzi’s spade digs its Japanese maples for several reasons. First, the trees show well on a rewholesale lot. Secondly, customers can reload and handle them with the nursery jaws and keep the trees looking good. Finally, the extra ball size allows the trees to put out several times the new growth, which helps keep up their sales appeal.

For more: www.kuenziturfnursery.com.