2014 Grower of the Year: A thirst for knowledge

Driven by ingenuity, thoughtfulness and common sense, Bill Hendricks proves he’s an industry ally.

Bill Hendricks has an insatiable thirst for plant and production knowledge. He possesses an encyclopedia-like knowledge of plants, yet he’s eager to find out about new selections. He’s incorporated some of the most innovative production techniques at Klyn Nurseries, but he continues to try new methods. He’s both a student and a teacher. He’s simultaneously the expert and the apprentice. Even with 50+ years of horticulture experience, Hendricks never stops learning.

His path to the nursery industry is an interesting one. He spent two years in college working on a degree in education, but realized his heart wasn’t in it. In 1962 he left college to pursue a career in horticulture. He found a job in a greenhouse growing cut flowers.

“After two years, the owner — a German immigrant — saw that I wanted more than a job. He suggested I use the European style of on-the-job education and work for other horticultural businesses to improve my education,” Hendricks explains. “I followed his advice and grew cactus and bromeliads, sold wholesale cut orchids, and ran a garden center before I settled into the wholesale nursery industry and realized this is what I was looking for. He shared with me a German saying that translates to ‘Steal with your eyes not your hands’ and told me that wherever I worked, I would see both good and bad and to learn from both.”

He’s carried that advice with him throughout the years.

An innovative operation

Klyn Nurseries, located in Perry, Ohio, is one of the most diversified operations in the country, with more than 1,850 different species and cultivars growing in 500 acres of field production, 40 acres of containers and 15 acres of propagation beds. The nursery grows perennials, bamboo, grasses, trees, shrubs, specialty conifers, vines and bog plants.

“I know of no other wholesale grower in the country who is interested in and has the command of so many different plant groups,” says Tim Brotzman, owner of Brotzman’s Nursery, located down the road from Klyn in Madison, Ohio. “Whether it is conifers, shrubs, perennials, bamboos or succulents, Bill has an extensive, hands-on knowledge of them all.”

Walking onto the nursery property is like stepping into an arboretum. It’s no surprise that Hendricks works closely with area arboretums to help with new plant procurement.

“Of course, the variety of plants that Klyn Nurseries produces is of great interest to a public garden like Holden Arboretum,” says Charles Tubesing, plant collections curator at The Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio. “I almost never get the drop on Bill when it comes to new introductions. When visiting Klyn, I’ll mention having acquired a new and exciting cultivar from a mail-order nursery, and Bill will show me 50 plants of it that he has bought in from the Netherlands.”

With such a wide range of plants, Hendricks and his staff need innovative production techniques to be efficient. Some production practices originated on-site, while others were a result of partnering with area university researchers.

The nursery designed burlap overwintering structures for crops including Buxus and Ilex to reduce winter injury. Winter burn is one of the nursery’s biggest problems, and the burlap protects the plants while allowing air to circulate, Hendricks explains. Burlap is rolled over concrete reinforcement wire, and a homemade machine rolls up the burlap when it’s time to uncover the crops.

“Even with last year’s brutal winter, the crops that were covered with burlap looked like they were grown in a greenhouse,” he says.

Klyn Nurseries is one of only a few nurseries that is home to one of the most high-tech contraptions in the industry. The nursery partnered with Ohio State University and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to test an intelligent pesticide sprayer. This prototype uses intelligent technologies to continuously match spray outputs to crop characteristics, insect/disease pressures and microclimatic conditions during pesticide applications. Sensors detect the plant, its canopy structure and foliage density, and tractor speed, while controllers manipulate nozzles independently to produce variable-rate spray outputs based on plant characteristics in real time. The intelligent sprayer coupled with a reduced-rate application program has cut Klyn’s spray rate by close to 75 percent. Hendricks calls the intelligent sprayer a “game changer” and says it will pay for itself in about a year.

Sustainable = common sense

Hendricks adopted sustainable production practices decades before it became a trend. The nursery has captured and recycled all of its irrigation water for more than 20 years. Grass waterways absorb nutrients and collect soil particles, which clean the water within the recycling system.

Through research with Ohio State University, the nursery discovered it can reduce fertilizer applications, which reduces the environmental impact, “and we still grow a quality plant,” Hendricks explains. The nursery applies nutrients based on the plants’ need according to soil tests.

“To me, sustainable equals common sense. I was adopting sustainable practices before it was an industry term. I had to collect water and build ponds. I learned about the benefits of compost. It just made good business sense,” he says.

The nursery also uses composted hardwood bark and composted municipal sludge (CMS) in container media, field production and bed production. Klyn composts and recycles all vegetation on site for field applications. The nursery also participates in a Leaf to Land program through the Ohio State Extension service which takes homeowner and municipal leaves and grass clippings. The nursery composts this material and uses it throughout the nursery each year.

“In field production, we have found that through the addition of CMS, leaf compost and nursery waste, we can create an environment for mycorrhizae to colonize root systems on plants without the need to purchase commercial mycorrhizae products,” Hendricks says.

In container production, the nursery uses 10 percent CMS in its soilless media mix. “The CMS provides a low level fertility, disease suppression and provides the necessary trace elements for up to two years,” he says.

The use of CMS in bed production helps shave about a year off of liner production on boxwood. CMS also boosts ornamental grass liner production. Seedlings are planted in June and harvested in April or May. Because of compost applications – both hardwood and CMS – the beds have been in continuous use without resting the soil for more than 20 years, he says.

The nursery purchases CMS for about $12 a yard. The CMS Hendricks uses is a high-quality, stable product that’s low in metals. But not all compost is created equal, he warns. “Any CMS you are considering must be tested prior to use.”

Always an advocate

Hendricks isn’t satisfied to only grow his business, he’s devoted to growing the entire industry. He presents between 30 and 40 lectures each year across the country about plants, not Klyn Nurseries, and the benefits of plants to people’s health and well-being, as well as the environment.

“I want to personally excite as many people as possible about the value of plants, their diversity and usage,” he says. “I’d like to see more nurserymen get out and promote plants to the public.”

Hendricks pays close attention to industry trends and finds ways to tie them back to the end consumer. With the explosion in edibles sales, Hendricks says the industry can expand on that market, not through sales of lettuce or tomatoes, but the many edible nursery crops that are often not marketed as food crops.

“The nursery industry has what I call unexpected edibles that have been marketed as ornamentals for years,” he says. “Edibles include Cornelian cherry, mountain ash, sumac – tea is made from the seed heads, birch for birch beer, elderberry and aronia. It’s a different way of approaching plants our market.”

Hendricks is promoting natives, yet he’s been growing several hundred native species for decades.

Hendricks will continue sharing his plant knowledge with consumers and the industry, alike. He doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon, although retirement is something he “looks forward to with care.” He’ll continue to travel the world looking for remarkable plants. He’ll also continue to dabble in his hobby – a 4,000-piece cactus collection.

“Plants have provided an amazing life for me.”

For more:

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