Native know-how

Features - Cover Feature

June 22, 2011

Cuivre Island off the Mississippi River was once full of soybeans. Now it’s home to more than a dozen species of native trees from Forrest Keeling Nursery. The site boasts a more than 95 percent survival rate.Photo by Bill sawalich, Barlow productionsNative species are long-lived and durable—traits Wayne Lovelace and Kim Lovelace-Young require from their plant material and their business, Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry, Mo. The father-and-daughter team recognized the potential of the native market years ago, and now that sector makes up more than half the nursery’s total annual volume.

“We saw an opportunity to grow natives, especially ones being used in the environmental field,” said Wayne, owner of Forrest Keeling Nursery (FKN). “We specialize in native oaks and members of the hickory family. There are 21 varieties of oaks native to Missouri, and we grow them all.”

FKN grows 250 varieties of native species for restoration and conservation projects, for specimen tree growers and for retail garden centers. Many of the nursery’s seedlings are planted in wetland restoration and reforestation projects.

“The restoration market has held up well during the last few years, in part because many of these projects are funded far in advance and they maintain themselves,” Wayne said.

Thousands of trees from FKN are now in their 14th year at Cuivre Island Conservation Area, a bottomland forest restoration project near St. Louis along the Mississippi River. The project’s goal was to establish hard mast trees, such as oaks and pecans, said Kim, vice president and general manager at FKN. Prior to the planting, the site had been in soybeans for 40 years, she said. Some of the species planted at the island include swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), pin oak (Q. palustris), nuttall oak (Q. texana), native pecan (Carya illinoensis) and Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus diocus).

The site has flooded every spring except for three years since installation and experienced prolonged inundation during the flood of 2008. The survival rate of the FKN trees is 95 percent, Kim said. She attributes the transplant success to the nursery’s Root Production Method (RPM), a system Wayne developed and patented.

A system for survival
Kim Lovelace-Young said she still learns something new every day from her father Wayne Lovelace. They get a lot of satisfaction from providing a product for restoration projects and being able to see the results.
RPM is a system that starts with a superior seed, Wayne said.

“We select the heaviest seed. The size of an acorn is not that important. It’s the density or weight,” he said.

Seeds are germinated on raised beds at different depths. The depths vary, and the depth details are proprietary. At the first stage of germination, all seedlings are graded where up to 40 percent of the seedlings are discarded. Seedlings are shifted up and air pruned, then planted into a squat container designed by FKN. The process is used for trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials.

“RPM plants have a healthier root system, an accelerated growth rate and an improved survivability rate,” Wayne said.

The method has allowed the nursery to grow and sell trees that are often classified as “difficult to transplant,” such as oaks and pecans, Kim said.

Native applications
Fisher Hog Farms near Middletown, Mo., used RPM-produced trees and shrubs to create a vegetative environmental buffer. The buffer is made up of specially-designed plantings that help improve air and water quality around a livestock facility. The pork operation won the 2011 Missouri Environmental Steward Award for “demonstrating a firm commitment to safeguarding the environment and the communities that surround them.”

For wetland restoration, the nursery developed a four-step Walk-A-Way system to achieve high survivability rates, since most of these projects “get little or no attention after planting,” Kim said.

The Walk-A-Way system starts with ground preparation (plowing, disking and berm creation) in June or July; cover crop establishment in August or September; tree establishment in October or December; and mat placement (weed barrier and moisture retainer) and fertilization in April or May.

The growth rate of RPM hardwoods is vastly accelerated, Kim said. The nursery’s trees achieve 3-5 feet of growth during the first year, putting the trees beyond the easy reach of browsing deer, floodwaters and sunlight competition.

“Take our RPM white oak, for instance. It fruits in the fourth year, which means better reproduction rates and more wildlife food,” she said.

Natives are an excellent choice for rain gardens or bioswales, which require the use of deep-rooted plants, Kim said. The nursery installed its own working rain garden in spring 2008.

“The deep-rooted native plants and sunken profile of the rain garden really help absorb stormwater, as well as surface water runoff and reduce erosion,” Kim said. “The rain garden has solved our problem with standing water on our front lawn. It also adds a beautiful feature that attracts songbirds.”

Other applications for RPM-produced natives include agroforestry, wildlife habitat creation and restoration, urban forestry, erosion control and biomass production.

“Bioremediation is gaining speed in the Rust Belt,” Wayne said. “Project managers are looking for tough species that not only tolerate poor soil conditions, but help clean up the soil.”

A new natives niche
As the nursery sold native plants to restoration and conservation projects, Kim saw a need for native wildflowers and added that segment to production.

“After a downturn in the bare-root seedling market two or three years ago, wildflowers has become a successful program for us,” she said.

The wildflowers follow the tree and shrub production in the propagation houses.

The nursery is growing straight native species and no native cultivars. Wildflowers are available in a 1-gallon container, and the nursery is getting more interest from retailers for this program.

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Photos by Bill Sawalich, Barlow Productions