Sometimes customers want one thing and climate wants another, but this dilemma presents opportunities for the grower
If Mick Jagger had been a horticulturist, he might have sung, “You can’t always plant what you want.”
Case in point: Sean Hogan, owner of Cistus Nursery (Portland, Oregon), was driving home from work in late August and passed a parched landscape at a 76 gas station. He recalled that a year prior, the landscape was freshly installed.
“They must have invested heavily in their landscape,” he said. “There are palms, yuccas, magnolias — and every last thing is dead.”
The lesson? “We can grow a lot in our landscape, and it is forgiving, but one of our initiatives is to teach climate and convince other people of the industry we are not USDA Hardiness Zone 6. That we can be more supportive of our climate,” Hogan said.
Sustainability, native plants, climate-appropriate plants, and climate change are all topics that are percolating in the green industry, among communities and within gardener circles. Many agree with Hogan that nurseries have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to lead customers in their plant choices and to drive a better climatic fit in their plant lists.
Urban forests in peril
“The more we can work together with nurseries to make an educated public, the better,” said Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI) at the Morton Arboretum (Lisle, Illinois). CRTI was started by the arboretum with a purpose: to develop a coalition of public and private partners that together could address the health of urban forests in Illinois.
The initiative came out of the 2010 Regional Tree Census, which paradoxically found that the existing regional forest contributed significantly to the well-being of residents and the environment, but its own health was endangered.
Some 73 percent of the trees were less than 6 inches in diameter and 13 million of them had been lost to emerald ash borer infestation. Further, the forest canopy lacked diversity — just ten species made up 60 percent of the trees. About 20 percent of street trees were ash and 32 percent maple. Other U.S. urban areas were similar and the problem could get worse. “Asian longhorn beetle is waiting to get into Illinois, and maples are going to be a much more significant problem,” she said.
CRTI set out to increase diversity. It turned to scientific forecasting that tested the vulnerability of these forests, the impacts of a changing climate and the ability to adapt forests so the impact could be reduced.
No matter how you look at it, diversity is key, and the nursery industry is an important partner in achieving it. However, Scott understands the difficulty nurseries have in increasing production of trees not in wide demand, and that trees can’t become instantly available.
“Nurseries are anxious about expanding species diversity of plants that aren’t normally sold,” she said.
As a response, CRTI has developed agreements for large contract growing (the plan is for 22 million trees), set up so the purchaser buys over a 10-year period, with nurseries receiving graduated payments: 25 percent the first year, 15 percent the second and so on.
It’s important for conversations to continue, partnerships to grow, and for nurseries to be invested in the goals of diversity by offering trees that will work with rather than against a particular climate.
From a grower’s standpoint, this may also help the bottom line, according to Ted McDonald, a regional sales manager for Bailey Nurseries (St. Paul, Minnesota).
Growing regional-specific plants is part of a matrix of goals for Bailey, and yet its breeding programs still experiment with crosses to push the boundaries of survivability; for instance, with lilacs in the southern United States.
“It’s a long battle, and we don’t know if we’ll get there, crossing to get them in those regions,” McDonald said. “People move, and they want their plants, and a lot of them aren’t suited for the new region.”
The poor conditions create a certain tension between what customers want and what the grower knows is right.
“As customers push for more, we have to keep a balance between what our customers ask for and what’s good for them and good for the overall health of the environment,” McDonald said. “If plants are right for an area, they’re going to do well.”
He believes education plays an important part in ensuring customers — and influencers — understand the growing requirements for a particular territory.
“As growers, we’ve got to be stewards of the land and do everything we can to be commercially viable but sustain our business,” McDonald said.
Mixing aesthetics and ecology
Paul Bonine and Greg Shepherd, co-owners of Xera Plants (Portland, Oregon), started their nursery in 2000 with environmental stewardship as the main foundation. They each grew up on well water in rural areas of California and Oregon, where winters were wet, summers were dry and resources were limited.
“It seems strange to water for three months when it rains for nine months,” Bonine said.
Landscapes planted in the Pacific Northwest require constant water during summer. Seeing a need for alternatives, Xera has built a catalog of plants that fit the Pacific Northwest climate and are billed as ecologically sound.
The nursery specializes in natives, broadening the palettes of Northwest gardeners with Arctostaphylos (manzanita), Ceanothus (wild lilac) and Cistus (rock rose). Among others, they grow climate-adapted plants such as Lagerstroemia (crape myrtle) and Grevillia (spider flower), an Australian evergreen member of the Proteaceae family that thrives on neglect.
The nursery has flourished by mixing good aesthetics and ecology in a way that saves customers time and money. “They don’t want to water; they find it time-consuming and intensive,” Bonine said. “People understand quickly. They are in tune with climate.”
The need for an informed end-user is exactly what Todd Forrest, the Arthur Ross vice president for horticulture and living collections at The New York Botanical Garden (New York City), realized. He spent more than four years on the road presenting his seminar, “Gardening in a Changing Climate,” to environmental organizations, garden clubs and horticultural societies.
“There was great interest from a wide range of people, and they were mostly interested in how they could change their own gardens and perhaps be part of the solution,” Forrest said. “Gardeners are the perfect audience because they are acutely aware of the weather, hardiness zones, water and other climate concerns.”
Forrest believes the green industry and nurseries, which are often removed from the customer, can have a prominent role in supporting the dialogue on best and sustainable practices.
“If we can work mutually together, I think that is going to be the next phase of the public’s education,” he said. “If growers can connect to gardeners about what they know, what they can teach, it is just another point of information. Historically, growers are out of the mix, but they have a lot of information to offer the home grower.”
Right for the region
For growers, it is challenging to become a resource and influence how customers choose plants, said Richie Steffen, director and curator of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden (Seattle, Washington). In 2001, the garden launched the Great Plant Picks program, which compiles vetted lists of outstanding, climate-appropriate selections for the maritime Northwest.
“The goal of the program is to build a useful palette of plants that can be grown by the average gardener and industry professionals,” Steffen said. “There are close to 1,000 plants on the list.”
The committee that picks the plants is made up of a diverse group of nursery representatives, landscape architects, city arborists and other experts from west of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. “If it gets through the committee, it will be good for not just in the garden, but holds up well in the retail market,” Steffen said.
It’s important to have basic criteria to define a good plant for a region, as well as good information about which other regions can and cannot use the plant, challenging zonal denial when necessary.
Steffen sees natives having a bigger influence over time in bringing gardeners climate hardy plants, especially as the ones on the market improve their image. Industry people need to support education to shift attitudes, but there can be balance.
For example, GPP isn’t ready to pull water-needy plants from its recommended lists, just because there increased attention given to water-wise gardening. There can be, however, a change in how those plants are discussed. Gardeners can be encouraged to use these plants as a smaller element of the garden, thereby minimizing resource use during the driest parts of summer.
By evaluating the plants according to criteria for region specificity, there is still flexibility for the industry, which can ship to other parts of the country when a plant demonstrates a wider utility. Steffen considers specialty nurseries like Xera Plants to be models for larger nurseries, building on that success with regional plants that will last for the long term, especially with expected shifts in climate.
Preparing for market changes
By joining the conversations about sustainability, diversity and climate-appropriate growing, growers can prepare for the coming shifts in what consumers demand.
According to Scott, proponents of diversity are not telling consumers to cut down their existing trees — for example, the existing 35 percent maple in Chicagoland urban forests. Rather, they are sending gardeners and municipalities a clear message: plant no more.
“The nurseries say, ‘We just plant what people ask for, and as long as they keep asking, that’s what we’re going to grow,’” Scott said. “However, [the market will shift] and if we can keep nurseries involved early on, and be aware, it will not affect them so dramatically. It will save them from having all those trees in their yard.”
A perfect example is Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), Scott said, which some states have deemed invasive. “We know it has invasive tendencies, and we go out and nurseries have several acres of it,” Scott said. “At some point it is going to be legislated and potentially listed as an invasive species, and they are going to be left holding the bag. I think the fear is someone is going to say they want Callery pear, and they’re not going to have one, and that customer will go someplace else.”
Scott recommends nurseries prepare by growing substitutes that will work for municipalities and consumers.
Abby Meyer, executive director of Botanic Gardens Conservation International U.S. (BGCI), also believes nurseries have an opportunity to go one step further and create partnerships that will help get the word out about the alternates that are starting to populate plants lists.
BGCI is a global network of botanic gardens with headquarters in England. It communicates with over 1,000 botanic gardens in the United States and 3,000 other gardens worldwide, reaching millions of students and visitors and online visitors each year.
“My current perception of what we’re facing with climate change is there are going to be plant winners and plants losers,” Meyer said. “By default, we are growing, conserving and preserving certain species over others, ones that have value.”
Meyer pointed to a study by the Chicago Botanic Garden that found 25,000 vascular plant taxa are native to the United States, but only a quarter of them are being sold. The study focused on natives, their value and viability as substitutes for existing, less sustainable ornamental plants, or just their value in and of themselves as tough ornamentals.
“There is a huge gap in native species being accessible,” Meyer said. “This world is cultivated, and we’re deciding which plants win or lose. We are making a conscious selection every day to grow a certain palette of plants. If we can take that energy and strategically select and broaden the number of species we are growing and preserving, it will be all to our benefit.”
Given their reach and outreach mission, botanic gardens are natural partners for nurseries, for joining forces in educating and reaching consumers, a message Meyer brought to the last International Plant Propagation Society meeting.
“We can select and broaden the number of species we are growing and conserving,” Meyer said. “We can save more species and choose the right plant for the right place. It will give us more plant resources to use in the future for future generations to benefit from.”
An opportunity for growers
There are many stories growers could be telling about their plants that have yet to be told. As trendsetters, they have the opportunity to help create strong bonds between the buying public and their product — which could be a climate-appropriate plant, which could be a native.
“If you present a beautiful plant picture, people get excited about it. It’s fun to talk about how it glows in low light, and people see it and they stop in their tracks, and I say, ‘Here, feel that leaf,’” Hogan said.
The starting point in that story, he suggested, does not need to be the attributes that make the plant sustainable. That can be a turnoff. Instead, promote this gorgeous plant, and then mention it is drought tolerant or native.
“It’s important to get people to bond, and to offer alternatives as additions,” Hogan said. “A landscape may have a beautiful rose, and then there is a dry spot, so why not recommend growing there a manzanita?”
In this way, growers and plant purveyors can reverse the punitive aspect of doing well with horticulture. “It’s tough, though; markets don’t always change within, they bow to pressure,” Hogan said.
But overall, the pressure seems to be mounting in favor of climate-specific and sustainable plants. That gives growers an opportunity to both meet the trend and cultivate it. “Partly we understand the trends and partly we create the trends,” Hogan said.
Tracy Ilene Miller is a freelance writer and editor who covers several topics, including gardening. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.