Turf Magazine - October, 2008

CENTRAL FEATURES

Roll with the Changes

Nursery meets landscaping preferences
By Nancy Riggs

Photos courtesy of Home Nursery, Inc.

Whether they feature plants with shiny leaves or perennials exhibiting brightly colored blooms, today’s landscape designs are very different from a decade or two ago. Homeowners and grounds managers are looking not only for attractive grounds, but also ease of maintenance. Home Nursery, Inc., located in Edwardsville, Ill., in the St. Louis metro area, has continually changed its focus as consumer landscaping preferences have changed over the years. The family-owned and operated wholesale nursery has received numerous awards for its service and products. Home Nursery family members have been active in green industry issues, and Ann Tosovsky currently serves on the executive board of the Illinois Green Industry Council, formerly the Illinois Nurserymen’s Association.

Perennial plants are grown at the company's growing operations in Albers, Ill.

Home Nursery (www.homenursery.com) originally sold plants through several retail centers. Over the years, the business focus has changed to propagating and growing plants for wholesale to landscapers and garden centers. The corporate office is located in Edwardsville, with growing operations located at nearby Albers, Ill. “We have about 200 acres of balled plants and about 150 acres of container plants,” Tosovsky said. Distribution centers are located at Albers and in O’Fallon, Mo. The two distribution centers primarily serve small landscapers in the St. Louis metro area who buy in small quantities. Plants are delivered by Home Nursery in the St. Louis area and by contract delivery throughout the12-state area it serves.  

Responding to change

“We were probably best known for our taxus and upright junipers,” said Tosovsky. While evergreens of various types continue to be an important component of Home Nursery’s products, changing tastes have dictated diverse plants. Perennials, roses, ornamental grasses and various container plantings have increased in popularity.

Tosovsky said, “For the past 10 years or so, shrub roses have been very big. People want blooms. The shrub rose Knock-Out Red is one of our most popular. Color has been the trend in recent years with hydrangeas also very popular. We’re seeing more boxwood as compact hedges replacing formal gardens and more interest in hardy bamboo. People want more color and low maintenance.”

Although responding to customer preferences is important in any business, caution is the byword in entering the field with new plants. “We’re cautious about new varieties,” Tosovsky. “Nursery plants need to be studied to see how well they really do in specific areas. We’re very careful of jumping in with too many new plants too quickly.”

While Home Nursery is cautious about implementing changes based on trends in landscaping preferences, Tosovsky is interested in how the trends will progress. “It goes through cycles,” she said. Current interest remains strongly focused on color in landscaping, and Tosovsky noted that people may at some point do a turnaround with preferences reverting to evergreens. “You put those in your yard and have to do very little with them,” she said. She is, however, skeptical that the strong interest in blooming plants will lessen in the near future. “People really like color, and it probably will stay strong,” she said.

Propagation methods evolve

Home Nursery propagation methods have evolved from earlier methods. “While it’s not new technology, we have been using bottom-heated propagation for about five or six years,” said Paul VanOteghem, production vice president. Plants were formerly propagated in sand beds, and harvested when dormant and potted into smaller containers. The process required about 18 months. “We now direct-stick into cell trays,” VanOteghem said. The trays vary from 21 to 72 cells, depending on the product. The bottom-heated propagation method involves tubes buried and covered with gravel. Warm water is circulated through the tubes, and flats with the direct-stick cuttings are placed on top of the heated area. The method cuts the time required to about six months, and plants develop into more heavily rooted product. Plants then may be transferred to 1-gallon or larger planters, depending on whether the plant is an aggressive grower or slow grower.

While Home Nursery previously propagated all of its own plants, a number of plants are now purchased as very small plants and grown at the nursery. “There’s been a major increase in licensing and patenting of plants,” VanOteghem said. “We may not be licensed for a particular plant, so we contract for that.” High-profile national marketing has increased interest in specific plants. Home Nursery purchases liners, small flats of starter plants in the often-requested patented plants, and grows them into the larger plants.

Student workers stick clippings into cell trays for rooting process.
The taxus crop is irrigated with sprinkler irrigation.
Employees dig plants to be wrapped in burlap.

Irrigation and technology upgrades

Tosovsky said that the Albers farm was purchased in 1970, a selection made in a large part due to its proximity to the St. Louis metro area and its ample water supply. “We recapture 90 percent of the rainwater, and our irrigation is primarily from retention ponds. We pump from wells when the retention ponds get low,” she said. A distant pond located in a flood plain is a key water source used for irrigation when needed. A major irrigation upgrade was recently completed with Trickl-eeze, St. Joseph, Mich., providing irrigation consulting. “We had outgrown our irrigation system,” said VanOteghem. Overhead irrigation is used and the system features a Galileo computerized controller system. About 2.5 miles of 12-inch PVC pipe are included with 3-inch aluminum lateral pipe and Netafirm solenoid valves. Rain Bird impact sprinklers are used. Six electric pumps can pump up to 6,000 gallons of water a minute, and diesel backup pumps are in place.

“We upgraded our accounting software in 2000,” Tosovsky said. “We have recently been working on the inventory component of the software package.” She sees the computerized tracking for production as a major step for the company, but said that it’s not an exact science. “We have to figure out exactly what we have to sell and where it’s located on the farm,” she said. “When product continuously moves from place to place and changes in size, that process is very challenging.”

Meeting challenges

In addition to market changes, weather challenges are major concerns to any growing operation. The spring 2007 freeze was out of the ordinary and presented major challenges to the firm. Record-breaking ice storms and windstorms brought major damage throughout the region.  

Home Nursery was established in 1921 by Tosovsky’s grandfather, Ernest, who had emigrated as a child with his mother from Czechoslovakia. Toso­vsky’s father, Chuck, is president of the company. Tosovsky graduated from Eastern Illinois University and worked in the computer industry before joining the family business. She is vice president of public relations, and Tim, her cousin, is a sales consultant. They are third-generation family members now active in the business.

Tosovsky noted that a well-structured plan is necessary to efficiently run a family business. “You have to have a plan of succession,” Tosovsky said.

Management of Home Nursery is designated to specific staff members. In addition to family members, five senior managers, two distribution center managers and several department managers have responsibilities in the firm.

Employee relations are important in successful operations, and Home Nursery focuses on employee retention. A newsletter published three times yearly highlights specific employees and their contributions to the firm. “It makes them feel like a part of the business,” Tosovsky said. While Tosovsky noted that meeting immigration requirements complicate the hiring process, many of the approximately 90 full-time employees are long term, with only about 25 seasonal workers added each year.  

The Tosovsky family has long been involved in green industry issues, and Tosovsky has been an activist in state and federal legislative issues. Family member endowment funds support research through the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), the research arm of the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA).

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.