Both horticulturists, Sue
Tantsits and Louise Schaefer were working at the nonprofit Wildlands
Conservancy in Emmaus, Pa., when a native plant sale fundraiser there
suggested a demand. “People really wanted the natives,”
In 2006, they purchased 10 roadside, rural acres in
Orefield, Pa., and opened the Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery on 3
acres a year later. “Now, we’re a real nursery,” Schaefer
says. “Each year we’ve had increased interest. There’s
more awareness that there are differences between natives and non-natives,
and of the need to differentiate.”
|Photos Courtesy of Fringetree Design Studios, LLC.
|New England Aster
|Photo Courtesy of Edge of the Woods.
|Edge of the Woods maintains several demonstration gardens to show homeowners how
to use native plants in their landscape. Left, MaryEllen Snyder, Edge of the Woods
employee, and Louise Schaefer, co-founder.
“Monoculture planting, one species in one large
area, isn’t the way nature works,” says David Hughes, a
landscape architect with Fringetree Design Studios in Upper Black Eddy,
Pa., which emphasizes native plants and diversity and dynamics, not
homogony. “If one (species of) insect gets in, it can work its way
down the line, but if there’s more natural diversity, there’s
less chance of widespread disturbance.”
In some ways, Pennsylvania is leading the way in the
native plant specialty industry. Edge of the Woods is a retail native plant
center, and also a small grower. Others like it in Pennsylvania include
Sugarbush Nursery in Plowville, which recently turned all native, and
Redbud Native Plant Nursery in Glen Mills. Millersville University hosted a
Native Plants in the Landscape Conference at the beginning of June.
“Pennsylvania is doing its fair share
now,” says Jim MacKenzie, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Landscape
and Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of the wholesale Octoraro
Native Plant Nursery in Kirkwood, Pa. “Pennsylvania is our primary
market, and we like to service own state and projects, but the southeastern
corner of Pennsylvania is also a hotbed of horticultural activity with a
savvy, knowledgeable clientele. It allows small native nurseries to become
profitable because there’s more of an interest at the local level to
buy and plant what’s regionally important.”
In the Northeast, some common native perennials are
black-eyed Susan, cardinal flower, butterfly weed and swamp milkweed. Many
trees (white oaks, sugar maple and red cedar), shrubs (red chokeberry and
common witch hazel), ferns (hay-scented, sensitive, Christmas ferns) and
grasses (broomsedge, little bluestem, bottlebrush grass) are native. Edge
of the Woods carries over 300 native species.
Wholesale native plant growers like Octoraro have been
popular since then-President Clinton signed federal legislation mandating
the use of natives in federal projects.
Octoraro actively grows about 9 of its 14 acres, all
in containers. “We sell out of everything we grow,” MacKenzie
says. “We have for years, and now there continues to be more demand
than supply. There’s definitely more opportunity for others to get
Groundbreaking research in Doug Tallamy’s book,
“Bringing Nature Home,” may also be increasing the demand for
natives, and the need to meet it. He speaks “to ordinary folk in a
way that finally clicks,” Schaefer says. The University of Delaware
entomologist has proven that insects cannot sustain themselves on most
alien plants, and without native plants, insect populations decline. Though
they’re at the bottom of the food chain, everything—songbirds,
butterflies and wildlife—relies on them for habitat and food. Native
plants are the basis for diverse communities, ecosystems and sustainable
Edge of the Woods publishes a seasonal newsletter and
hosts an educational festival each season. They also maintain demonstration
beds. “It gives us a chance to show people what natives look like [in
a designed setting],” Schaefer says.
From a practical business standpoint, native plants are
so adapted to local conditions that they require less fertilizer,
pesticides, maintenance and watering. Planted properly, they require
minimal maintenance and are more hardy.
Edge of the Woods starts some by seed in the fall in
screened-over flats, then lets it all winter over. Tantsits and Schaefer
also winter over all overstock. To combat freeze-thaw cycles, they push all
the pots as close together as they can, then pile mounds of leaves on top
to mulch them in, Schaefer says.
They also use cuttings, and buy wholesale, usually
perennials, as plugs, and larger shrubs and trees they haven’t yet
grown to that size.
Summer’s challenge is irrigation. “They
all get the same water, but the problem is they don’t all need the
same water,” Schaefer says.
Edge of the Woods is also experimenting with soil
mixes of compost, pine bark and perlite, and with replacing perlite with
rice hulls for better drainage.
While the main goal remains making the plants
available, the nursery also offers plant-oriented design services. As for
planting with natives, while many design ideas come from nature itself,
they also advocate their “right plant, right place” philosophy.
Plant densely, but don’t “just plop anything anywhere,”
Schaefer explains. “Natives are specialists, so they need to be in
the right spot and you need to know how to care for them. We let people use
our books. They read and make decisions.”
Still, changing unknowing customers’
philosophies is the greatest challenge. “People are so used to
saying, ‘We have a white house, so we want pink flowers that will
bloom to 6 feet in June because it’s our anniversary,’”
Schaefer says. “We’re slowly getting people to flip their
thinking, but they still have that spot to fill. We tell them to study the
conditions of that spot. What’s the soil is like? How much sun does
the spot get? What will grow there? Then, pick from that pallet. The plant
has to do more than look pretty. It has a higher purpose.
“It can take a lot of time to educate people. We
have lots of informational signs [some stock isn’t ready for
purchase], and we post posters of native plants,” Schaefer says.
Admittedly, price can reflect the education offered to
each client. “We spend time with our customers,” Schaefer says.
“Very few buzz in and buzz out. And, we have live products, so the
offerings are always changing. We can’t hand you a list that says we
have this or that. We say, ‘We always have what we have, and
it’s what we have today.’”
The author is a widely-published writer and English
teacher at Emmaus (Pa.) High School. For over 25 years, he’s written
in nearly every journalistic genre and been published in 75-plus national
and regional magazines, as well as dozens of daily and weekly alternative