The Plantsmen Nursery

In a few short years, Dan Segal has built a landscape and nursery business, hitting a sweet spot in the niche for native plants in central New York. He did it with long hours and low capital investments—and he markets like mad.

The Plantsmen Nursery (www.plantsmen.com) site is shaped like a pizza slice and measures 11 acres, with its wide edge on a busy road near Ithaca in Lansing, N.Y. After parking near the road, a visitor crosses under a wooden arch to an oasis of colorful native plants, stonework, wetlands and ponds. Beyond the greenhouses and gardens, “It’s undeveloped back there, and I like to keep it just kind of wild. It’s a nice buffer,” Segal says.

When Segal bought the nursery in 2006, there were already nine greenhouses in place, with a perennial plants wing and a woody plants wing. He intended to develop a modest-sized nursery, selling plants native to the Finger Lakes region, as well as organic vegetable seedlings, all managed organically with no pesticide, herbicides or insecticides. Initially, landscaping was not part of the picture—that is until the first customer asked if The Plantsmen did landscaping.

The Plantsmen Nursery grows and sells a great diversity of native plants, however, the landscaping side of the business is responsible for about 75 percent of the company’s total income.

The first year, Segal completed eight to 10 landscaping projects by himself. Now, Mike Fitzpatrick, landscape designer and estimator, and Jeff Luoma, landscape foreman, help with the projects, because business is booming.

After not quite breaking even the first year, The Plantsmen saw sales jump 300 percent in 2007, and then another increase of 150 percent in 2008. Segal says, “It seems we’re growing rapidly, and the challenge is [that] we’re trying to keep our growth under control from a quality standpoint. I believe a lot of people have responded to our sense of quality, an intimate experience, not only with the nursery, but with our landscape work.”

PHOTOS BY TINA WRIGHT, UNLESS NOTED OTHERWISE.
Dan Segal, owner of The Plantsmen Nursery.
The entrance to the nursery.

Landscapes in the age of white-tailed deer

In the Ithaca area, Segal points out, “So many properties were landscaped in the ’50s and ’60s and really ‘pre-deer’ compared to what it is now. So, we have a time element and we have an ecological component that are converging to render many Ithaca landscapes either dysfunctional or senescent. And, these are both qualities that almost require what I call a remodel, a landscape remodel.”

Segal says, “I like to work in that remodel stage where we’re taking out old yews that are being destroyed by the deer, maybe a bunch of old shrubs that have reached their life span. A lot of those midcentury and ’60s and ’70s landscapes didn’t use grasses, which I feel is really a key component to Finger Lakes landscapes if there’s enough sun. I like to use a lot of grasses.”

For deer resistance, they use warm-season perennials, native and nonnative, to give a bigger palette, Russian sage, butterfly bush, astilbe, iris and iris relatives. Natives like swamp milkweed, milkweed, cardinal flowers and some of the eupatoriums work well; unfortunately, native bushes are also beloved of deer, limiting their use in deer country.

Hardscape elements

Stonemason Joel Brain joined up with The Plantsmen last year to create Supernatural Stone. Brain said, “We thought that it was a great balance to incorporate hardscapes into sustainable landscapes Dan was already working on. Our hunch was right, and we’ve enjoyed working together, and I think our work complements each other. Right now, I am rebuilding a vintage retaining wall for a couple in Cayuga Heights that Dan will eventually plant. I’ve worked with an artist to create a geometric walkway to his art studio in his backyard, and I’ve installed standing stones in a garden. Sometimes I am creating steps or a waterfall or a backyard patio.”

Nursery Manager Kathy Vidovich waters plants.

Native plants and overwintering

Segal likes native plants for their easy care, “A lot of the natives are not highly complicated, but they have one or two steps that you have to take in order to get them to germinate or to grow. And, that just usually comes down to a few basic treatments for the seed, whether it’s a cold-stratification treatment or sometimes dry storage for a certain period of time. It’s one step closer to trying to mimic that plant’s natural requirements in its natural habitat.”

Some nurseries overwinter plants they haven’t sold, but The Plantsmen overwinters plants on purpose. “We overwinter thousands and thousands of plants, which is very unusual,” Segal says. “For us, it’s a strategy. We’re deliberately trying to overwinter as many plants as we can so that in April we have a really nice availability of things that are hardened off, mature, not tender from greenhouse growing.”

They wrap plants in blankets or plastic, layering with straw, to make sure the plants are sealed in with adequate moisture. Segal has learned that dry conditions kill plants in the winter more than the cold does. For the past two winters, all their plants have overwintered beautifully in a region that can see 20-below temperatures.

Equipment investment

Employees at The Plantsmen work with portable rototillers, sod cutters and hand tools. They subcontract a lot of >the bigger equipment, earth moving and drainage, and they find that customers appreciate the use of shovels and wheelbarrows instead of heavy equipment.

The Plantsmen rents tractors and backhoes, as needed, and subcontracts bigger work to trusted contractors. They may buy a tractor next year for landscaping jobs, as well as for use at the nursery. Their capital investment so far is small: two Toyota pickup trucks, a Ford cube van, a Ford F-150 and a dump trailer. The nursery workers hand-water everything presently, but the hope is to install some irrigation in the future. A neighboring nursery a few miles away shares its Bouldin and Lawson potting machine with The Plantsmen.

Marketing

The Plantsmen advertises regularly in Ithaca-area publications, and Segal maintains that good marketing goes hand-in-hand with good service and products. “I just feel the marketing we’re doing is working because it’s real, because it’s genuine.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PLANTSMEN NURSERY.
Natural stonework defines this pond at The Plantsmen Nursery.

Segal is not shy about marketing the nursery’s natural atmosphere. “I’ve been in the nursery business for about 20 years, and I’ve seen that it’s a very toxic industry. That’s something we’ve deliberately avoided here for a lot of reasons, and something we enjoy marketing about: ‘Hey, we’re clean, come here and taste these veggies right in the nursery!’ That’s been fun for marketing.”

This year, Segal has turned more of the bookkeeping and administrative duties over to Nursery Manager Kathy Vidovich and General Manager Bridget Gaines. At its busiest, the farm employs 12 people in the summer, and Segal says, “We have a great crew.”

The Plantsmen Nursery is open every day from April, when weather permits in upstate New York, until Halloween.

The nursery’s busiest months are May, June and July. “Our landscape division is really May through November, pretty steady,” says Segal. “It seems like this year, there’s not really a lull in the summer, which is a good problem to have.”

Tina Wright, a freelance agricultural writer since 1996, worked for years in production agriculture, including a job as a technician for a lawn care company.