Nursery finds success with new plants

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SPRING MEADOW NURSERY.
The propagation house is a major activity center.
 
Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea is the first North American-bred pink colored, mop-head hydrangea.
 
Dale Deppe with the newly released Incrediball hydrangea.
 
The Bloomerang lilac variety blooms from spring through fall frost

Spring Meadow Nursery (www.springmeadownursery.com), located in Grand Haven, Mich., has focused on bringing new plants to the landscape. Owned by Dale and Liz Deppe, Spring Meadow has grown from a small nursery selling primarily plant liners to one of the largest propagation nurseries providing plants across the nation. Deppe, president, had 12 years of experience in the nursery business that complemented Liz’s business and accounting background when they started the nursery in 1981. Their son, Jeremy, is now general manager of the nursery.

Focusing on flowering shrubs, Spring Meadow is bringing new plants to the forefront of landscape use and has created a niche for itself in the wholesale market. A unique approach of open licensing, worldwide plant searches and effective use of technology have contributed to the company attaining major player status in the plant marketplace.

Deppe said, “Over the years, the market demand for our new varieties has increased, which is great. As a result, our plant productivity is up, too. We’re more aware than ever of getting plants out to retailers in a timely manner.”

Spring Meadow has an open licensing policy for the new plants. By allowing anyone to propagate and sell plants, Spring Meadow looks toward increasing profit by increasing demand. Royalties for plants are divided between the breeder, Spring Meadow and a marketing program to promote the plant.

Proven Winners

As Spring Meadow embarked on its open licensing concept, three greenhouses, located in Michigan, California and New Hampshire, were operating along the same lines with annual and perennial plants, marketing their plants as Proven Winners. Spring Meadow connected with Proven Winners and markets its flowering shrubs as Proven Winners ColorChoice Flowering Shrubs.

Deppe said, “Since we started the nursery, we’ve learned there’s little success in growing generics. The success is with branding new plant varieties. That’s why garden centers, retailers and now landscapers are realizing there’s great profit potential in such packages as our Proven Winners ColorChoice Flowering Shrubs.”

The plant hunter

Tim Wood heads up Spring Meadow’s product development. He has written several books and produces “The Plant Hunter,” an online blog created primarily to introduce people to what’s ahead. In reality, Wood is indeed the ultimate plant hunter. He travels throughout the world to meet breeders and look for new plants that will add exciting new color and interest to Spring Meadow’s offerings.

“There are lots of new plants, but not many better plants,” Wood said. It’s the better plants that Wood is trying to locate. Wood grew up working in his father’s nursery, and has spent his career learning about plants and receiving honors along the way. He’s enthusiastic about his job, pointing out the nursery’s unique contribution to the industry.

“We have a list of criteria for plants we release,” Wood said. “Some plants have limited appeal of a three to four-week blooming period. We look for longer seasons of interest for plants. We look at the plant’s attractions—interesting foliage, texture, growth habit or fruit— anything that extends interest more than a short blooming period.

“We have a clear idea of what we want to accomplish. We want to change the way people think about shrubs,” Wood said. He pointed out that changing people’s perception of shrubs as backup plants in the landscape setting with shorter plants the main attraction to shrubs being the main attraction is a goal.

Newer plants introduced to landscapers and homeowners are helping accomplish that change, making it easier to grow and maintain shrubs. Wood said, “Most people don’t know how to maintain plants and don’t have time with the changing lifestyles. Older plants may have been 6 to 8 feet tall, and newer plants are 3 feet tall. This size is good for contractors and homeowners.”

In addition to low maintenance, plants that are easy to grow and disease resistant are important. “The plant has to look good, grow healthy and have high disease resistance,” Wood said. “We look in Asia and Europe and work with plant breeders working on plants. The most challenging aspect is that it all takes time. It’s a long process from the idea to selection to marketplace.” Wood noted that the long relationships developed across the world have produced a level of trust with individuals.

Technology’s role

Wood cited the Internet and e-mail as major assets in identifying plant breeders around the world. “If you find the right people, you’ll eventually get the right plants,” he said. These methods allow him to find people much more easily than older forms of communication.

Spring Meadow has 20 acres of greenhouses that include 8 acres of Cravo retractable roof greenhouses and 3 acres of Westbrook open-roof greenhouses, two of which are flood floor irrigated. High-pressure fog systems, traveling booms, bottom heat floors and computerized controls enhance the propagation setting. More than 30 acres is devoted to stock plants.

Timely shipping is essential at Spring Meadow Nursery.
 
An aerial shot illustrates the expanse of Spring Meadow Nursery.

While new varieties are identified and developed through a traditional selection process, technology plays a significant role at Spring Meadow, from the Plant Hunter blog that disseminates information in an easily accessed format to a high-tech sorting machine. To enhance the sorting process, Spring Meadow installed a PlugSorter-ECO 4 that grades 300 flats, or about 10,000 plants, an hour. The sorter is manufactured by Tuinbouw Technisch Atelier in McMinn­ville, Tenn., and uses visual software and digital cameras in the process with a computer recording grading data and quantities of each grade, as well as dead plants. The machine reassembles graded plants into flats.

On the horizon

Flowering shrub releases are ongoing at Spring Meadow. An improved version of the Annabelle hydrangea, called Incrediball, exhibits not only the strong stems sought in the Annabelle development, but nearly four times the number of blooms. Another hydrangea, Invincibelle Spirit, developed by plant breeder Dr. Thomas Ranney, North Carolina State University, is the first North American-bred pink colored, mop-head hydrangea and will be released spring 2010. Wood cited the primary advantage of these hydrangeas as the ability to survive winter cold and spring frost.

Bloomerang, a reblooming variety of lilac bred by Wood, will also be available in spring 2010. Bloomerang is a compact purple lilac that blooms in the spring and again in midsummer through fall.

A low-growing, compact butterfly plant named Blue Chip, developed by plant breeder Dr. Dennis Werner, NCSU, is available this year. Blue Chip grows 2 to 3 feet in height and produces few seeds, making it less likely to develop seedlings. It is anticipated to be the first of a trademarked series of a low, compact plant line called Lo and Behold that produce few seeds. Blue Chip received the blue ribbon as the best plant of 2009 at the Mid-Am Nursery Show.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.