A one-stop shop for both homeowners and landscape contractors

Photos by Lee Riggs.
Greenhouses are being disassembled to move to the former container plant site. Due to production expansion, the container growing operations are moving to a 60-acre site in Onargo.

Owned and operated by fifth-generation Cultra family members, Country Arbors generates about $2 million in annual sales with its nursery, selling to the retail and wholesale markets. Changing demographics have increased business and is spurring an increase in production operations.

T. Shane Cultra assumed the role of chief operating officer, general manager and all-around go-to person from his father, P. Terence Cultra, in 2005.

“Our biggest growth has been in wholesale pick up,” Cultra said. He said that when Country Arbors first opened, the nursery had little competition. Although the twin cities of Urbana-Champaign have seen extensive business development, competition has not been a significant issue. Several large chain stores offer garden shop products, but draw from a different customer base.

“The big box stores really don’t affect us,” Cultra said. “Landscape contractors need consistency and specific information, and they want to know they can get the same plants at a later time,” he said. “We can offer that, and homeowners can get help with plant selection and plant growing.”

Shane Cultra checks on customers’ seasonal plants that are stored in Country Arbors’ greenhouse over the winter.

The Garden Center represents about 50 percent of the business. “We saw a big increase in our sales the first year we advertised commercially,” Cultra said. “We’re now in our fifth year of advertising.”

In addition to material from its production operations, Country Arbors sells hard lines of garden merchandise. Re-wholesale (a service providing plant material at a discounted price without a guarantee) represents about 30 percent of the business.

Providing answers

Cultra said, “My vision is for us to be considered the local nursery. People read or hear about growing plants and they’re often told to check with their local nursery. We want to be that local nursery that can provide the needed answers.” To do that, Cultra hires people who can help fulfill that role. “We hire people who love plants,” Cultra said. “People have to enjoy what they’re doing, and we want people who love to grow plants and love to talk about them.”

Cultra said, “We grow most of our trees and container plants, but we purchase fill-in species for our lot, mostly from Wandell Nursery located nearby. Wandell is known across the nation for the job they do with oak trees, and they have pioneered the disease-resistant elm trees.”

The Landscape Services division offers design services and on-site construction. “Landscape is about 20 percent of our business,” Cultra said. “We have one crew that’s been together for about 10 years, and work for them is easy to find. Our goal has always been to create outlets for our products, but we don’t want to be in competition with our customers, the landscape contractors. If we learn that one of our customers is bidding on a job, we back out of it.”

Doubling greenhouse production

Greenhouse production is planned to more than double and is moving to the site currently used for inground and container production.

About 20,000 annuals have been grown for some time, primarily sold through the Garden Center, but the expansion will push production of annuals to nearly 100,000. “A local, annual grower retired and sent customers to us,” Cultra said. Those customers include two major universities with large grounds—the University of Illinois and Illinois state University in Normal, about 45 miles away—and the Champaign Park District.

Irrigation risers provide watering at the inground tree production site.

DeCloet greenhouse covers will be used in the new setting. “The covers allow the sides to be lifted easily,” Cultra said. “It’s not unusual to have sunny days in January in Illinois. These can be easily lifted to allow sunlight to enter the greenhouses. We use greenhouses to give some perennial plants an early spring start.

“We grow about 600 varieties of perennials. People want variety and color in increased use,” Cultra said.

Along with storing a number of their own plants in a greenhouse, Country Arbors provides storage of plants for businesses and individuals. “A lot of people have plants they enjoy, but no place to keep them indoors. They bring them out here to us and we store them over the winter for them.” He noted that while storage of some of the larger plants may be costly, it is only a fraction of the cost of replacing the mature plant.

About 30 acres are currently in production, split about evenly between inground tree production and container plants. Country Arbors has recently switched to fiberglass tree stakes, which are flexible and allow them to move with the tree in prairie winds.

Expanding production

The Country Arbors location was mostly rural when the nursery opened in the mid-1990s. Rapidly expanding urban development is encroaching onto farmland and the nursery site.

“We are preparing to move our container growing operations to Onargo, where we just purchased 60 acres of land,” Cultra said. “Land prices in the Urbana area simply prohibited our expanding the growing operation here.” Onargo is located about 45 miles north of the Urbana location.

Container production represents about 70 percent of the number of plants. “The cost of shade trees is so much more than container plants, and people buy a much higher number of container plants,” he said.

Cultra said, “For the first 10 years of our operation here, new varieties drove the market, but in the last five years or so, customers have become more skeptical. So many new varieties were introduced. Customers are now sticking to what has proven to work well in the Midwest.” As an example, he cited a resurgence of interest in upright yews.

Growing issues

“Both the quantity and quality of our water are limited,” Cultra said. The underground aquifer used to water the plants contains an unusually high pH. Cultra said, “Our boxwood plants like the high pH, but our other plants don’t. Lime is applied to help adjust the pH level in the growing area.”

Automated drip irrigation is used, but Cultra said, “Timing is extremely important to us. We have Hunter and Rain Bird controls, but we still turn valves.” To fertilize trees and shrubs, “We use Nutracote and Osmocote slow-release granular,” Cultra said. Pest management is an important aspect at Country Arbors. “Leaf hopper and aphids have been our primary problems,” Cultra said. To control these pests, they treat mostly with Marathon.

Shane Cultra discusses the benefits of fiberglass tree stakes.

Family ties

Cultra noted, “One of the biggest challenges in a family business is incorporating everybody’s ideas and visions into the business, and keeping the family happy.”

A Cultra family patriarch established the Onargo Nursery, Onargo, Ill., in 1865, and traveled the region selling strawberry and raspberry plants, along with fruit trees. The burgeoning population of the Chicago area contributed to the nursery’s growth with the rapidly increasing market for landscape material, and succeeding family members have continued the nursery business. Cultra’s father worked at the Onargo Nursery and later helped establish the Shemin Nursery in Chicago. “Shemin originated the wholesale nursery one-stop idea,” Cultra said.

Cultra joined the family business after earning a finance degree at the University of Alabama and working for a time at the Chicago Board of Trade. He said, “My dad called me in 1995 and told me he was establishing a nursery in Urbana, where the University of Illinois is located. I promptly packed up my family and came here. We’re a university town. We’re somewhat protected from the economic ups and downs of other cities.” The senior Cultra continues to be involved in the Country Arbors operation, and his wife Donna manages the landscape services division. Shane’s brother, Joe, was manager of the Garden Center and will soon move to managing the new production site at Onargo.

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