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The Native Plant Nursery

by Rob Pulcipher

When they met at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, Greg Vaclavek and Mike Appel never thought they’d be running a business together. Mike had visions of traveling when he finished at U of M. Greg did some environmental projects after school, then went to work at Schlenker’s Hardware while waiting for other opportunities related to his education.

Native Plant Nursery display at the Farmer's MarketA friend Greg met while in school, Bill Schneider, who shared his interest in finding botanical uses for native plants, walked into Schlenker’s one day and asked Greg if he’d like to come to work in a new section of the Ann Arbor Department of Parks and Recreation, Natural Area Preservation (NAP). Greg was excited to get a job that kept him outdoors and involved with plants.

While doing local restoration projects, he realized that there was no local nursery from which to get native seed. He started collecting seeds for propagation. Reenter Mike Appel. Mike returned from travels out west in December of 1997 to visit family and friends in the area, including Greg. Greg told Mike of his interest in starting up a native nursery. He wondered if Mike was interested. Mike was—very. A partnership was born.

(Bill Schneider eventually moved on to the Lansing area to create his own native plant nursery, WILDTYPE, now in Mason.)

Currently, Greg works at NAP full time as Conservation Crew Leader. Mike runs the day-to-day operations of the nursery, while working two days a week at the Depot Town Bakery in Ypsilanti.

The nursery sits on the banks of Mallet’s Creek off of Packard. The entire nursery comprises a 15’ x 30’ plot of land. It’s hard to believe so much can come from so little, but the two of them have had plenty of plants to sell at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market on Saturdays throughout their first full year. Approximately 5,000 plants sold from 6,000 grown. And the plants are all from locally collected seed.

Of course, there have been challenges, as with any new venture. It was hard to identify the plants that customers would want to buy. And there was as much emphasis on educating customers as there was selling the plants. The introduction of native plants into residential landscapes dominated by exotics is a relatively new idea to most people. The results of some of these plantings, too, has been a surprise. Without the usual competition among natives, and with fertilization, individual plants in horticultural settings can flower much earlier or longer than expected, or take on larger proportions than usual.

Though they both came out of the School of Natural Resources, Mike and Greg each had their own emphasis to complement their partnership. Greg focused on Resource Ecology and Management and had done studies in the Manistee National Forest, identifying every single plant within a designated 15-meter circle. “Sometimes we’d stay up all night with vague green cuttings and pour through books to find identifying characteristics,” Greg said. Mike studied Environmental Education, worked in a nursery at Community Farm, and had done water-quality monitoring with Bill Stapp, a respected leader in environmental education. Mike takes education to heart. When anyone walks up to their stall in the Farmer’s Market, he’s ready to help his customers—with a disarmingly open and friendly manner—understand the benefits and unique qualities of using native plants in their gardens. In contrast, Greg is soft-spoken and reflective. He likes to draw from practical experience and empirical knowledge when explaining the characteristics of each plant.

Their flier lists about 40 native forbs and grasses, and identifies average height, habitat and flower color. Their plants are sold individually or by the crate (64 plants—mixed or single species). They’d like to begin taking orders from customers in January and February—in crate quantities of 15 to 20 each—to help identify their market and get more in tune with demand. This year they had a lot of leftover goldenrod and black-eyed susan. With limited nursery space, they’d like to make best use of every available growing tube.

But running the nursery and selling at the Farmer’s Market is not all they do. They also consult for moderate-scale planting and design projects where they’ll do an existing inventory, a soil profile, an invasive species control plan, and recommend and install native plantings—including woody species along with their grasses and forbs. And they have plans for other opportunities as well. They’re coming out with a catalogue selling twice as many seed species as they currently carry; they’ll have t-shirts; and they’d like to have a planting calendar to further educate gardeners throughout the year.

So far, the nursery has made enough to support itself. The business is still young, and Mike and Greg are pleased that sales can sustain the nursery. They both enjoy working outdoors. And they’ve been pleasantly surprised at the joy of watching the ever-changing world of native plants. “There’s always something to look at,” they say. “Subtle beauty throughout the year that make natives so unique.”

To contact them...
The Native Plant Nursery
P.O. Box 7841
Ann Arbor, MI 48107-7841
(734) 994-9592
Email: plants@nativeplant.com
Web site: www.nativeplant.com

Article reprinted from the Winter 1999 issue of the Ann Arbor Wild Ones Newsletter. Copyright © 1999 Wild Ones–Natural Landscapers, Ltd.


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