A living laboratory for a sustainable human future.

A Visit With Useful Plants Nursery

Alice Henry and Matt Kolosky (Southern Connecticut State University) interviewed Useful Plants Nursery Manager Bruce Johnston. Bruce took us on a tour of the nursery, pointing out plants and answering questions as we went.

We began our tour by visiting some of the medicinal and edible shrubs that are the specialty of Useful Plants Nursery. For example, there is Vitex, an attractive shrub with purple flowers which has berries useful for hormonal regulation, particularly for menopausal or menstruating women. Crampbark is another shrub used medicinally. People steep the bark to make tea which can serve as a muscle relaxant. It too is a viburnum, a highbush cranberry native to Europe and Africa. We went on to look at service berry, apples, Nanking cherries – all edible, and handsome. They raise seven varieties of figs, all equally cold resistant. They also stock Flying Dragon, a hardy citrus with spines, good for hedges. It was stressed that this was just a small selection of what was available. Bruce says “there is immense diversity here – at least 200 varieties and 150 species on less than half an acre of growing space.” The nursery’s web site, www.usefulplants.org, features a complete stock listing.

The benefits of complexity
The diversity helps ward off both disease and financial catastrophe. For example phytophthora infestans (the root rot mold that caused the Irish potato famine) thrives in a monoculture and is a perennial bane of plant nurseries and many root crop farmers, but UPN had only 8 deaths this year from this mold. Considering that all phytophthoras thrive in wet conditions and how rainy this spring has been, that’s not too bad at all. However, even if the molds had killed a group of plants or two, the nursery would have absorbed the shock and continued to thrive, because it doesn’t specialize in any one set of plants. The diversity also works wonders for pest management. The nursery doesn’t use any chemical sprays on its plants and will as often as not tolerate the presence of pests like aphids because they do little permanent harm and sometimes indicate soil problems.

Staying in business
UPN faces the same challenges that all businesses in our neck of the woods face – they’re far from their markets, have little access to formal financial institutions, and are technologically unsophisticated relative to their larger competition, putting limits on their speed of production and ease of marketing. Bruce has a lot to say about these issues “Four people work at this nursery; nothing is mechanized. This is simultaneously wonderful and economically backward. I love the people who work here and wouldn’t trade them for the nicest greenhouses in the world. However, the fact is that if we had the equipment, a nursery this size could easily be run by one or two people with seasonal help, improving the per-person returns immensely.”

“We do hope to mechanize to some degree, for example bringing in a soil mixer and some small vehicles to haul larger quantities of plants around our new field. Mixing sixty gallons of soil by hand every time you want to pot something gets pretty tiring, as does hauling them around, and it’s an inefficient use of time to boot. That said we have no aspirations to become a huge, totally tractor-driven operation. It’s not who we are. We don’t do the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ approach, but we’ve got to find a way to lower our prices all the same, at least in some areas. You can’t do anything in McDowell County selling a $16 goji plant in a 2 gallon pot. People laugh you out of the store, if they’ve even heard of a goji berry in the first place. To say nothing of lower-income folks in Asheville or Statesville, of whom there are more and more these days. Partial mechanization and increased propagation space will help with a lot of that, and that’s why we’re going to pursue it in some form.”

As for advertising and marketing, the internet is UPN’s way of getting around the fact that they are far from most of their customers. They publish a monthly newsletter online which has over 600 subscribers, and the number increases each month. Many people who have never bought a plant from them sign up on their website, and they have readers from California, Eastern Europe, and Singapore. Recognizing this potential, UPN is investing in this medium by hiring a part-time writer to handle the newsletter in a more professional manner and tie it more directly to sales. Even so, it may be difficult to capitalize on this new development, because mail order at the present time is an unattractive option. Their pots are large and cost a lot to ship. They depend on farmers’ markets, conferences such as the Organic Growers’ School, and big events for a great deal of their income. However, a promising development for more intensive exports has UPN’s growing connections with projects with similar views such as Bountiful Backyards in Durham and the Philadelphia Orchard Project.

Environmental issues and challenges
Being who they are, the folks who run UPN care a lot about environmental issues in general, and two large ones they face as nurserypeople are the encouragement of genetic diversity and preserving native species. Most nursery production is done vegetatively, meaning that a particular plant is ‘cloned’ many times for sale purposes. On top of that, most popular edible and medicinal plants in this day and age aren’t native to the Americas. However, the nursery’s essential mission is providing a “hedge” against likely food insecurity in the coming years, and climate change is pretty much a given in their calculations. Therefore, it’s sometimes anybody’s guess whether a particular species, native or not, will be well suited for food production in this region in twenty years. There are of course large ecological issues that may come with replacement of native food-producing vegetation with other sorts – inability of native insect populations to digest them, consequent drops in the populations of insectivorous birds, loss of genetic stock, et cetera – but Bruce thinks that the situation we’re in demands using genetic resources from elsewhere if they work. ‘People desperate for food are a lot more dangerous to everyone – including nonhumans – than ones who aren’t. The real test for us, therefore, is whether we think a plant can meet people’s demand for food effectively now and in the future, unless it poses a clear danger to an endangered species in the region.’ All the same, a conscious effort is made to stock hardy, adaptable native species like American hazelnuts, plums, groundnuts, blackberries, and elderberries, and UPN also carries relatively unknown native trees like paw paws and blackheart cherries.

The Expansion

This year UPN cleared a field, slightly under an acre, by Taylor Creek. They have been leveling the field gradually and currently have about 500 or so fruit and nut trees on it. They will have four or five greenhouses on the field eventually and almost 2/3 of an acre of growing space. Other structures to be built include a shed for pest control solutions, and one for vehicles, such as pushcarts and a small ATV or truck.

Levelling and controlling runoff down newly created steep slopes has been a challenge. They have put in ditches, seeded the banks with grasses. The silty run-off is not entirely controlled, but they are working hard on solving the problems. Bruce stresses that things are moving along. “This spring’s weather has made grading very difficult and erosion plentiful. Given that, we’re doing quite well. I know that a lot of folks wanted to see a beautiful, finished field by June – I know I did. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. That beautiful, finished field is coming. Once the grading is done it can come pretty quickly. But that’s the essential logjam. We do have many plans for beautification, et cetera. We are planning on bringing customers here, after all! But the first priority is making sure that the grading is done and done right, irrigation is in, and our plants are resting on that field comfortably.”

For further information on Useful Plants Nursery, call 828-669-6517.  The nursery’s website is www.usefulplants.org.

diversity, edible, medicinal, mission, native species, organic grower's school, UPN, useful plants nursery

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