The Chain of Demand

Building the supply chain for native landscapes.

By Carol E. Becker

The oak is our national tree for a reason. Oaks are endemic to our native landscapes in all regions of the United States, easily identified by their leaf shape and gnarly branches. The size of the mature white oak (Quercus alba), spreading up to 120 feet, is one reason we associate oaks with strength, along with the density of the wood and an oak fire’s burning hot and long in the woodstove. Native oaks fall into two taxonomic groups, white and red, and their landscape uses vary depending on soil moisture. But most important today, as Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, points out, oaks are the “quintessential wildlife plants.” They provide food to more than 500 species of caterpillars and other insects. In this fact lies the oaks’ value to the entire food chain, from the birds that eat insects to the humans who rest in the trees’ shade.

We need more oaks in our landscapes, mostly for the food benefits they provide. But instead of being sought-after plants, oaks are underused, undermarketed, undercultivated, and therefore in short supply. Landscape architects don’t often use them, clients don’t ask for them, and thus growers don’t grow them. A reverse scenario also holds true. Few nurseries grow Quercus species, particularly Q. macrocarpa, Q. muehlenbergii, and Q. alba, because they are hard to grow and suffer significant transplant death. So clients don’t see them and don’t ask for them and, in turn, landscape architects don’t specify them. Whatever the reason and wherever you start, it’s a circle of mutually reinforcing supply and demand.

The oaks are but one example of the larger problem for design professionals working to create sustainable landscapes with hardy plants in a given region. The interest in doing so—the imperative of doing so—is unequaled by the supply of appropriate species. This shortage also helps perpetuate clients’ expectations of plant specimens they do in fact see at the retail level, plants that are well-shaped, blooming, varied, and maybe even a bit exotic. The landscape architecture profession has taught them to value this aesthetic at least since the mid-19th century, when Andrew Jackson Downing codified ornamental landscaping in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. Now, we find ourselves in a world where, in just the past 40 years, half the songbird species in the United States and more than 90 percent of the monarch butterflies have disappeared. Honeybees and bumblebees have fallen to a mysterious virus, a cataclysmic problem that threatens the entire food chain. We do know how to reverse these trends and preserve biodiversity in landscapes, but we can’t get it done because clients still want constantly blooming and well-shaped plants with no bugs.

The solutions begin with changing or at least adapting this aesthetic, which requires new awareness. Clients who understand and value sustainable landscapes and landscape practices will create demand, which drives supply curves of all kinds: for plants, for new training of practitioners, and for reformed public policies. To stay in business until this newly enlightened client emerges, the landscape architecture profession and the nursery industry must design and sell what clients value now. At the same time, the industry needs to create a new kind of product and a new way of working. “What we create now will determine the future of the landscape industry,” says Geoff Deigan, the founder and president of WRD Environmental, a company in Chicago that advocates for, designs, and installs only sustainable projects.

Tallamy argues for specifying more straight-species native plants, because they are scientifically documented to support the life cycle of insects at the bottom of the food chain. Some cultivars may, too, but research has not shown which ones. Consider Hydrangea arborescens, the smooth or wild hydrangea. Its cultivar ‘Annabelle’ is well-known and widely used in garden design, because its stems are stronger than the species and it has rounder, more compact flower heads. Plant H. arborescens and it will support five species of caterpillars that birds depend on and will be visited by many species of butterflies and pollinating bees, whereas ‘Annabelle’ is not known to support caterpillars and remains relatively undisturbed by pollinators. If you multiply this effect many times over, the value of the oak species emerges. Tallamy says that native oak trees support more insect life than any other plant he has studied. They are structurally the most important plant in a sustainable environment, considering the benefits to the food chain.

Tallamy explains in seductive ways how “the ecosystem supports us, too.” No one can come away from one of his lectures without being captivated by the beauty of nature. But his message is stark: “No insects, no birds, no human life.” The consumer market, though, is unlikely to grow on the strength of public concern about species preservation alone. Right now, client motivation is more self-interested. It includes fears about health (eating whole, unprocessed foods), safety (keeping kids away from a pesticide-treated lawn), or economy (saving money on maintenance). Public policy can help build awareness, as it did in 2014 when the Obama administration issued a directive to all federal agencies to begin planning for pollinator conservation on lands they manage, as part of a larger plan to increase pollinator populations.

Over the past 10 years, Jim Kleinwachter, a land preservation specialist at the Conservation Foundation in suburban Chicago, has been working to build public awareness with a program called Conservation@Home, a point system to encourage homeowners to practice sustainability at the residential level. The program is now active in seven counties in northern Illinois and helps connect residential property to the larger established wildlife corridors that Tallamy insists are the crucial means to support species preservation. This year, Kleinwachter is launching Pollinator Meadow, a collaboration among three competing growers to market and install a short-grass product to replace turf. Pollinator Meadow will be marketed primarily to institutional and corporate campuses, which are numerous in Chicago’s suburbs. The product itself is not new, but the name is, and the marketing strategy is unique in the industry. And it is directly aimed at the problem of too much turf, which covers 45.6 million acres in the United States, by Tallamy’s estimate. The Conservation Foundation is responsible for marketing the product. Currently, the market for sustainable landscaping is primarily in land restoration or habitat development projects for parks, community spaces, schools, homeowner associations, corporate or retail properties, public land supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, highways, and utility corridors.

“To market this product widely, the Conservation Foundation, as a nonprofit, could not offer only one company to potential buyers,” Kleinwachter said, so he enlisted three native plant seed producers that serve the greater Chicago region—Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, owned by the Pizzo Group in Leland, Illinois; Cardno Native Plant Nursery in Walkerton, Indiana, a division of Cardno, a worldwide company in sustainability consulting; and Applied Ecological Services, a company based in the Midwest with its nursery in Brodhead, Wisconsin. Each company already has a short meadow mix, and each has long experience installing and maintaining it. They agreed to the collaboration because each recognizes the huge problem of too much turf. And of course the map shows a big market. The question is, does the potential client want it?

As customer awareness grows, so should the industry’s readiness to respond. What plants will be needed? Who will grow them? Research will answer the first question. Tallamy’s team at the University of Delaware has ranked every plant genus in the mid-Atlantic region in terms of its ability to support lepidopteran caterpillars as a surrogate of other insects “because that’s what most of the birds are eating most of the time, particularly when they are feeding their young.” Even a quick look at his website (bringingnaturehome.net) indicates the depth of his research and how difficult it is to conduct for scientifically valid results. To determine how many insects a given plant supports, the researcher must observe carefully over time to determine only what insects feed on that plant. Landing on the plant or even making a chrysalis on the plant does not count, unless the insect actually eats that plant. On this distinction, Tallamy says, it’s easy to make mistakes unless observations are exacting. Based on that research, Tallamy has developed a short list of plants to use in his region, and his team is now under contract with the U.S. Forest Service to create lists for every county in every state, due to be published on the National Wildlife Federation’s website in January 2016. Just having these more definitive lists will help growers know what plants are most important to grow. They can’t grow everything when the market is soft.

Simple observation is a quicker if less scientific way to do this if you know your plants. The starting question is, “What’s hardy because it evolved here?” says Jack Pizzo, ASLA, the president of the Pizzo Group, whose four companies grow, design, and build for the sustainable market. In Chicago, where the Cook County Forest Preserve provides a greenbelt throughout the city and suburbs, Pizzo says, a knowledgeable person can look at what grows there and learn what’s hardy in the area and what works well to address environmental challenges of the forest.

As the market grows, the industry also needs to settle some differences about “which plants.” Although straight-species native plants are critical to the food chain, they’re not the only ones appropriate for a sustainable design. In the aesthetic of ornamental landscape, plants must fit, be beautiful, and behave as they grow. In a sustainable design, they must meet a conservation objective as well—support the food web, maintain pollinator diversity, sequester carbon, and help manage the watershed. “We need to look at conditions on the ground and consider what our conservation objective is, then ask: What’s the right plant for that?” says Deigan of WRD.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) illustrates this point well. Its benefit to the ecosystem is significant in supporting nearly 20 different types of caterpillars. It’s also beautiful and unusual, with glossy reddish green leaves and fragrant white flowers that look like round pincushions and become round red fruit in fall. C. occidentalis is a large shrub, growing up to 12 feet high and wide. It’s an excellent choice for a very wet, sunny spot, where it will eagerly soak up standing water. But in many a residential setting, it’s too big. The recent introduction of the cultivar C. occidentalis ‘Sugar Shack,’ which grows only one-third as big as the straight species, provides an alternative. This cultivar has not been proven scientifically to support the food chain, but it does attract some pollinators. Many sustainability-minded plant experts argue that it is appropriate for a sustainable site even though it is not a straight-species native.

At a time when we know scientifically how important native plants are to the ecosystem and we don’t yet have a broad market, growers are in a tough spot. Those who sell primarily to contractors must produce “landscape-ready plants,” says Christa Orum-Keller, ASLA, the owner and vice president of Midwest Groundcovers, based in St. Charles, Illinois. Midwest, one of the biggest growers in the region, markets its products based on quality, not price. With a small but growing demand for straight-species woody shrubs, the company has launched a line of its own. To meet its usual quality standard, Midwest must market branched, pruned, attractive shrubs that will work in a built environment, and that increases labor costs significantly, she says. It would be fine if Midwest could project sales of 80 percent to 90 percent of its stock, but the market is not there as it is with, say, nonnative hydrangeas, which are so popular that Midwest knows it will sell all it can grow. Once demand is there, Midwest can build a production, delivery, and logistics system for profitability. “But when half or even a third of what we grow does not sell, we cannot make the business case,” Orum-Keller says.

For now, Midwest Groundcovers limits its selection of woody native plants to what landscape contractors will perceive to be ornamental. It also promotes a line called Natural Garden Natives to the ornamental landscape market. These premium plants are grown from seed collected by partners within a range of 90 miles to ensure ecotype integrity. To cut costs and be more competitive in the restoration market, where low cost is a priority, Midwest offers a more extensive product line of wildflower plugs grown from seed gathered throughout the region.

Where straight-species woody shrubs and trees are the primary product, the strategy is different. One of the established native plant growers in the region, Possibility Place Nursery, specializes in woody plants, grown from seeds it collects within 75 to 150 miles of its nursery, which lies roughly midway between Chicago and Kankakee, Illinois. The company’s inventory includes several varieties of oak grown from seed in root-pruning containers and transplanted only in fall to improve the success for a species that typically experiences a high rate of transplant death. Possibility Place has grown slowly for nearly 40 years and is known for the quality and sure provenance of its plants. The business relies on a customer base that knows and needs its products because few other sources have been available. The founder, Connor Shaw, keeps a close eye on the market, and the business has grown incrementally as the market has emerged. “Our plants are ecotypes,” Shaw says. “They are stronger plants overall because they have evolved here.” As Tallamy points out, these are the types of plants that support the life cycle of insects—4,500 caterpillars in one 28-day period that fed one chickadee family. The staff at Possibility Place counted.

Yet another business strategy is to grow for the market that’s there now. Pizzo Native Plant Nursery relies on massive contract growing for 70 percent of its business to serve the ecological restoration market: power line corridors of native plantings, prairie restoration, corporate site conversions, or parkland development, for example. Most large-scale jobs for restoration projects specify a combination of seed and plugs, says the sales and marketing manager, Grace Koehler, because growing and installing plugs alone for installations that cover many acres would cost too much time and money. Business in this sector is brisk, and Koehler predicts that the next glitch in the supply chain for ecological restoration will be seed shortages. The seed market is becoming quite competitive. Agrecol, a company in Wisconsin that grows wildflowers as row crops for the purpose of seed harvesting, is ramping up its production this year to offset the shortage.

Pizzo has recently grown 100,000 plugs in 60 different species for the new Maggie Daley Park in Chicago and this spring will also contribute 100,000 plugs and more than 6,000 quart-container wildflowers to the new Bloomingdale Trail, the first multiuse linear park in Chicago, where planting is under way. Growing a wildflower, from seed collection to sale-ready plugs, can take as little as three months and as long as several years, depending on how hard it is to germinate and grow. Asclepias viridis, commonly known as green antelopehorn, is a good example of a wildflower beneficial to pollinators that is common in pastures in Texas and Kansas but quite hard to germinate and grow in a nursery.

When the market emerges, and when the products the market needs for sustainable landscaping are ready, the landscape architecture profession should be ready to go, specifying different techniques for soil management, knowing the plants better, and working more closely with growers. Landscape architects will also need to manage the expectations of clients regarding the time it takes for a sustainable landscape to mature, and develop maintenance plans alongside their specifications to ensure proper care during the first three years, which are critical. It’s a new industry out there, a potentially big one. Tallamy sees the signs in his work. “Everywhere I go, people ask me, ‘Who can I hire to do this?’ And everyplace I go, I have to say to them, ‘I do not know.’”

A landscape designer certified by the National Wildlife Federation to create wildlife gardens, Carol E. Becker is the owner of Sage Advice Landscape Design, a published author, and was the executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest Ecological Landscape Alliance from 2009 to 2013.

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