Growing with Prairie Nursery – A Short History

I am often asked, “How did you get into the wildflower and native grass business?”  As with so many things in life, I blame it on my parents.

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, one of three kids. Both of my parents were teachers.  We never lacked for anything, but lived a relatively frugal lifestyle so we could indulge in my parents’ passion for travel.  We lived without air conditioning for many a St. Louis summers of blistering heat and humidity to direct family resources to more appropriate investments.

We were always going to the Ozarks, the Rocky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert, the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, and various parts of Canada.  Invariably, we ended up taking wildflower walks along mountain trails, babbling brooks, and even on old abandoned railroad grades (My dad is a train nut, and my mother continually proves her love by accompanying him on his many railfan escapades).

Of course, as a hyperactive boy, all I wanted to do was throw rocks at things and roll boulders down the mountainside (not recommended).  Wildflowers walks seemed so sedate, and frankly, boring.  Ah, but we seldom escape the insidious influence of our progenitors.  I was doomed to fall under the seductive spell of the flora of wild places as a result of these early exposures.

I originally enrolled in college with the notion that I would become an environmental engineer and invent great new technologies that would save the Earth from human malfeasance.  After barely surviving introductory calculus, I reconsidered.  Suddenly biology, ecology, and modern dance were far more attractive than math and physics.

I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1974, at the height of the environmental movement in America.  UWBG, as it was called, had been dubbed “Eco-U” because of its environmental focus and interdisciplinary approach to education.  Just like in Nature, everything it interconnected.  It was the perfect choice for me, and I thrived.

In the fall of my junior year, I took a course in Vegetation Management from Dr. Keith White.  We all had to do a project for the class, and he suggested that someone study the recent prairie plantings that had been done on the campus arboretum.  That sounded interesting, and I was soon wandering around in head-high grasses.  To complement the field ecology work, I started reading about prairies.

The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.  Soon I was devouring every article written in the last two centuries on the topic.  My idea of a great weekend was to hitch-hike from Green Bay to Madison on a Friday afternoon to spend Saturday and Sunday ensconced in UW-Madison’s Steenbock Library, reading ecological journals and spending what should have been beer money on copying hundreds of articles on the Xerox machine.

After graduating from UWGB, I worked the summers for the US Park Service in Virginia and later the US Forest Service in Colorado, returning to Green Bay for the winter (that’s gotta make you wonder).  I spent the winter in the library, reading articles, or in the lab processing soil samples I had taken on the arboretum prairies.  I saved enough during the summer to live in an old farmhouse in the country and do my prairie research.

In the fall of 1979, I had become frustrated that the University Grounds Crew was doing nothing to manage the prairies on the arboretum.  The plantings were plagued by non-native cool season grasses and weeds, and damned if I was going to sit by and watch it happen.  In my first and only act of “eco-terrorism,” a friend and I started the prairie on fire in the waning light of Dec. 21, 1979.  It was truly amazing to feel how hot the flames were, even with a foot of snow on the ground.  We had to stand 50 feet away to avoid the heat on a cold winter day.  The Green Bay Fire Department was soon on the scene, along with the police.  The fire was soon extinguished, and the two of us ran a mile before we stopped to catch our collective breath.

Needless to say, everyone on campus knew who had set the prairie fire.  Always one to recognize an opportunity, the head of the Grounds Crew soon hired me to manage the prairies, as well as the tree plantings on the arboretum.  Anybody that would burn the prairie on his own time could certainly handle doing it correctly on university time he reasoned.  Turns out he was right.

As the unofficial manager of the arboretum, I set out to plant as many areas as possible to prairie flowers and grasses.  I purchased seed from local nurseries in Wisconsin and northern Illinois.  The majority of the seed came from a fellow named Bob Smith, a retired DNR employee who lived in Westfield, WI.  He ran a little back yard operation called Prairie Nursery.

In the spring of 1982, I learned that Bob was retiring from business.  The farmhouse I rented had a couple of acres of available land that the landlord said I could use to grow whatever I wanted, as long as it was legal.  So I called up Bob Smith and asked him if he would be willing to sell some of his stock plants that I could move to Green Bay to establish a prairie nursery in my back yard.  Bob said he might consider that, but was I maybe interested in moving down to Westfield and taking over the operations of Prairie Nursery?

I hadn’t thought of that.

The first question I had for Bob was, “Where the heck is Westfield?”  I had never actually been there.  I had only called Bob and ordered seed, which he shipped to me in paper grocery sacks.  We set up a meeting, Bob gave me directions, and I drove to Westfield in my rusty 1973 Honda Civic (the old tin can variety).

Bob tested my knowledge of native plants by taking me out on the back 40 and asking me to identify species based upon the remnant stems from the previous growing season.  He was apparently sufficient pleased that he said he had talked to other parties about operating Prairie Nursery, but that I was the one he thought was best suited for the job.  Bob and I became good friends from that day on until his death a dozen years later.

With only a verbal agreement with Bob, my former business partner and I bought a cheap old trailer and moved it from Green Bay to Westfield on June 1, 1982.  I borrowed a few thousand dollars from friends and family, and we were in business!  The trailer became our home and office for the next six years.  In fact, the trailer is still part of our office thirty years later, completely remodeled so that its original identity is thankfully obscured.  Despite the wholesale overhaul of the structure, I made sure to retain the pink bathtub in the bathroom.

Since the original nursery was no more than one half acre, including the rhubarb, asparagus, and potato patch, it was a pretty slim existence.  Almost all of the seed we sold was obtained by hand collecting along roadsides.  All the local folks became accustomed to seeing me wandering the roadsides, peering into ditches, looking for native seeds.  It was nothing more than a glorified “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle.  We lived on a lot of bean burritos, potatoes, and cheap beer.  Luckily it was two guys living in the trailer.  Our girlfriends would come to visit, but didn’t stay very long.

We could only sell part of the seed we collected, in order to save enough to establish new, larger fields for seed production.  Slowly but surely, the new fields came into production.  One of the greatest moments of my early business life was running an old John Deere 30 pull-type combine for the first time through a new field of Little Bluestem to harvest the seed mechanically.  Previously, we had hand collected this seed, which was literally Stone Age agriculture.  We had suddenly entered the mid-20th century in one giant leap!

Over the years, Prairie Nursery continued to grow.  We added greenhouses over the years to replace our field grown plant production.  We now have a nice new propagation house where we produce hundreds of thousands of plants every year.  Just like a prairie plant, the company had to develop deep roots before it blossomed.  I compare us to the long-lived but slow-growing Compassplant:  It may take a decade to reach maturity from a seed, but once established, it’s there for the long haul.

The next generation of Prairie Nursery’s stewards are now taking care of day to day operations, growing plants and seeds, installing native landscapes, and helping our customers.  It is my hope that Prairie Nursery will continue to prosper for many years to come.  I am sure that Bob Smith is smiling as he looks down upon what his humble backyard garden has become today.