Tucked away in the heart of the Palouse is one of the best-known native-plant nurseries in the West. Plants of the Wild Nursery in Tekoa, Washington, grows and markets trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and groundcovers throughout most of the western U.S. These native plant species end up along highways, in national parks, wildlife refuges, riparian and reforestation projects, and, since 2001, in retail customers’ yards.
As a subsidiary of Seeds, Inc., Plants of the Wild Nursery started in response to the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Designed to increase wheat prices by removing the glut of wheat on the market, CRP pays farmers to take their land out of production and plant bunchgrasses, trees, and shrubs. Plants of the Wild grew and sold CRP plant materials. Forest-service contracts provided another market for thousands of trees.
But government-sponsored programs are pretty volatile, and every year, nursery manager Kathy Hutton ( ’87 Horticulture) found herself trying to predict what government program would come along the following year and what plants would be needed for it. It took her about 18 months to collect seeds, stratify them in cold temperatures, and then raise them to plants of marketable size. By then, the market for them may have changed or fallen away.
Hutton also had a different vision for her native plants. “I love native plants, and I really believe in native landscapes,” she says. Growing up in Reardan, Washington, she remembers her family’s two-acre yard that looked like a park in the middle of the surrounding wheat fields. Her father loved gardening and would collect seeds of wild plants during family camping trips to germinate at home. To make room for his hobby, he kept taking out more lawn and replacing it with beds of shrubs and groundcovers. As a child, Kathy became an avid partner in his home landscaping projects, learning plant identification and propagation techniques from him.
“People thought he was weird,” says Hutton, “but he loved nature and wanted to bring it closer to home. His interest in native plants was really ahead of his time.”
Drawing on her degree in horticulture and the passion for native plants she acquired from her father, who passed away in 1994, she continued to think of residential and commercial landscapes as ways to expand and diversify the native-plant market.
Hutton believes the approach to landscaping is changing. Typical landscapes of big lawns and manicured hedges are not as appealing as they used to be. People want less work and less formality in their yards. Even if they don’t want to use native plants exclusively, they still want natural-looking, drought-tolerant, and bird-friendly plants. And Plants of the Wild is ready to oblige.
Since 2001, Plants of the Wild has offered native plants on a retail basis through its catalog and at the nursery. Paul Williams, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, knows his native plants and likes serving the retail customers who come from as far away as Oregon and Canada to visit the nursery.
Biggest sellers? Depends on the time of year and what’s in bloom out in the wild. In spring, serviceberry. Early summer, mockorange. Late summer, oceanspray. The evergreen groundcover kinnikinnick is a steady seller most of the year.
Busiest day at the nursery? Chicken Tuesday at the local café in Tekoa.
“You laugh,” says Hutton, “but it happens.”
Tonie Fitzgerald is a WSU/Spokane County extension agent in horticulture and author of Gardening in the Inland Northwest
(Washington State University, 2001).