Native plants are a passion for Prairie Nursery

Mary Evans loves seeing the sense of wonder that dawns on many gardeners when they first see the power that native plants have to attract diverse wildlife to a yard or landscape.

“When people see it, that’s when they start to awaken and realize that natives just bring a dimension to the garden that makes it more of an experience, a more exciting environment,” she says.

Spreading awareness of the important role native plants play in supporting diverse wildlife—and helping people build native landscapes of their own—has been a focus of Prairie Nursery, where Evans leads marketing efforts, since its founding in 1972.

That was a different era in the horticultural world.

For one thing, understanding of the importance of native plants was much lower.

Growing awareness—and a business

Prairie Nursery got its start when a man named J. Robert Smith began teaching himself to germinate, grow and transplant prairie natives on his farm in Westfield, Wisc. His work caught the eye of Neil Diboll, who at the time was studying prairie ecology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay.

Diboll was planting prairie landscapes at the university’s arboretum, and bought most of his seed from Smith. Diboll came to Westfield in 1982 to begin operating Prairie Nursery, which over the years grew from a backyard project into a national retailer of native plants and seeds.

The business’s growth has mirrored an evolution in public understanding of the important role native plants play in supporting wildlife.

“When I first became the owner of Prairie Nursery in 1982, just about every plant I grew was considered a weed,” Diboll says. “As I attempted to tell people how important it was to plant natives to support butterflies, bees, wasps and flies, they thought I was absolutely crazy.”

Bridging that gap in understanding has been a big part of Diboll’s work, both at the nursery and through lecturing and writing for the horticultural community.

Prairie Nursery aims to help gardeners, landowners and landscape designers build native landscapes of all sizes, and to encourage the use of native plants as a way to preserve a diverse ecosystem of plant and animal species, while at the same time creating sustainable landscapes that improve water and soil quality.

An example of this are two collections established on Plants Map to encourage the use of sedges and native grasses.

Pollinators are critical

In the more than 45 years since the business started, awareness of the benefits of native plants has grown tremendously.

“Now people are finally realizing that insects and pollinators are critical to the survival of all life on Earth, and are gradually beginning to accept including these creatures in their landscapes, if not actively promoting them with diverse native plantings,” Diboll says.

Evans says news coverage of environmental problems like pollinator decline—the loss of species of bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats and other animals that pollinate plants and are necessary to the food supply—have gotten people’s attention.

Asclepias syriaca - Common MilkweedGrowing awareness of the decline in the monarch butterfly population has also helped people learn about native plants, as people seek out native milkweed (Prairie Nursery offers eight different varieties) and other plants to attract butterflies.

“The thing that really got the public interested is that native plants support an abundance of life,” Evans says. “If you really want to bring your garden and your landscape to life and go out there and see butterflies and bees…native plants really do that.”

Prairie Nursery also offers the expertise it has built up over more than four decades of working with native plants. The nursery started almost exclusively as a vendor of seeds, but now sells plants—all of which are greenhouse propagated, not wild-dug, and are completely free of neonicotinoid pesticides.

“We track the provenance of our plants and we know where the seed comes from,” Evans says.

Helping people make the right choices for their landscape is another focus.

“We try to offer people as many different ways to buy plants that will fit their needs or budget,” Evans says. “We offer everything from pre-planned gardens to custom plant kits to seed mixes for larger landscapes.”

The nursery also consults with customers to make sure they understand how to get the garden results they want. That includes helping people understand the geographical range a plant is suited for, its ideal soil type and how to care for the plant to create a lasting, sustainable landscape.

E-commerce fuels growth

As online communication opens up so many ways to help buyers select the right plants, Prairie Nursery will roll out an updated website within the next year with a wealth of information.

“The e-commerce revolution has helped people access information about natives that was not necessarily as readily available prior to widespread access to the web,” Diboll says. “It has also made it easier for us to reach our customers, both in terms of total number of potential customers, but also at a greatly reduced cost compared to sending out print catalogs as part of a prospecting campaign that typically yielded low returns at a high cost.”

One way Prairie Nursery connects with online plant-seekers is through Plants Map. As a Resource Profile, Prairie Nursery is utilizing the Plants Map Buy It plants feature that places their plants within the ‘to buy’ plant finder results. A “Buy It” button on their plant profiles sends plant seekers directly to their website with more information on the plant as well pricing and shipping options.

Prairie Nursery’s business has always been built on shipping seeds or plants to growers in the Greater Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and East Coast states. This started with seed catalogs, but in recent decades, online sales have been a major driver of growth. This follows a trend in the larger horticultural world, as vendors are finding more of an appetite among customers to buy plants online.

Evans says that is particularly true in the world of native plants.

“With native plants it could be a matter of just not being able to find them locally. They can be hard to find at local nurseries unless that nursery is dedicated to native plants,” she says. “The lack of retail nurseries dedicated to native plants is such that people tend to buy native plants online.”

Growth in online sales over the past decade has allowed Prairie Nursery to make strategic improvements. They’ve doubled their number of greenhouses since 2012, and added a cool storage building where plants can overwinter. They’ve also invested in infrastructure to make shipping and order fulfillment more efficient. Improving the website is an ongoing project to aid those efforts.

“We are trying to really expand and be able to take in the orders that are coming in and move them efficiently,” Evans says.

Diboll says Prairie Nursery aims to maintain manageable growth for the foreseeable future. Sustainability is a theme not only in its products but in its management, as the business does not carry debt and promotes employees from within to ensure a consistent focus on the core mission of promoting biodiversity through greater use of native plants.

“We don’t just grow plants, we grow people at Prairie Nursery,” Diboll says. “We are blessed to have a great group of folks on our team, and they are committed to serving our customers and the global environment by providing quality native plants and seeds to our customers, large and small.”

To learn more, visit Prairie Nursery on Plants Map. Featured in the cover photo: Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master), and Echinacea pallida (pale purple coneflower).