Sandy Roth and Dick Kenton hold native plant plugs at their native plant nursery, The Plantworks, located in Cove. The company specializes in the intermountain region supplying native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and wetland species for ecological restoration projects. (KELLY BLACK photo)
The Plantworks specializes in supplying native vegetation for ecological restoration projects
It is a niche market that requires a special kind of green thumb.
Sandy Roth and Dick Kenton grow native plants for reforestation and restoration projects. This past year alone, their Cove-based company, The Plantworks, grew more than 250,000 plants for federal, state, tribal and private clients. They specialize in the intermountain region supplying native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and wetland species for ecological restoration projects.
In 1993, the Nature Conservancy was working on the Dunstan Preserve on the middle fork of the John Day River. A friend, who worked as a land steward, approached Roth and Kenton about growing snowberry for the project.
“So up went the first greenhouse,” Kenton said.
The project was a success. Roth and Kenton had found their niche. The Plantworks native nursery was born.
Growing native plants is different than growing ornamentals. Native plants have not been selected for survivability in greenhouses. They are very susceptible to bug attacks and massive die off.
“It was the college of hard knocks,” Kenton said.
Roth and Kenton had to develop growing protocols for each native species.
“For the first 10 years, it was a process of trial and error,” Roth said.
Today, they have successfully grown more than 100 species of native plants.
Propagating native plants for reforestation and restoration projects is not about attaining the perfect plant but rather trying to maintain genetic diversity.
In order to maintain seed genetics, they gather seed from as close to the project site as possible. Staying within an ecological zone also helps survival rates.
After the seeds are gathered, a food processor with rubber blades cleans off the pulp. Then the seeds sit through a cold period — called stratification — to mimic winter. Seed planting starts toward the end of January and finishes up about May. All process work is done in a large shop to minimize the spread of disease. The greenhouses are kept sterile and clean.
The scale of The Plantworks operation is impressive. Four greenhouses have 9,400 square feet of growing space. The water storage house has two 3,000-gallon tanks that are drained daily during the summer. They annually order more than a 100 cubic yards of potting mix. Most plugs are hand seeded.
“This is a very labor intensive business,” Roth said.
Back in the early days, they mixed all the soil by hand or with a cement mixer. In 1998, Roth and Kenton bought their first big piece of equipment — a soil mixer with a two cubic yard capacity — for $10,000.
Originally, they were based in La Grande on two-thirds of an acre.
“It was a nursery on a postage stamp,” Kenton said.
In mid-summer 2008, Roth and Kenton moved to their current location on 10 acres in Cove with 200,000 plants and two greenhouses.
“When we moved the plants, we didn’t have the greenhouses up and the water fell apart on us,” Roth said.
Today, with four greenhouses up and running, Roth and Kenton employ three year-round employees and up to 12 workers during the busy season.
The work keeps pouring in.
“We don’t advertise,” Roth said.
A whiteboard in the main workshop details out recent orders: chokecherry, alder, Geyer’s willow, black cottonwood, oiser dogwood, black hawthorne, serviceberry, gold currant and quaking aspen for a restoration project in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
In December, they shipped out 162,000 plugs of sagebrush to a Bureau of Land Management project in Southwest Idaho.
The starter greenhouse has nearly 5,000 plugs of bitterbrush destined for another nursery.
Native plants revolve around light cycles — the winter solstice, the summer solstice.
The plants may rest but there is always a lot of work to be done.
This fall the crew sterilized more than 200,000 plastic starter tubes in 180-degree water for three minutes using a livestock tank with three propane heaters.
“That is why it is a niche market, because it is highly labor intensive,” Kenton said.