WHY THEY’RE GREAT: Pizzo Native Plant Nursery is dedicated to saving the environment. Propagating about 99 percent perennials, such as grasses and flowering forbs, and a select few native annuals, biennials and intermediate shrubs, the Leland, Illinois, nursery aims to use natives to bring ecological balance to U.S. and Canadian communities.
Kyle Banas, nursery manager and head grower, began in his role in 2009 after working in more traditional ornamental greenhouse settings. He joined the native nursery, established in 1999 by landscape architect and ecologist Jack Pizzo, after becoming passionate about propagating natives from seed to promote biological diversity and disease resilience.
Natives help communities of people lead healthy lives, Banas says. “They help with everything from improving the water we drink by filtering runoff, to the food we eat by feeding pollinators that help us grow crops, to the air we breathe by sequestering carbon and returning it to the ground,” Banas says.
GROWING SUSTAINABLY: Pizzo Native Plant Nursery has 8,000 square feet of heated greenhouse space, 21 hoophouses that make up 10 acres, aquatic beds, outdoor growing space and seed beds. The nursery follows its plants’ natural cycles, producing much of its plant material between May and September, when it adds seasonal help beyond its nine full-time employees. It overwinters plants in covered hoophouses for spring sales and starts shipping stock to landscape contractors in late March.
“Most of our plants start in a small, lean-to structure we have on our production building,” Banas says. “That serves as our germination chamber, so it’s got heated floors, an overhead mist system, automatic vents and a fan.”
The nursery then moves the seedling trays to a 5,000-square-foot gutter-connected greenhouse that has traveling irrigation booms and heat, Banas says. In the greenhouse, workers grow in propagation trays and transplant, then they take the plants to the hoophouses.
The nursery adheres to sustainable practices where it can, Banas says. These procedures include following an integrated pest management (IPM) program; mulching plants with rice hulls to control liverwort, algae and weeds while reducing irrigation; offering a rewards program for the return of plastic trays that the nursery then sanitizes and reuses; and reusing poly from houses as secondary floating row covers.
SERVING A NICHE: Pizzo Native Plant Nursery’s customers include landscape, general, roofing and ecological contractors; brokers; other growers; government entities such as the USDA Forest Service; and others, Banas says. The nursery grows for both landscaping and restoration projects, produces crops for green roofs and has established partnerships with nonprofits to create custom seed mixes for specific habitats.
Out of about 500 species that the nursery produces, it consistently grows about 300 species, most of which suit both landscaping and restoration projects. While the nursery grows several popular crops, such as ornamental grasses and the monarch butterfly host plant Asclepias, others can’t be found anywhere else.
Pizzo Native Plant Nursery follows specific processes for individual plant offerings, Banas says. “I think we’re up to, like, 27 different seed protocols for how we handle the seed once it’s collected,” he says. “We do a lot of our own seed collecting, and that’s a job that we do over the winter, is clean a lot of the seed. Then, we either stratify it or boil it or wait two years for it to germinate in the wild, or we throw it in bags and throw it in the wetland — or try to treat it with different bacteria.”
AN EXPANDING MARKET: In the 10 years that Banas has worked at Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, he has seen that natives have transitioned from a niche market to one that is relatively mainstream. “Younger people recognize the importance of natives because they are exposed to the issues of climate change and the overall health of the planet,” he says.
Pizzo Native Plant Nursery is dedicated to working with growers and others in the horticulture industry to introduce natives to a larger market, Banas says. As it expands to new markets, and addresses climate change and microclimates, it has grown new species that are native outside of the Chicago area.
The nursery is focused on finding partners to whom it can send trays, which Banas says is a more economical and sustainable method than shipping gallon containers across the country. “That’s more what we’re focused on, is how to be regional with this, because we are trying to expand and move into new markets [while] at the same time maintaining the integrity of native plants,” Banas says.
In the future, Pizzo Native Plant Nursery may open other locations, Banas says. If it does, it will need to find ways to handle logistics in a sustainable way. This, he adds, is a key element of introducing natives to populations that are a farther distance.
“Natives are an integral part of our ecosystem, and it’s gone unrecognized for too long,” Banas says. “Here at the nursery, we’re just happy to be part of restoring that balance, so that’s at the front of our company culture — that’s what we›re going for. I think that’s what really sets us apart from other nurseries."