Senior Living Goes Native!


‘Pixie Meadowbrite’ Purple Coneflower complements the purple blooms of Leadplant in front, with yellow Paradox Coneflower to the rear of the photo.

Often (always), when I’m in my car, I check out the landscapes surrounding homes, carwashes, hospitals, banks, etc. – mostly it is the standard hedges of Japanese Yew, with some daylillies, a crabapple or two, Pfitzer and Hetz Junipers growing out of their planetary and spiral sheared shapes, even an occasional Yucca to remind us of their tenacity, since no one has used them in a planting design since the 1970’s.  Oh, and big useless swathes of lawn – lots of lawn.  Americans love their lawns.  These plantings mostly reflect our post-war (World War II, that is) fascination with the  formal gardens of Europe – of course, we called them “modern landscapes,” rather than European inspired landscapes, because, heck, we’re Americans, and we don’t copy, we lead.

Palos Park 1957

This Mid-Century house has it all, large lawn, evergreen trees, sheared foundation yews, Pfitzer Junipers, even a row of hosta along the driveway. This was the standard landscape installation for too long.

In 1956, Garrett Eckbo, a landscape architect, and World War II veteran, wrote in his book The Art of Home Landscaping:  

“In the Southwest, where native vegetation tends towards dull grays and browns, the strong dark or clear greens of plants from more humid areas (grown with irrigation) are a welcome relief and contrast, and definitely render the climate more livable.  In grasslands and prairies we plant trees; in forests we clear open spaces and plant grass; in the desert we introduce both trees and grass.  All of these changes have the  function of equalizing, improving, and humanizing these landscapes, making them better places for us to live.” 

In another part of the book Eckbo does encourage lawn only where it is necessary, and to choose trees and shrubs that will not outgrow their location so that their need for pruning is minimized.  If only that happened in the real world.  In the real world, we have three story tall Norway Spruce trees terrorizing all other plant life and blocking the winter sun, lawns in arid Las Vegas, escaped English Ivy taking over our East Coast forests, and Limestone rip-rap surrounding our ponds and walls of metal pilings around our lakes – all in the name of making our surroundings better – more “humanized”.  Great. 

Fortunately, I have noticed changes in the last few years in just how “improving our landscapes” is defined.  In 2000, while working at OWP&P Architects in Chicago, I found myself designing a planting bed for the Skokie, Illinois Public Library, wanting to include the low prairie shrub New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americana,  I called a large wholesale grower, Midwest Groundcovers, to ask if they had it available; they weren’t familiar with the shrub.  Fast forward, 10 or 12 years, and they not only carry New Jersey Tea, they have an entire section of their catalog dedicated to ornamental Midwestern natives and actively promote their use.  Great! 

In 2011, I was asked to redesign the front landscape of a senior living facility in Des Plains, Illinois.   The client wanted something that looked good the year around, and specifically requested that Midwestern native plants be included in the planting scheme.  All of the new plants, with the exception of Virginia Sweetspire, are Midwestern natives, some, such as the ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’ Purple Coneflower and ‘Autumn Blaze’ Maple are hydrids of native crosses. 

Upon arriving at the site, the first thing I noticed was the overgrown spruce trees planted near the foundation of the building.  All of the shrubs were pruned into submission, rather, I should say sheared into shapes that defied description.


Their will to live is mightier than the power-shear – but just barely.

There was no hope for moving the overgrown spruce trees, they had to be removed.


This spruce tree is trying to grow between a rock and a hard place – “Time to limb it up,” is the typical response to this misplaced planting.

Here, on the north facing wall, the spruce was replaced with a Red Maple hybrid, underplanted with Virginia Sweetspire, Itea virginica, Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, and evergreen Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides. The white flowered ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea behind, and the Hazelnut shrub, to the left, were retained.  The pictures that follow where taken in July of 2013, one year after planting.

2226On the east facing wall, native Serviceberry, Amelanchier sp., and Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, (both have great fall color, and white flowers in the spring) as well as many Midwestern prairie plants replaced the spruce.  See the planting plan, below, for species names and layout.


The Blue Baptisia (center right) with its gray-green leaves will form a 4 foot by 4 foot “shrub” when it reaches its mature size in a couple of years. Blue lupine-like flowers show in June, with ornamental seed pods all winter.


The yellow flowered Sand Coreopsis, C. lanceolata, was installed just a few weeks prior and will show off its mounded habit as it matures. Finches love the seeds that this low-growing flower provides.

In 2013, the wobbly shrubs were removed and more sunny natives were planted, including Nodding Onion, Sand Coreopsis, Purple Coneflower, and Winged Sumac, along with a hydrangea that was moved here from the existing planting at the entry doors.  The rounded shrub, is actually a witch-hazel that will be allowed to grow into its natural picturesque form.


This part of the bed was planted just a month prior to this photo being taken. Nodding Onion in the foreground is just coming into bloom.

The parking lot island bed was originally planted with a low growing juniper, daylilies, and a Norway Maple – not much to catch the eye, but slightly better than lawn, which is often the default planting, or river rock.


The plants that I chose for the island bed are tough prairie residents that could both take the heat of summer, as well as piles of snow in winter.  Their mature heights are all under 3 feet when in flower.  These pictures show how they are faring after going through their first winter, and in the middle of their second summer.


The plants were also chosen for their ease of maintenance (no deadheading needed, just mow the planting in the early spring, before new growth appears) and were installed in large repeated groupings so that their individual ornamental qualities will be appreciated by even the most staunch traditionalist.



The 18 to 24 inch spacing allows the Prairie Dropseed grass to show off its elegant form as it matures. Soon the soil will not be visible below them


A large grouping of Nodding Onion about to come into flower in late July, with the pods of earlier blooming Blue Baptisia showing behind

This new landscape will get better and better with good maintenance and with time.  The goal of creating an interesting year-round landscape was achieved.  And far from being dull, it is a “welcome relief and contrast” to the monotony of the landscapes that surround too many of our homes and businesses.  It shows that including regionally native plants can make for an ever changing and vivacious landscape, full of life, and full of beauty.

North Facing Bed Planting Plan:

South Foundation Plan ACAD

East Facing Bed Planting Plan

East Foundation Plan ACAD

Island Bed Planting Plan

Island Plan ACAD

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The Backyard Meadow – Mid-Summer Blooms and Bugs


The meadow in my backyard is getting better every year.  In 2006, just after I moved in, this area was mowed on a weekly basis.  I could see, though, that this area was never planted to turf, like the areas closer to the house.  There were Pussy Toes blooming in spring, asters, Poverty Oats Grass, Wild Strawberries, and other things just waiting it out – for about 50 years, until I came along.  I stopped mowing, herbicided the weeds, and seeded in and planted native tallgrass prairie species.

This past week, the Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) started blooming.  In the photo above, it is blooming with the white flowered Wild Quinine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and on the right edge of the photo, Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with its strappy, yucca-like leaves.  In a few weeks, another blazing star in the meadow will be blooming, Rough Blazing Star (L. aspera).


Almost all of the white in this photo below, is Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) mixed into a matrix of Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium).  The tall yellow flowers in the distance are Gray-Headed Coneflowers (Ritibida pinata).  Walking through the Mountain Mint is a sensory experience – on a warm summer day, the clean mint smell will rise around you.


Little Bluestem Grass really puts on a show in fall, when the blue-green foliage turns a coppery orange, and stays nice throughout the winter.  Even in summer, however, it is an attractive grass, growing to 18 inches high and wide, and a bit taller when it is in flower.


Walking through the meadow, some pretty interesting pollinators were seen, including this Buckeye Butterfly.


Another visitor to the meadow was this Dragonfly, busy sunning itself on a dry twig. 


Gray-Headed Coneflower, Wild Quinine, and Prairie Dropseed Grass make for an eye pleasing combination.


Purple Prairie Clover is just about to finish it’s bloom cycle, starting from the bottom up, just the opposite of the blazing star.



The Wild Sweet Potato (Ipomoea pandurata) was rambling over the Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  Wild Sweet Potato grows from a large, underground tuber, as you may have guessed from its name.  Its vines grow quite a long length in a short time, dying back to the ground each winter.  The plant does not spread by roots or seeds, making it a good garden plant, as well.


The large white 3 to 4 inch blooms last only a day each.


Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)- shown below- can get 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, sometimes that’s a bit too big for the home garden.  Purple Milkweed (A. purpuranscens) is more upright with a less open habit, but similar purple-pink flowers – a better garden plant than Marsh Milkweed.


Gray-Headed Coneflower at the rear of the meadow enjoys its sunny location.  Its bright yellow flowers, on 4 foot tall (or more) stalks, can be seen from a long distance away.


On the much shorter side of things (at approximately a foot tall), Partridge Pea (Cassia fasciculata) and the purple flowered Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) seem to be getting along together, just fine.  Partridge Pea generally can be found in colonies while Heal-All is often found singly, and seemingly randomly, throughout an area.


Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) has just begun to show some color – with all the yellow flowers in the meadow, this bright royal purple is a welcome addition to the color palette.   At 5 feet tall, or more, the flowers can not hardly be missed.


The delicate looking, but quite tough, Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) makes a great accent plant, and is wonderfully adaptable in the garden, as well as being quite nice here in the meadow.  It can take part sun and damp soil, to full sun and dry ground.  It has a coarse root system that helps in this durability.


It would look great in any garden – with similar flowering heights, it works well planted with Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).  As the coneflowers wane and only the dark seed heads remain, the euphorbia comes on strong, and complements the coarseness of the coneflower.


The Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) likes full sun and good drainage. It can be slow to get established, but puts on a great show.  A terrific garden plant as well.   Its coarse root system can make it a little more difficult to dig and move in the garden, but it can be done, if necessary.  Of course butterflies are attracted to milkweeds and Monarchs rely on them to reproduce.


Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) has a great coarse leaves – big and bold, among more modest foliage.  The 3 inch bright yellow blooms provide nectar to a host of pollinators.


Cup Plant is true to its name, by holding water at the base if its leaves.  Insects and birds will come to drink.  And later the birds will fight for the oil rich seeds.


All the flowers and grasses find and make space so that they can put on their best show.  The variety of colors and shapes boggles the mind in their diversity.  Who could possibly want a lawn of monotony?


The meadow is a colorful place at all times of the year, even in winter with shades of orange, rust, and gold, but summer is simply amazing, not only for the flowers, but all the forms of life that take advantage of the flowers and leaves, seeds and nectar, shelter and perch. Magic … seemingly anyhow.


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‘Daisy May’ under the ‘Prairie Moon’ – An Inspiring Visit to Intrinsic Perennial Gardens Inc.

233 sign

In late winter, weary eyes look to the trees to see if any green is showing.  The first sign of growth is a welcome indicator that winter is past and the growing season is upon us.  The cycle renewed.  Life is good.   By mid-July, however, many gardeners are at wits end.  It’s either been too hot, too wet, or lately, too dry.  Plants are suffering, hoses aren’t long enough, and time is at a premium.  Leave town for a week’s vacation? Forget about it.  Raise the white flag.  Or maybe not.  A mid-July visit to Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, Inc, a wholesale perennial nursery in northern Illinois, tells a different tale.   Most of the perennials grown there would be unfamiliar to our grandmothers, and many of the old varieties have been improved for better garden performance.  Also, thanks to designers/nurserymen such as Brent Horvath, Roy Diblik and Piet Oudolf, our vision of what a perennial garden looks like, and its role in the landscape, is changing.  Gone are the lone beds of German Bearded Iris or Hybrid Tea Roses, the English inspired perennial borders and large expanses of lawn.  These were never a good idea.  They consume too many resources ( time, money, chemicals, and water) to keep them presentable.  So what IS new?  Perennials (many native) that have more than one season of interest and are laid out in a naturalized design, that don’t require pampering to look good, and are planted in areas that used to be dominated by lawns. 

Brent Horvath, plant breeder and owner of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, Inc, specializes in growing and breeding perennials for both shade and sun, including sedums for gardens and green roofs.  In fact, Brent has written a book on sedums, a Timber Press publication, that will be available later this year.  Brent has a great enthusiasm for what he does.  As we walked around the nursery, he pointed out some of the plants that he has introduced on to the market.   One was the stunning ‘Daisy May’ (Daisy Duke) Shasta Daisy, a 24 inch tall plant with 2 inch wide flowers – another was ‘Red October’ Big Bluestem Grass, a form of our native prairie grass with purple highlights on blue-green leaves that progressively turn redder as the days get shorter and colder.  I saw, and learned much, in the couple hours that I was there. Let’s take a look.


The Gravel Garden at Intrinsic

236 gravel garden

A mixture of Prairie Dropseed grass ‘Tara’, Tennessee Coneflower, Prairie Coreopsis (C. palmata), Purple Prairie Clover, and Junegrass (Koleria cristata) work well in the gravel garden.


 Along the west side of the office, Brent planted a gravel garden, one of several display gardens at the nursery.  The gravel garden utilizes a planting method brought over from Germany by Roy Diblik, garden designer and co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm in southern Wisconsin.  The big idea is that weeds don’t stand a chance and watering is eliminated (in most applications) because the perennials are planted in 4 to 5 inches of quartzite chips or bluestone chips.

The gravel chips are applied over standard topsoil.  Perennials are planted in the gravel, not the soil.  Eventually, the roots will reach the soil and the gravel will act as a mulch, retaining soil moisture, and reducing weed growth to a bare minimum. 

According to Diblik, a newly planted gravel garden must be watered every other day for the first 10 weeks.  This is critical, as the roots will quickly dry out, until the plants have become established in the underlying soil.  The crown of the plants remain nestled in the dry gravel.

Some of the Gravel Garden Plantings:

284 gravel garden

Plains Muhly Grass (left center) grows in the gravel garden along side of Little Bluestem Grass ‘Jazz’ (center), purple leaved Penstemon ‘Pink Dawn’, and a collection of low-growing sedum in the foreground

283 muhlenbergia cuspidata plains muhly grass

Plains Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia cuspidata) likes a sunny site with well drained soil.  I can see this grass planted in mass, with other flowers interplanted among the tufted heads of the Muhly Grass.  Maybe throw in some Midwest native Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa or O. macrorhiza)

282 plains muhly grass

Muhly Grass would look great back lit in the morning, or late afternoon, sun.

281 little bluestem 'jazz'

‘Jazz’ Little Bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium) has outstanding blue-gray foliage that stays upright, and turns a copper bronze color in fall. Attractive through the winter months as well.

279 dalea foliosa

Dalea foliosa has true purple flowers (not in flower as shown) similar in form to the more pinkish flowers of the the Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea). It is also more shrub-like in form rather than PPC’s vase shaped growth.

278 sedum plum perfection

Growing approximately 12 inches wide and 8 inches high, Sedum ‘Plum Perfection’ works well in the gravel garden as a foreground plant. The color and habit of this sedum would work well tucked around the base of some of the taller Prairie Indigos (Baptisia sp.) as it takes some shade and complements the blue-green foliage of the baptisias.


A Sampling of Grasses

254 sporobolus prairie dropseed

Prairie Dropseed Grass (Sporobolis heterolepis), a native low growing prairie grass.  Can get 24 inches wide and 16 inches high, 24 to 30 inches high in flower.  It has a well behaved tufted growth habit, does not spread by roots, very little in the way of seedling growth.  Emerald green leaves in summer, straw gold fall color.  The dark seed heads of Moor Grass (Molinia) are visible behind the Dropseed.

238 tara

Prairie Dropseed Grass ‘Tara’ is about one third the size of the standard form of Prairie Dropseed.  A natural variation found on a dry hill prairie by nurseryman, Roy Diblik.

246 andropogon red october

The blue-green leaves of Big Bluestem Grass ‘Red October’  is accented with purple highlights.  As Fall approaches, this color becomes more prominent.  In flower, it can reach heights of 6 feet.  ‘Dancing Wind’ is another good Big Bluestem selection.

274 andropogon 'red october'

‘Red October’ Big Bluestem Grass in one of the Intrinsic display gardens

243 molinia moor grass skyracer

Moor Grass ‘Skyracer’ (Molinia arundinacea) in 6″ pots is deceiving, this grass can get 7 to 8 feet tall in flower.  The foliage reaches heights of about 2 feet.  This low foliage, and slender stems make this grass “transparent” in the landscape.  Here the plants have already begun blooming in mid-July.

244 molinia moor grass skyracer

The silhouette of ‘Skyracer’ flower stems against a clear blue, summer sky.


241 carex muskigumensis ice fountain

‘Ice Fountain’ Palm Sedge showing it’s contrasting dark flower stalks against a white and green variegated leaves, arching down along the stem, somewhat like a palm.  Works well in a semi-shady part of the garden.  Will spread more, in rich moist soil.  Tolerates typical dry garden soil just fine.  Grows to 24 inches in height.

240 sorghastrum Northwind

‘Northwind’ Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a nice upright prairie grass with airy flowering stems in late summer, which are showy throughout winter.  It’s narrow growth habit makes it perfect for planting groupings as a natural screen, or as a backdrop to shorter plantings in the garden.  A Roy Diblik selection.

2941 sorghastrum northwind

A first year planting of ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass at Governor’s State University, in University Park, Illinois, shown in spring.  Still young ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea are in the foreground.  I designed this planting bed as a buffer between a sitting area and adjacent parking and included plants that would have winter interest, when students are present.

2630 sorghastrum Northwind

A more distant shot of the same bed taken two months later, in June, showing the planting combination of Switchgrass, ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea, Northern Sea Oats, Japanese Yew, a young Kentucky Coffeetree, and Northern Bush Honeysuckle under the shade of the Crabapple.


A Closer Look at Some of the Perennial Flowers

255 Thalictrun x Elin

Meadow Rue ‘Elin’  (Thalictrum)was showing some real drama with it tall 4 to 5+ foot stalks of lavender colored flowers.  This shade plant has attractive columbine-loike, blue-green leaves, reaching a height of approximately 2 feet.  The plant would be happiest with morning sun and soil rich in organic matter.

257 Thalictrun x Elin



261 astilboides tabularis

Astilboides (Astilboides tabularis) is one bold plant once it gets established in the landscape.  With leaves that can approach a foot, or more, in diameter, on stalks that reach 4 feet in height, give this plant some room … and shade.  The leaves can scorch if exposed to too much sun and not enough soil moisture.
Astilboiodes can take wet soil and would look great next to open water, but does well , in compost enriched garden soil.

259 astilboides tabularis

The fuzzy white flowers clusters of Astilboides look like over-sized astilbe flowers, hence it name, and appear in June, continuing through July.


263 display garden

Sonja’s Garden and Trudy’s Garden are two, back-to-back display gardens designed an installed by Brent, in honor of his sister, Sonja and his mother, Trudy.  The gardens, planted in the last year or two, are still immature, but consist of interesting combinations of plants – really, a unique collection of plants arranged to complement, and work well with, their neighbors

264 sedum album 'chlorotictum'

 Along the pathway, two sedums are interplanted.   One, a pebbly, tactile sedum called ‘Chlorotictum’ (S. album), the other, a low mounded sedum hybrid called ‘Thundercloud’, an Intrinsic Nursery introduction.  ‘Chlorotictum’ hugs the ground and can be used between stepping stones in full sun.  ‘Thundercloud’, somewhat similar in appearance to Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, but shorter, will form 12 inch mounds of grey green foliage when mature, with white flowers appearing in late summer.  Both like well drained soil and plenty of sun.

265 sedum 'plum perfection'

 ‘Plum Perfection’ Sedum is a low mounded plant, reaching 8 inches high with a 12 inch spread.  The purple leaves complement many other colors in the garden, especially in fall, when grasses, amsonia, and other plants put on their fall display.  This Intrinsic Nursery introduction is an improved version of Sedum  ‘Bertrand Anderson.’ and can take part shade, as well as full sun.  Purple color is enhanced with increased sun.

266 penstemon digitalis 'pink dawn'

 Penstemon ‘Pink Dawn’, another Intrinsic Nursery introduction, is a selection of our native Penstemon digitalis.  It has deep purple foliage that stays nice even in the heat of summer.  ‘Pink Dawn’ is a bit shorter at 24 inches, than ‘Husker Red’ Penstemon with deeper pink flowers in June, followed by attractive purple seed heads – effective in the winter garden.  I have found that hummingbirds are attracted to its tubular flowers.

268 sanguisorba 'candle light'

American Burnet ‘Candlelight’ (Sanguisorba canadensis) , was introduced by Brent for its bright chartreuse and gold summer leaf color an,d white, bottlebrush-like, flowers in late summer/early fall.  Typically, American Burnet, a moist prairie native, can reach heights of 4 feet or more, with an equal spread, and prefer soil with available moisture present, in full sun.

271 shasta 'daisy may' eryngium 'prairie moon'

‘Prairie Moon’ Rattlesnake Master’s fountain of blue-green foliage and spiky flower heads, complements the mounded fullness of ‘Daisy May’ (Daisy Duke) Shasta Daisy (Lucanthemum x superbum), both of which are Intrinsic Nursery introductions.  ‘Prairie Moon’ has a shorter, thinner leaf, than the standard Rattlesnake Master, found in the prairie.  ‘Daisy May’ is an improvement on the Shasta Daisy, developed by renowned plant breeder, Luther Burbank, at the turn of the last century.

272 shasta 'daisy may'

The tight mounds of deep green foliage grow to 24 inches in height, covered in 2 to 3 inch white flowers with yellow centers.  The deep brown seed heads of ‘Daisy may’ add interest to the fall and winter garden.  Proven Winnershas taken this plant on and making it available across the globe.

288 shasta daisy 'aglaya'

Shasta Daisy ‘Aglaia’ was another daisy seen at the nursery.  Its two inch wide, double white flowers, on long stems, make a great cut flower.

287 shasta daisy 'aglaya'

275 aster ptarmicoides

Stiff White Aster (Aster ptarmicoides) was just coming into bloom.  In another week, it will be covered in half inch, daisy-like flowers.  The mid-summer blooms on this native prairie aster (also called a goldenrod by some taxonomists) make it a great, drought tolerant addition to any full sun garden.  Especially effective at the base of tall grasses such as Switchgrass, Indiangrass, Moor Grass, or Big Bluestem, to name a few.

277 polygonatum dwarf solomons seal 'prince charming'

In a bit shadier garden, Brent was growing another of his selections, a dwarf version of Solomon’s Seal called ‘Prince Charming.’  While this plant can grow in full sun, as the native form does, the texture and form of this plant would be a welcome addition to the shade garden.  Growing to a height of 12 inches it would make an effective ground cover planted in broad sweeping masses.  Good yellow/gold fall color with pea sized purple/black fruit running along the undersides of the arching stems.


The Sedums

286 sedum gravel garden

The number, and variety of forms and colors, of sedum that Brent offers at Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, Inc, is quite impressive – it was fun to think about how these drought tolerant, sun loving plants could be used.   A recently planted gravel garden in the parking area is dedicated to showcasing the winter hardy sedums.  Many find themselves planted on rooftops as part of a “green roof” system.  This drives the massive field of sedum, seen along the road to the nursery office.  In place of pure topsoil under the gravel, Brent used a sandy growing mix.

234 sedum beds

Sadly, time ran short and I was not able to look at all the sedums as closely as I would have liked.  However, on my next visit, I will have Brent’s book on sedum in hand, and will focus on the great variety that he grows and their possible uses and placement in the landscape.

My thanks to Brent for taking time out of his day to show and discuss many of the plants he has introduced in the past few years,  the native Midwest plants that he’s excited about and how they can be used on green roofs and in the designed landscape, as well as sharing his enthusiasm for plant selections that he is currently working on, for future introduction into the plant trade.  And while his wholesale nursery is not open to the general public, I hope that this behind the scenes tour will be an inspiration when you are thinking about what new plants to introduce in to your planting schemes.





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