by Sally Colby
The family nursery that David Lawyer and his wife Esther started in 1959 in Plains, MT, was the result of David’s horticulture hobby. Over the years, the hobby turned into a business and today, son John Lawyer owns and manages the bareroot nursery business that has two locations: Plains, MT and Olympia, WA.
At the Plains location, the focus is on deciduous seedlings and transplants, rootstock, shrubs and conifers. The Olympia location cultivates conifers, deciduous seedlings and transplants, including many species that are difficult to propagate. Both sites include modern cold storage.
“Some species grow better in Olympia, but the market prefers the cold-climate adaptability so we grow them here in Montana,” said John Lawyer as he described what is grown at the two locations. “Because of the longer growing season (in Olympia), plants out there tend to grow faster. Sometimes that isn’t always good, but sometimes it’s what we want. We fit the crop for the market and production cycles.”
Lawyer added that while a lot of the two-year plants grown in Montana will size up just right in that two-year period, the same plants grown in Washington would be too large in two years yet not large enough in one year.
Approximately 10,000 sq. ft. of growing space at the Olympia location was originally built for propagating their own transplants, but is now used to grow plugs. Lawyer says that the key to successfully growing plugs is to be compulsive about detail. “Hire a really good grower,” he said. “We’ve been very selective about who we employ.”
Lawyer explains that some of the same requirements exist for starting plugs and field-grown bareroot stock. “You have to stratify the seed in most species, apply them at the right time of the year under the right conditions, and nurture them to get good germination,” he said. “In the greenhouse and in the field, you have to have the right treatments to keep them growing until you want them to stop. There are potential pest and disease problems in both places.”
In Montana, the biggest production challenge is deer, and to a lesser extent, bighorn sheep. “The deer population in the last 30 years has increased dramatically,” said Lawyer. “People don’t hunt them much — they want to hunt the bighorn sheep, elk and moose.” Although the nursery fields are surrounded by 14-strand electric wire, Lawyer says that he’s going to start erecting 10 ft. woven wire fence to deter deer.
Lawyer says that damage to nursery crops originates when animals lose their feed source at higher elevations. “The bighorn sheep are drawn to the valley floor by field crops,” he said. “They also lick the salt off the highways. It’s a huge problem, and very dangerous when bighorn sheep are in the road. But deer still the main problem.”
The production cycle for fields used for nursery stock production is between seven and 10 years. “In Montana, we rotate with small grains and try to keep soil out of production for five years; sometimes longer,” said Lawyer. “During that time, we try to gain additional weed control. We cut the grain and plow in the stubble for mulch. We try to grow one to three grain crops before going back to nursery stock.” Lawyer added that he’ll often include a green manure crop such as soybeans or sorghum sudangrass prior to replanting in nursery stock. “Once a field is ready for nursery stock again, we start with seedlings and grow one to crops of seedlings, then several crops of transplants, then back to grain again.”
Lawyer says that some species are root pruned every year, while others aren’t. “Most conifers are root pruned during the production cycle,” he said. “Some deciduous trees are root pruned, and some species are root-pruned seasonally to get them to shut down and stop growing. It depends on the species.”
For some species, wrenching — which involves running a blade under the plant during middle of growing season — is appropriate. “We aren’t trying to dig the plant, just disturb soil compaction around the roots to force a more fibrous root system to develop,” said Lawyer. “If it’s done late in season, wrenching helps plants go dormant. It depends on how aggressive we are with it.”
To meet the need for the Christmas tree market, Lawyer grows a selection of conifers. Some of the species cultivated include Grand fir, Douglas fir, Canaan fir and Nordmann fir. Lawyer says that although Nordmann is a slow grower, it’s a popular species and once people have had one in their house, they’ll want one every year. “The needles aren’t as soft as those of the Grand fir,” he said, “but not as stiff as some of the other firs. It isn’t hardy in colder climates — it’s really a west coast species.”
After harvest and prior to shipment, plants are graded. Lawyer, who has extensive experience as an engineer, has tried to mechanize the grading process, but says that there’s too much judgment involved for it to be a consistently accurate process. “The problem is that there is not enough volume of each plant to justify the investment required for mechanized grading,” he said. “We have an efficient work flow and conveyors, but we still have people who stand at a table to sort and count plants. There’s an element of experience and judgment involved — there’s no perfect plant.”
At this time of year, the Montana crew will be busy with harvest. “We have to get the crop out before the ground freezes,” said Lawyer. “We bring in additional labor, and if we’re on schedule, we work five days a week. We start around Oct. 20-25 and try to be finished by Thanksgiving. Here (in Montana) we dig the crop out, put it in cold storage and spend the winter sorting and grading. We’ll start shipping to some locations in January, but peak shipping time is April.”
Lawyer says that harvest won’t begin at the Olympia, WA site until Jan. 1 and because of milder winter temperatures, crews there can dig crops almost all winter.
Lawyer Nursery’s website includes detailed instructions about acclimating and transplanting young plants so that customers have optimum success when stock arrives.
Visit Lawyer Nursery at www.lawyernursery.com
by Sally Colby