by Sally Colby
Like many modern agricultural businesses, Hoerr Nursery has generational roots. David August (D.A.) Hoerr delivered coal to residents of Peoria, IL and supplemented his summer income with landscaping.
With a truck and a scoop shovel, D.A. could haul dirt and yard clippings, and eventually became a full-scale landscaper. “Sod was an early progressive thing he did,” said Bryon Rinkenberger, Green Team Leader at Hoerr Nursery. “He had three sons who continued in the nursery — Jim, John and Rudy. They bought a farm in 1954 that is still used for growing shade trees.”
When Bryon joined the Hoerr team in 1976, he began to grow container plants. “Up until that time, they didn’t grow plants in containers,” he said. “D.A. grew geraniums in a little greenhouse but there wasn’t much container production until the 70s and 80s.”
Today, Hoerr Nursery grows about half of their own annuals, perennials and shrubs and about 90 percent of the trees. The shade tree nursery started by Jim, John and Rudy is still used for growing shade trees. “It’s about 120 acres,” said Bryon, adding that some of the ground is in rotation with row crops. “At that nursery we grow two to three inch trees and five to six foot tall evergreens that we can ship 50 at a time on a semi. At the garden shop, which is another 100 plus acres, we grow trees in the three to five-inch range and move those with truck-mounted tree spades.”
The spades allow the digging and transport of large trees without damage. “The key to a successful transplant of a large tree is getting as much of the root ball as possible,” said Bryon. “We accomplish that with the four truck-mounted tree spades. We have two 50” spades, a 65” spade and a 90” spade, but we always try to oversize the root ball whenever possible. If the specs say a 65” spade will do it, but we have access and room to get the 90” in, we’ll always use the bigger truck if we can. That way we have a very high success rate.”
Most of the large trees grown at Hoerr Nursery are purchased by retail customers seeking large shade trees for home landscapes. “Shade is a big issue,” said Bryon. “Everybody needs that one big shade tree on the southwest corner of their house that’ll cool the house by 10 degrees. It’s an important tree in the yard.”
One of the best-selling shade trees at Hoerr Nursery is red maple; Acer rubrum and the two varieties Bryon prefers, which are Redpoint® and Brandywine. Bryon says that the issue of Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) resulted in a need for replacements for ash trees, which has brought back some old favorites. “There are some old varieties that we needed to bring back,” he said.
Bryon noted several challenges he’s encountered in growing trees. “Trends change and diseases come along,” he said. “When we were lining out six-inch size trees, we were planting some that wouldn’t be harvested for 10 years. We’d make our best guess and go for it.”
Hoerr Nursery selects shrub stock based on hardiness and flowering.
Hoerr Nursery used to grow Colorado Blue Spruce, but Rhizosphaera needlecast has forced the elimination of that species. “We were hoping that Norway spruce would be resistant, but I think it’s going by the wayside too,” said Bryon. “Firs are great trees, but they don’t do well on our heavy clay soil. We have a lot of Green Giant arborvitae, which is a fast-growing western arborvitae that seems to be deer-proof.”
With increased interest in preserving butterflies and native pollinators, perennials that meet the needs of these flying helpers have become popular. “Asclepias tuberosa, the butterfly weed, is the perennial plant of the year,” said Bryon of the 2017 selection. “It’s an amazing transformation in my career — I was hoeing milkweed out of my father’s bean field before my career here and now we sell six or eight varieties of milkweed. I love it, because I like organic and natural and if I can help the Monarchs, that’s great.”
Bryon says the general consensus among growers in the nursery and landscape business is that flowering perennials are popular and those without a lot of color are more difficult to sell. However, native species that are specific to certain geographic regions are also becoming more accepted by consumers. “It took a while to get to the natives but we’re there now,” he said. “Little bluestem, big bluestem and the panicums are big now. For a while, the large Miscanthus varieties were popular, but the more refined, native look is a better fit for home landscapes.” Bryon added that Miscanthus requires a fair amount of maintenance and they’re itchy to work with, so he was glad to see some options to replace that species.
Hoerr’s season begins in late winter when they receive annual plugs from South or Central America. “We get them already started in the plug trays, so we just pot them and they have a 12-week growing period for a quick turnover,” said Bryon. “We love the mixes that come in — several plugs in a plug tray that are ready for the hanging baskets and combination pots. They take a lot of the guesswork out of it.” Hoerr’s selects the plant and color combinations, but Bryon says the plug growers put a lot of effort into getting the combinations just right, which makes it easier for the nursery to provide a product that almost guarantees consumer success. The plugs arrive in late February and are planted into 12-inch hanging baskets, so there’s minimal labor involved and the hanging baskets are ready for spring.
Bryon tries to minimize spray applications as much as possible. “We have transitioned to eco-friendly insect and disease control,” he said, “so we no longer blanket spray everything. We’ve been relying on beneficial insects and we will be getting some to overwinter. We use predatory nematodes to manage fungus gnats, which can be a big problem in soil mixes.”
Amy Jo Irions is the annuals/perennials team leader for Hoerr Nursery and is also a purchasing agent and on the marketing team. Bryon credits Amy Jo with a knack for selecting colors and plant combinations that will sell well. Amy Jo also handles social media for the nursery and frequently posts colorful photographs and updates about what’s available at the nursery. “We all tend to wear several hats to make sure everything runs smoothly like a well-oiled machine,” said Amy Jo. Since Hoerr Nursery grows vegetables and has a farm market in the 10,000-square foot retail greenhouse, Facebook is the ideal venue for Amy Jo to keep customers informed about what’s available.
The entire Hoerr Nursery staff is well-trained and prepared to answer questions. “We have horticulturists and master gardeners who have experience,” said Bryon. “That sets us apart with the good information we can give to customers. We try to staff all aspects — annuals, perennials and woodys — with people who are knowledgeable.”
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