by Pauline E. Burnes, PLA

Jim Engel, owner of White Oak Nursery in Canandaigua, NY, is a nurseryman focusing on the propagation of native trees, shrubs and perennials. As a horticulturalist and forest manager, Engel recognized the need to provide reasonably priced native plants to discerning conservation-minded clientele seeking to improve pollinator and wildlife habitat.

The road Engel travelled to acquire land and establish White Oak Nursery was often bumpy with occasional roadblocks. When he was laid off from a drafter position that he had worked for 16 years, the setback gave him to time to discover a program that would pay for new job training while he was unemployed. With a long-term interest in horticulture, and skills in propagating native hardwood trees and other native plants from seed, Engel enrolled in Finger Lakes Community College’s Ornamental Horticulture program. By 1994 he was able to complete a two-year degree program in 1.5 years as he was able to transfer college credit from his design and drafting degree from Alfred State College to FLCC.

After graduation, a summer job was secured with the Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. This gave Engel an opportunity to work with plants at a prestigious research and educational ag institution. Part-time employment led to a full-time position for over eight years managing a vegetable systems trial.

While employed full-time, Engel held on to his long-term vision of establishing a quality shade tree and native plant nursery. In autumn 1999, after an unsuccessful attempt to find the right property at an affordable price, he was driving four miles from the City of Canandaigua when he spotted an old “For Sale” sign overgrown with weeds. The 50-acre parcel on Kipp Road met his budget and selection criteria, which included flatter ground and a small woodlot. Although the soils are clay loam, which is not ideal for a nursery, the land was secured. Work began with digging an irrigation pond to assist with plant establishment.

Jim Engel is a strong advocate for including more native plants in landscaping. Photo by Pauline E. Burnes

Engel’s personal goal is to protect, preserve and restore the natural environment by changing the paradigm of residential landscaping. Most landscape plants found at garden centers are non-native cultivars that provide little benefit to native wildlife. Yet, native plants provide aesthetically pleasing ornamental benefits and will outperform many non-native plants.

Current landscape design practices traditionally include a few specimen trees and large areas of turf that do not provide habitat for native insects, birds and other wildlife. Residential landowners, landscape architects and designers need to be encouraged to use native plant species and change the way they’re used in the landscape. Trees, shrubs and perennials should be closely spaced and interplanted to create diverse multi-level plantings that mimic natural plant communities.

Engel credits entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” for educating the public about the importance of native plants and how residential properties, properly planted with native plants, can help support biodiversity across the country. Tallamy notes that native pollinators and other insects are unable to survive on alien plant species (which are commonly sold in garden centers). Our native insects have not co-evolved with the non-native plants and therefore have not developed the ability to recognize the non-native plants as food. If most plants in the landscape are non-native, then this has a major negative impact on the food web because birds that depend on native insects for food won’t be able to find enough food to feed their young or support themselves.

In the past, it’s been difficult to specify native plants when designing. With increasing public awareness and the desire to improve wildlife and bird habitat, demand is increasing for a source to purchase native trees, shrubs and perennials. White Oak Nursery is filling the gap by growing most of the major native shade tree and shrub species found in the East. Engel has spent much time and research developing innovative and efficient ways to grow native trees and shrubs that have strong root systems, which increases their success in transplanting. White Oak Nursery has many repeat customers, with clients from New York and surrounding states.

White Oak Nursery is currently completing a project for the Northeast College of Health Sciences in Seneca Falls, NY. The president of the college recognizes that returning some of the campus landscape to forest will cut maintenance costs. Fifteen hundred plants are being installed, which will increase wildlife habitat and reduce lawn maintenance and mowing costs.

The movement to restore habitat and native landscapes is on the rise. Engel has implemented his vision to provide quality native plants at affordable prices. To learn more about White Oak Nursery visit