This year marks the 41st anniversary of Pinelands Nursery and Supply in Columbus, NJ – sometimes known as the topaz anniversary. It’s an apt celebration, as this operation is a gem in the world of native plant landscaping.

Pinelands Nursery began in 1983 with Don and Suzanne Knezick at the helm. “My parents went to Rutgers and did the old Ag Field Day, where students could come back and sell plants,” Tom Knezick, general manager of the business today, said. “Dad was working for the New Jersey Forest Service at the time, working in the Pine Barrens, and he brought wild blueberry plants to sell.” It was successful enough a venture to begin a business.

At first, the nursery marketed container grown blueberries, raspberries and grapes to garden centers throughout the Mid-Atlantic. But then a light bulb clicked for Don and Suzanne (who was working in finance in New York City, helping to finance the operation in the beginning). With the adoption of federal and state environmental legislation, such as the Pinelands Protection Act, the Clean Water Act and NPDES Phase II stormwater regulations, they completely shifted the focus of the nursery to the production of indigenous trees, shrubs and herbs.

“When that light bulb clicked, with the legislation regarding native plant species for riparian areas, they realized ‘If I grow these native plants, people will legally have to buy them,’” Tom laughed. “We got a completely different customer base overnight.”

Tom and his brother Steve grew up in the business, with Steve now serving as vice president. Their parents are retired, but the nursery’s transition to the next generation is still a work in progress. “It’s going pretty well, but there have been some pinch points where we all didn’t see eye to eye,” Tom admitted. “We made sure we approached this with honesty instead of hesitation. It’s all about compromise.” To help iron out details, the family realized they needed a facilitator, who is helping them through the process.

After graduating from SUNY Cobleskill with a degree in agricultural business and management, Tom came to the realization he wanted to come back to the business. “We didn’t fully grasp how important it was to make places wild, not to just go in someone’s yard, and feed pollinators and nature,” he said of his and his brother’s migration home.

Don and Suzanne in their first year running Pinelands.

Pinelands Nursery is wholesale only, with their busiest season between May 1 and July 4 – the herbaceous shipping season. They also grow a lot of woody plants, then ship in autumn – “almost like two really big seasons,” Tom said. They hover around 40 employees, 25 of whom are full-time, and everyone is cross-trained in everything.

“A lot of our process is automated,” Tom said. “We have three properties, and the main nursery is 30 acres.” There are 80 hoop houses there, and 25 of them are heated for starting plants in February and March. They do a lot of outside growing too. Pinelands has an automated potting line to mix in fertilizer and any amendments right at the beginning.

One practice that helps set Pinelands apart is the fact that they wild harvest their seeds and grow those plants at the nursery. And they’ve partnered with ecologically-minded nonprofits that believe in their native plant mission. “Land stewardship groups – like the New Jersey Conservation Foundation – they want to use these plants,” Tom said. “You want a seed source close to where the plants will be planted.”

The nursery is collecting seeds now that they’ll use next year. They’ll begin stratifying in October; January will have the first seeding, and June, the last seeding.

“We’re really horizontally integrated. It’s not just woody plants or shrubs – it’s trees all the way down to herbaceous seedings,” Tom said. “Not many nurseries were doing this when we started, so we had to do all of it, and that was more for our customers than for ourselves.”

Tom said they need different equipment for everything that they do, since they grow hundreds of different species. Today, Pinelands Nursery is one of the largest native plant nurseries in the U.S., supplying millions of plants for environmental restorations throughout the Mid-Atlantic. With seed collection taking place in New Jersey, Virginia and New York, they are able to propagate plants that are genetically adapted to local conditions.

“A lot of times we’ll wait for that frost date, usually May 7 in New Jersey, and we won’t ship until at least mid-May,” Tom explained. “Some places order thousands of plants, and 90% to 95% of the plants are going to the region between Maryland to Massachusetts.”

The seed business began about eight years ago, and to expand that enterprise, the business bought two additional farms and put plants in. One farm comprises 28 acres and the other is 125 acres, of which they use about 50.

“Native plants have been on the hot topic list for the last 10 years, but we really didn’t see it take off until the pandemic,” Tom said. “It sparked a lot of energy behind native plants. People had time to think about how they were doing things. We have friends with conventional nurseries who are now becoming customers of ours because that’s what garden centers are asking for.”

Tom Knezick and his brother Steve grew up in the business. Their parents are retired, but the nursery’s transition to the next generation is still a work in progress. Photos courtesy of Pinelands Nursery

Pinelands is committed to sustainability, becoming just the second nursery to join the New Jersey Sustainable Business Registry. They’ve created more than 30 acres of pollinator habitat with their seed fields and surrounding buffers in the Garden State – and a few of their employees are beekeepers. There are over 20 working beehives on their farms.

They also recapture irrigation and rain water to use for irrigation in other parts of the nursery. They utilize drip irrigation so there is less water loss. Their automated watering system ensures plants only get the amount of water they need. Even better, the boxes they use for shipping are made from recycled materials. There are solar panels on the roofs of their buildings that create much of the electricity they use.

“The big thing we’re doing now is trying to increase production capacity through efficiency,” Tom said. “My brother and I both did the program from Dr. Charlie Hall – learning how to be more lean, to get more efficient and not just expand.” (Hall is chief economist for AmericanHort and co-chair of the Advisory Council of Seed Your Future.)

“We’re looking at processes at the main nursery with a lean/flow mentality,” Tom continued. “It’s always challenging how we do stuff – for example, we started working with some trucking contractors this year because we always had a little backlog of orders. It helps from the cash flow perspective, so we can reinvest back into the business. We keep looking at opportunities where we could get a little bit better.”

One way he’s focused on creating better outreach is through his podcast, “Native Plants, Healthy Planet.” Tom said he listens to a lot of podcasts, and in summer 2019 he was listening to one while mowing the lawn and he knew the guest. “I thought ‘I could do this,’” he said. “The main concept is finding that reason to think about native plants, so that they matter to their other interests.”

Tom tends to ask guests what their favorite native plants are. His is currently blazing star. “I like it for two reasons. First, it’s a really unique flower, a prairie plant you see more in the Midwest than in New Jersey. It’s pinkish-purple, tall, and kind of fuzzy from a distance. It’s a very cool way to see insects. Second, the plants and roots will die back every year, and all its energy goes to corm – so the roots grow back every year to open up soil.”

“Native Plants, Healthy Planet” currently has 215 episodes, all available at To learn more about the nursery, check out

by Courtney Llewellyn