Story and Photos by Michelle Sutton
Dan and Sarah Segal bought The Plantsmen Nursery (plantsmen.com) in Groton, just outside Ithaca, in 2006. They specialize in growing plants native to the Finger Lakes region, often from seed they or their head propagator, Kathy Vidovich, have collected. They also specialize in deer-resistant plants from North America and beyond.
With his nursery staff and the Ithaca-based landscape architect Rick Manning, Dan Segal organizes the Ithaca Native Landscape Symposium (ithacanativelandscape.com) each March. The 2015 Symposium will be held during the first week of March—check The Plantsmen Nursery website in coming weeks for exact dates. The nursery is closed for the winter but reopens in mid-April.
How did you get into plants and native plants particularly?
Dan Segal: It was after college, after getting my English Lit degree from HamiltonCollege in Clinton, NY. I moved to California and a friend helped me get a job landscaping with native plants on a 5-acre estate on the shores of Lake Tahoe for the owner of a major ice cream brand. We had an unlimited budget—I thought that was normal, that every job would be like that! We would grow things like wild columbines, heucheras, and delphiniums (those native to the mountains of the West) and then I’d see these same plants growing abundantly in wet meadows when I was out hiking. I started making connections between plants growing wild in the region and those on the jobs I was doing.
Then I worked for a flower farm and a golf course. At this time I started doing a lot of field botany and seed collecting on my own time, for my own interest. I read field guides and taught myself but would have loved to have a teacher. I was really passionate about it and grew everything I could—mostly western natives, but really anything I was interested in. Sometimes, like with cannas, I’d collect seeds while walking down a city street, then plant the seeds and not know what they were until the seedlings started to mature.
I got a job with a small company, North Coast Native Nursery in Petaluma, beginning as a laborer then working my way up to propagating and installing environmental restoration projects all over the San Francisco Bay area. I got to do some cool seed collecting projects for them in natural areas around San Francisco.
How did you end up back East?
DS: I met my wife Sarah in CA and we both missed the East (I grew up on Long Island and spent college summers in Ithaca, and she’d grown up in Minnesota). I’d been in CA ten years and she for about seven. I wanted to come back to Ithaca but didn’t have work prospects there,
so I finagled my way into working for a huge native plants nursery called Pinelands in New Jersey, the biggest one in the East. It was great for me because it was fast-paced and I learned a lot about environmental restoration work. I figured I’d work there for about five years then try to move up to Ithaca, and that’s what pretty much happened.
At Pinelands I was interviewing a guy for a job who used to work at The Plantsmen in Ithaca. He told me that the nursery seemed to be headed toward closing its doors, so I contacted Rick Hedrick and heard back from him right away. Over the course of two months, we negotiated the sale. Rick had put in place the infrastructure like greenhouses, layout, and parking lot, and he was a good guy to work with, so the transition went pretty smoothly.
The Plantsmen in its first incarnation had a strong personality and following. What was it like taking it over and making it your own?
DS: I liked what they were doing, and the kinds of plants they were growing, but I knew I wanted to do something completely different; I wanted to focus on native plants. I changed everything about the nursery—the plant material, the personality, the accessibility—except the name. I felt that keeping the name was a net positive, because it was so recognizable in the community.
We had to overcome the perception by some people that The Plantsmen had gone out of business. Also, for the first year or so, we had a lot of customers complain that we didn’t have certain things that used to be sold there, such as hot-house geraniums. I’d say, “I’m sorry, but can I show you this other stuff that’s also really neat?” I could tell there were some people we were simply going to lose, but there were others we were gaining. We switched the newsletter from paper to online and again, there was loss and gain of readership. We have about 2000 subscribers now, and the nursery has about seven times the gross revenue it had when we bought it. We do residential design/install all over the region. So over time, we’ve built up something strong of our own—which is not to say there weren’t lean times, like after the economic downturn of 2008.
I imagine doing educational events in the community helped build a new image and following for the nursery.
DS: Yes, that has helped. I take a lot of photos and I started doing PowerPoint presentations when I worked at Pinelands, doing talks for native plant and environmental groups, municipalities, and schools. I still love doing it; it’s a great way to zero in on a pleasurable part of what we do, which is admiring pretty plants. But the more important thing is to provide context for the plants, like whether they grow in dry shade, on shady creek banks, under walnuts, etc. I talk about how they can be useful in tough landscape situations and how we can learn their specific strengths from knowing where they’re happy in the wild.
My friend Rick Manning and I started the Ithaca Native Landscape Symposium (INLS) six years ago partly because we wanted to do something earnest that would help build our own intellectual and horticultural presence in the community but also to pull everyone together at that time of year (early March) when most people are desperate for a plant-related event. Nothing like this was happening in central NY. The symposium draws a lot of landscape architects (LAs) and hort professionals—about 120 people come. All are welcome; we’d like to see more students and homeowners come. We have speakers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, so that they’re speaking on the flora native to our region. A real nice feeling of community has developed after having done this for six years, with so many repeat attendees.
Can you talk about why using native plants is important?
DS: Just as with the local food movement, why wouldn’t we want to cultivate and celebrate what’s in our region? Like with local food, why not bring beautiful plants into cultivation from the least distance possible? You can look at it as a simplicity principle. Also, like with local food, there is value in knowing where your plants come from. For me, when I see a plant while I’m out hiking that I grow in the nursery, I feel an emotional connection to it, not just an intellectual one.
With the cultivar model that dominates horticulture today, the way most plants are cloned from cuttings/not grown from seed, we know nothing of their origins, and genetic variation is not encouraged. I like that with native plants, you know the provenance of that seed, and you get to choose. There’s also the argument that a given genotype is adapted to its region and its environment, though one has to go one step further and make sure that your chosen native plant is suitably matched to the specific site where you want to use it. Another reason I like to use natives is the idea of truly creating a sense of place, not just talking about it abstractly and then using cultivars from who-knows-where, as so often happens.
A lot of gardeners will say, for ornamental landscapes, why does it matter? But if someone has a woodland they want to restore that’s been damaged by deer browse—let’s say now they have a perimeter fence—I can’t help but look at that as a restoration project, and if we can, why wouldn’t we capture some of the genetics that are in our region, of the plants that were destroyed by the deer?
That said, I’m not a fundamentalist. My obsession with natives has softened to a philosophy, rather than a religion, over time. I love beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) and boxwood (Buxus spp.) and purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’), in part because these are plants I know can stand up to the deer. Besides, if you are a fundamentalist and say “You should always use natives” and then they don’t work well, natives can seem to be the problem. Plant recommendations have to be more specific and nuanced.
The most interesting part of our work with natives is that it’s something different; it’s not being done by many people in the area. I think one of the great advantages with natives is you can observe them in the wild and the reason that’s important is you learn so much about where they want to grow. So for instance, if you see Monarda didyma growing in wet shade, that tells you where this plant wants to be grown. Or as with Rudbeckia laciniata, one of my favorite native perennials, it is a wetland plant all over Tompkins County, growing in conditions a little drier than where you find cattails. That tells us about how to grow it in the nursery and where to plant it in the garden—in wet spots in lawns and in rain gardens.
When I was younger, I used to try really hard to convince everyone of the need to use native plants. I don’t do that anymore; I just offer options for those who are interested. People sometimes have the misperception that native plants are weedy or ratty looking or harder to grow. These are prejudices, based on not knowing. Blue cardinal flower (Lobelia siphilitica), our native spiraea (Spiraea tomentosa), and New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are beautiful and easy to grow, for instance.
How can native plants and deer coexist?
DS: There are three ways to go about it: First, the homeowner can put up a complete perimeter deer fence, and more and more of our clients are requesting that. Deer fencing can be done more inexpensively than many people realize, with creatively cheaper posts, and taking fencing around existing trees. A second approach is to use native plants in a fenced area and a combination of nonnative and native deer resistant plants (there are 25 or 30 of the latter we can use) in the unprotected areas. The third option is that people can protect plants individually like with repellents, but I try to discourage people from that, because it is labor intensive and just one missed repellent application can open the door to mass destruction in just one night.
What are some things you’re into outside of work?
DS: The thing that plants replaced in my life was sports. I’m still a fan, and I watch and play and coach my kids’ soccer and baseball teams. That takes up a lot of time outside work, and it’s tricky during the growing season, but I find it relaxing and therapeutic. My kids are Charlie, 9; Sofia, 11; and Aaron, 14.
I’m also a national board member of Wild Ones (wildones.org) based out of Wisconsin. Wild Ones is a national native plant organization. In New York, our Wild Ones chapter is called The Habitat Gardeners of Central NY and is based in Syracuse.
The Plantsmen is a proud sponsor of the Winter Village Bluegrass Festival that Rick Manning organizes, and we support dozens of charitable events and organizations.
From Landscape Architect Rick Manning
“I’m a designer who likes native plants and knows a good deal about them, but I benefit from Dan’s extensive knowledge. His writing skills are evident in the excellent signage at the nursery. I like spending time there; the staff is great and very knowledgeable … I always learn a lot. We make a good team because we approach the Ithaca Native Landscape Symposium from different angles. We each bring different kinds of people into the event. We also spend a lot of time talking about music … Dan’s quite a good songwriter and I play bluegrass and organize bluegrass festivals. Hopefully he and I can collaborate someday on music as well as the Symposium.”