by Richard T. Haard, Ph.D., Propagation Manager, Fourth Corner Nurseries
Fourth Corner Nurseries is a wholesale native plant nursery located on 77 acres in the coastal lowlands of Whatcom County, Washington. Our customers are primarily other wholesale native plant nurseries that rely on our propagation skills. Incorporated in 1982, we have a small self-directed workforce of approximately 15 full-time employees.
We produce two/three million direct-seeded, field-grown, bare-root plants every year, with approximately 500 species from nearly 1500 individual seed sources of trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials and emergents. Typically we direct seed into seedbeds and harvest the plants after one or two years. We began propagating native plants in 1987 as an experimental diversion from our then B&B production of ornamental trees and shrubs. The timing of our startup was coincidental with the developing market for native plants. What followed became a farming operation to supply an emerging demand for native, bare-root plant material. We sell our plants to other nurseries for resale as potted material and/or directly planted in the natural environment. In our region the bare-root planting window occurs in early spring, late fall and winter.
Many of the species we field propagate are classified by ecologists as occurring in water saturated soils or even totally immersed in water. When we started, other propagators were growing these plants in wet boxes, immersed in water. We found that we could grow these emergent species in our welldrained sandy loam nursery soil. We also found that it was the competitive factors, not strict water requirements, which determined the success of these specialized species in their natural environment. This was our contribution to ecological knowledge.
Our annual growing cycle typically begins by collecting seeds from natural populations a year or more before planting. Most of our customers have specific seed source requirements. Plantings can occur almost every month of the year, with spring and fall plantings the busiest. We have a two-year growing cycle with harvest beginning in the first year and, in some cases, replanting as transplants for an additional year. Often, we need to pre-treat our seed to break dormancy before planting. This warm and/or cold moist stratification has been a challenge, especially before propagation protocols became widely available for native species. Many of our methods for seed treatment, planting and growing have developed through trial and error, yet we are always striving to improve. Our latest improvement has been adopting a New Zealand developed seeder, the “Seed Spider” (which is now used in California vegetable production), for our native plant seeding.
Growing, harvesting, processing and shipping are accomplished by a dedicated crew. Because of our PNW coastal location, we are fortunate to have warm dry summers and moist, mostly unfrozen winters. This allows us to operate year-round and assures steady work for our crew. Our workers are here for the long term and have developed very specialized sets of skills; we are very proud of their accomplishments. In summer, labor efforts are directed to weed control and irrigation. Harvest and shipping of emergents and perennials take place during most months. Tree and shrub bare-root harvest begins in November, continuing through March. Some dormant shrub material inventory is maintained in our coolers through June for late season projects.
By October the rains return to the PNW and the grower’s task is to convince the vigorous juvenile native plants to set buds and establish dormancy. We begin our harvest as soon as leaves drop in the fall; typically the plants are lifted, placed into totes and brought into our grading room for sorting and shipping. UPS is a favored shipping system; however, direct customer pickup and truck shipments are also available.
We are fortunate to have soils suitable for our specialized agriculture as well as a Washington State “Water Right.” We realize that energy and fertilizer resources will become scarce and more expensive in the further. We strive toward sustainable production and, as any bare-root producer understands, our intensive growing system is very difficult to sustain productivity, year after year. To help us mitigate this problem, we apply compost and have a cover-cropping and soil-nutrition monitoring program in place. Our goal is to never have bare, fallow fields.