Plant preferences of a nursery tree propagator

Ray Mueller
Studying catalogs, checking online sources, or asking suppliers for information on matching the species with the conditions of the site are important when planting trees and shrubs.

OSHKOSH -- “I plant trees and you should too” is Ben French's short take on his profession, which is being the chief plant propagator at Johnson's Nursery in Menomonee Falls.

In a presentation titled “Native Trees and Shrubs that Work Together” at the 23rd annual Toward Harmony with Nature conference sponsored by the Fox Valley Area chapter of Wild Ones, French expressed his preference for native plants to serve that purpose.

But what's “native” can be linked to any of three criteria, French observed. They are the state, county, or local political unit matching the botanical atlas of vegetation in place before European settlement of the state in the 1800s, the environmental growing zones based on plant hardiness at the site, and the soil survey maps that correspond to the plant community which would survive at the location, he explained.

Matching with place

Stated another way, it's the practice of “putting the right plant at the right place,” French indicated. Those places could include a former prairie, a woodland, a forest, a wetland, or a waterfront, he noted.

Where soil excavation has paved the way at residential, commercial, or industrial sites, the original soil survey data is probably no longer relevant in most cases, French cautioned. Whatever the setting, he doesn't rule out non-native plants but emphasizes the suitability of the hundreds of native species that are available from Johnson's and other suppliers.

Through his efforts, French hopes to show how plants can serve to “connect people,” create scenes of serenity that trigger a good emotional response throughout the year, and work together to enhance the natural community which depends on those plants in many ways.

French is particularly concerned about reaching youth. A direct experience with planting trees, shrubs, sedges, flowers, or grasses “is rare today with youth,” he remarked.

Touting oaks

Wisconsin's native lineup of oaks, including bur, white, black, and red, are French's favorites in part because their acorns feed at least 100 wildlife species. During his nine years at the nursery, he estimates that he has provided at least 200,000 bur oaks to customers.

Native oak trees such as this burr oak support well over 500 beneficial insects that birds rely on, especially when feeding their young in spring.

French is partial to the oak family of trees because more than 4,000 Wisconsin native insects, birds, fungi, and mammals are known to benefit from their presence, even if there's only one oak in a man-made landscape site. Over 400 species of butterflies and moths rely on the oak for food and shelter, he adds.

Among the trees, French also likes the shagbark hickory, tamarack, black cherry (sustenance for nearly 100 insect species), pagoda dogwood, American beech, pin cherry (lifespan of only 15 years), walnut, hawthorn (nearly 100 species in Wisconsin), cottonwood, quaking aspen, birches, sugar maple, basswood, hemlock, and white pine. Each must be matched with the appropriate growing site, including the space needed at their full growth, he stresses.

Shrubbery patch

In the shrub category, French lists the gray, redosier, round leaf, red, and silky dogwoods, staghorn sumac, St. John's wort, glossy black chokeberry, American elderberry, Canadian yew, creeping juniper, prickly ash, nannyberry, American filbert, thimbleberry, buttonbush, honeysuckles (native species only), and the American bladdernut, which he says is underused.

Native red osier dogwood glows bright red during late winter as the sap begins to rise, a stunning landscape and garden addition.

Although only one of them is native to Wisconsin, French finds most of the many choices of viburnum to be acceptable. He also mentioned the witchhazel, which has a native fall blooming variety and a non-native spring blooming variety.

In addition to shrubs, there are several tall grasses which provide screening at property lines, French noted. He considers switchgrass, little and big bluestem, Indian grass, bottlebrush grass, as good choices. For wet sites, don't overlook ferns, he adds.

Perennial choices

Among the perennials, French endorses the wild columbine, butterfly weed, red milkweed, and leadplant – all of which are deer resistant. His other choices of perennials include wild geranium, asters, wild senna, other milkweed species, false indigo, solomon seals, wild hairy penstemon, skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, Canada wild ginger, ironweed, and bloodroot.

Other flowering plants that French recommends are black-eyed susan, joe-pye weed, cone flowers, bluebells, blazing star, day lilies, and ironweed. He noted that the popular red poppy is not native to Wisconsin.

In all cases, French advises studying catalogs, checking online sources, or asking suppliers for information on matching the species with the conditions of the site such shade and sun exposure, soil type, and moisture in order to provide a suitable growing environment.