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Wood Thrush Natives grows plants from region’s seeds

By JANE W. GRAHAM
AFP Correspondent

FLOYD, Va. (May 9, 2017) — Wood Thrush Natives is a nursery in transition this spring. It has a new name, a new location and there’s lots of work to do as it grows and strives to reach its goals.
Ian Caton and his wife Elizabeth came to the hillside farm in Southwest Virginia to continue their business focused on native plants previously called Enchanter’s Garden in West Virginia.
“Our nursery is dedicated to discovering, growing, and promoting rare and unusual plants that are native to the Appalachian region,” Caton said. “These plants are the foundation of the ecosystems that give us clean air and water while also supporting all the birds, butterflies, bees, and other wildlife that enrich our lives and on which we ultimately depend. They are our heritage, surviving the ancient glaciers, used and appreciated for generations by Native Americans and early colonists, grown by us, and planted by you into your garden.”
The Catons have a small retail operation with lots of mail-order business. One of their reasons for moving from West Virginia to Floyd is the hope of expanding its retail sales.
Caton said the West Virginia site where he ran the business for four years was in a remote area that did not encourage visiting.
Most of those who did come were from Blacksburg, he said. This made their new farm seem like a good spot for the nursery.
It is located less than two miles from Route 8, the main artery between the Blacksburg/Christiansburg area and Floyd, a rural town that has become home to varied cultural activities.
Ian grew up in Philadelphia, Pa. and Elizabeth is an Arkansas native. While he devotes all his time to the nursery she is employed by Virginia Tech. The couple is looking forward to a day when the business has grown to the place that they can both work in the nursery full-time.
Caton said he earned a degree in drafting early in his life and worked as a draftsman for a time.
When he got tired of sitting in a cubicle drawing technical designs he decided he wanted to get outside.
This led him back to school for a degree in horticulture and environmental design.
After that he worked for 13 years for a landscape company creating natural design landscapes up and down the Mid-Atlantic.
In this job, he said, he got to know a lot of technical information about doing environmental landscape and creating landscapes that are move sustainable.
Finally, the commuting between jobs began to be wearing on him and he looked for something different.
Caton had known the Enchanter’s Garden founders Peter Heus and Andy Flop for about 10 years, he said.
He and Elizabeth ran the nursery from its original site for four years but decided they wanted it on their own property.
They have a 10-acre hillside site of which about half is wooded. Caton said they named the nursery for the wood thrush, a forest bird whose call he heard last year when visiting the property.
The Catons said they want to grow plants with seeds from their native regions. He collects seeds from native plants, mostly on private property with the permission of the property owners. He then grows plants from these seeds and collects seeds from those plants.
He said he wants his customers to know where the plants originated. He said he starts them in a growing medium rather than natural soils, which do not drain as well. They are grown outside and not in greenhouses for better hardiness.
The Wood Thrush inventory is down at the moment due to the move. His stock came with them from West Virginia.
He does not try to grow just native plants that are a fad at the moment or cultivars of those plants, but goes for rare and hard to grow plants.
He added many nurseries are selling the same few plants.
Caton said many are not willing to put the time it takes into developing more obscure trees and plants. He noted that there are 4,000 to 6,000 plant species in Virginia.
Some have long developmental patterns. For instance, the wild coffee seed takes from three to five years to sprout.
Caton often speaks at Master Gardener gatherings in Blacksburg, and to gatherings of the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association.
During the winter when things are less hectic at the nursery, Caton is able to do some landscape design work for his former employer in Philadelphia.