Nursery specializes in rarities

AFP Correspondent

JACKSON (April 1, 2015) — RareFind Nursery in Jackson Township is not your run-of-the mill nursery. The compound, situated on 11 acres on Patterson Road not far from Route 537 and Great Adventure amusement park, is a place to find rare shrubs, flowers and perennials, certainly. But it’s also a place for meetings, lunch gatherings, webcasts, birthday parties, seminars and festivals. On Saturday, Feb. 28, RareFind held its first festival of 2015, its annual Hamamelis (witch hazel) Festival.
Lunch was served to all who entered the grounds — whether they were in search of hamamelis plants to take home or not — a crafty bit of marketing at this facility, adorned with a four-acre display garden and 24 green houses. This year was the eighth year RareFind has held its witch hazel festival. Other events and seminars are listed in the nursery’s catalog and on its website,
Hank Schannen was the original owner of RareFind Nursery. He bought the facility in 1988. In 1997, he built a large, modern house on the property with a wing for his parents, who were both still alive. Schannen’s father died and his mother lived another few months in the house after it was completed, before she died. In 2009, the father died. In 2012, Oliver Hamill, part owner of Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrence Township, “came in with financing and got the place going again so that now we’re back in operation and we have one of the largest rhododendron collections on the East Coast,” said Glenn White, RareFind’s propagator.
Part of RareFind’s mission is to deliver a high level of horticultural expertise, White said while walking through the witch hazel green house. RareFind stocks between 35 and 50 varieties of witchhazel plants.
“We specialize in rare outdoor plants, that’s our niche. Native and non-native plants from all parts of the world,” White explained, adding, “I haven’t been in horticulture nearly as long as some of these people who work here, and we’re certainly known for our expert knowledge and advice on how to care for our plants.”
“Many of our lectures are geared toward a particular type of plant or toward a particular season, fall blooming plants, fall colors, or toward particular types of plants: Magnolias, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, there’s a tremendous diversity within those plants, too,” White said.
Other greenhouses on the property are devoted to carnivorous plants, all manner of flowering plants, various varieties of rhododendron and landscaping shrubs and rare plants from as far away as Russian, China, India and Tibet.
“There are things here you won’t find in any other nursery,” said General Manager Irv Paulus said in his office next to a large garage of tables and scales that serves as a packing and shipping area. Paulus has a long background in marketing and sales for companies like Welch Foods, Lipton Tea and Sara Lee.
“When Hank died in 2009, the family didn’t have any interest in continuing the nursery and wanted to sell the property, I stayed on until we could get a buyer,” Paulus explained.
“One of the things we wanted to do was utilize the big house that’s here. It made sense, and it’s an asset, so we will hold staff meetings here and we’re turning one room into a library. Garden clubs can come in and use this space, and we don’t charge very much for it,” he said, adding that the meetings usually lead to club members shopping at the nursery.
Paulus further detailed RareFind’s niche in the nursery industry. “One of the things we do is grow a tremendous number of plants ourselves. But unlike a normal garden center, if something doesn’t sell we don’t get rid of it. One of the niches we have developed is our plant-specific greenhouses, like ones devoted exclusively to witch hazel, and one devoted to carnivorous plants.”
The RareFind 2015 catalog, he said, “is just a small representation of what we have here. Our website has a lot more plants on it, and we didn’t really get the website up to speed until 2004, then we saw tremendous growth over that time and had very strong growth up until the middle of 2009 when everything went down, but we were able to stay afloat because Mr. Hamill purchased this facility and he was able to put a little bit of infrastructure back in.”
Paulus estimated 58 percent of the volume sold last year was retail mail order.
“It’s not unusual on a Monday or Tuesday at the end of March or early April for us to be shipping out 75 to 80 boxes. And every box is unique, we don’t have just one size plant.
“Our motto is, if you can find it at a garden center, we probably don’t carry it. That’s not to say if you go to a Lowe’s you won’t find a specific rhododendron; it’s just that you won’t find the array of rhododendron that we have,” Paulus said.
“The only thing we sell is plants, we don’t sell pots and clippers, or any of the accessories; we just sell plants, and so we constantly strive to find new and different plants to sell.”
To save money, many plants are grown in greenhouses on site from cuttings, Paulus said, and if the New York Times or some other prominent newspaper does a story about a specific genus, “it could wipe us out, because it could create such a demand for that product. People don’t understand, yeah we’ll have it again, but it could take two years by the time we get the cuttings and grow them and get them to a decent size that you can sell them.”
Paulus said he and others in marketing and sales at the nursery quickly discovered that catalog items with photos sold more than those plants with just a written description. So they reformatted both their catalog and website to include photos of every plant they carry. Naturally, website descriptions can be more extensive because space is not limited.
“One of the things we find is that from year to year, people keep our catalog as a reference guide,” Paulus said, “it’s not unusual for us to get a phone call and they’ll say, ‘In your 2011 catalog, you had this plant, do you still have any of these left?’ In many cases, we do. We won’t sell anything that doesn’t have a decent root ball and a good chance of survival, because we guarantee all our plants.”