Back in the 70s, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when my hair was halfway down my back, when Robin Yount was truly ‘the kid’, when Pink Floyd was on tour, and when a “Google” was a drunk giggle,– ‘homegrown’ had a different meaning for some of us than it does now.
Over time, things have changed. We have grown up, matured, and now refer to homegrown as those fabulous, flavorful Wisconsin-grown tomatoes. You can’t beat them. The same goes for homegrown sweet corn. It’s the best. No one would argue with that.
When it comes to nursery stock, it’s not so clear-cut. First off, clients don’t usually know if what they are buying is homegrown or not. It is not as easy to distinguish which plants came from here or were shipped in from who knows where. Even at our nursery, it is not always clear to our salespeople which is which. We do both. To be perfectly honest with you, in many cases, it doesn’t matter. Kind of like carrots or onions, most of us wouldn’t be able to taste the difference between locally grown and bought-in. But tomatoes,–come on—there’s no comparison! In some cases, locally grown nursery stock makes all the difference in the world.
This is one of the reasons why our nursery decided to propagate and grow certain plants. The plants that are available to buy can be significantly inferior to the ones we can home-grow. This is especially true with items grown from seed for field production. Our native Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) is a perfect example. When we purchase starter plants (liners) from producers elsewhere in the country, trees typically have problems with alkaline soil-induced chlorosis. The leaves turn yellow in our soils with pH readings from 7.2-7.8. To top it off, the growth rates become ridiculously slow. Sometimes less than 50% of the crop can be sold. When we produce homegrown stock from acorns that we select and screen for chlorosis as babies, our percentages of salable trees typically go to 90% or higher. (See pictures below) In addition, our clients have much greater success with our Swamp White Oaks establishment in their yards.
Left: Quercus bicolor in the nursery with alkaline soil-induced chlorosis (yellowing). These trees came from acorns off of trees from another part of the U.S. | Right: Quercus bicolor hybrid trees (Q. x schuttei) from homegrown locally collected acorns. These were screened for alkaline soil tolerance as youngsters.
Another example of homegrown superiority is Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana). In the past, when we purchased liners from outside producers, we ended up with trees that were not sufficiently hardy for our area.
The seed provenance (the genetic origin) of the trees was not known but was likely from an area considerably south of Wisconsin. Genetically, the trees we purchased were designed by nature for a climate with much longer seasons and much milder winters than ours. Trees that we have produced from our local seed sources perform beautifully in our nursery and the landscape.