Here are some aerial photos of our six locations. The purpose of all of this is to give our customer base some idea of our size and competency; the downside being that it reminds my wife of our size and complexity. The combination of those two attributes will indicate what kind of product we will be able to produce. The nursery locations will be listed in chronological order, so some history will creep in. You will note that we did not go for originality when naming these locations. Most are named after the closest road.
Therefore, we have six locations, one million square feet of poly space, 360 acres, 60 acres of field growing area, and natural gas at all five of the locations with poly houses. About a third of our container area is outside and unprotected, something we can get by with most of the time because of lake-effect milder winter temperatures and lake-effect snow cover. No one told us how the nursery business was going to develop in the last 36 years or we would have planned differently (better). While looking through this presentation please keep in mind what my wife says: “Having six locations and getting this large is not a sign of intelligence.” What I say is: “Our Golden years are dependent on the success of this operation.
This is the original location where the nursery was started by my parents in the spring of 1968. It is 33 acres left from the original 80 acre fruit and vegetable farm that my parents worked on all of their life before subdividing 47 acres of it. The St. Joe River is in the distance and the nursery has 7 acres of flood plain along its bank. The first three offices were on this location as it grew rapidly in the early years. We have rented from our neighbor 16 acres of good sandy loam for perennial production. The rental has been for over 30 years although by now much of that acreage has been planted into trees and shrubs and so it is non-producing.
This location has 24 acres and is five miles from the home nursery. It is our first new land. We acquired it because we calculated that we would need only 5 acres to expand the nursery to its ultimate and ideal size. We started out with 28′ x 100′ cold frames for pachysandra production. Then we put in a loading dock and then a two story office building and then filled it completely up with poly houses and pachysandra stock beds and then we ran out of room again.
This is a 20 minute drive south of the nursery. It is 4 1/2 acres with a 48,000 square foot gutter connected and an office building. This was purchased from a person who had set it up for tomato growing. After one season of white flies and high fuel bills it was for sale and we needed some indoor growing space. Besides the largest greenhouse there are some cold frames and two acres of container field for outdoor growing and over-wintering. This facility is set up for year-around steady work. We grow two plants there: Thorndale Ivy and Vinca minor ‘Bowles’.
This is 120 acres of woods and grapes and 16 acres of field growing. The soil is heavy clay that has been amended with mushroom compost. There are no poly houses here. The production is hemerocallis, ornamental grasses, red and yellow twig dogwood for winter decorations, and boxwoods—the three Sheridan Hybrids. This location is a little over a mile from the Shawnee Farm.
After acquiring the Snow Farm the farmer across Shawnee Road from our office offered to sell us his 95 acre farm that was mostly cherries. It was rolling hills and so we moved 100,000 yards of material to get 32 acres of flat slightly sloped ground. We have put cold frames and container yards on this property. We also have 12 32′ x 200′ natural gas heated poly houses placed on a corner of the property before we began the levelling process. In the back corner we have 5 acres for field perennial production. That soil has been amended by years of dumping of old container soil, so it is highly organic and very rich. That is being used for hosta, astilbe, and daylily production with a few other perennials that like that type of soil.
This 87 acre pure sand farm is located 20 minutes north of the office. it came with 40,000 square feet of natural gas heated poly house space when we purchased it. Also there was a large groundwater fed pond in the back corner that provides unlimited water. We added a 264′ by 480′ DeCloet gutter connected (126,720 square feet) where we now produce our vines. We have the complete line of vines plus many clematis varieties. We get our bare root clematis from Poland and thus have the newest and best varieties. There are over 30 acres of field grown material. All of our sedums which support the green roof part of our business, some 40 varieties, are there. Many of the perennials, the carexes and alliums, thrive in this sand. We are able to dig as soon as the ground thaws in the spring. Most of our several hundred thousand grass divisions are made here during the winter.
Written by Tom Kimmel, January 2018
My parents, George and Lou Kimmel, started Twixwood in the spring of 1968 by potting Vinca minor ‘Bowles’ into 2 ¼” peat pots on a picnic table in the front yard. My father was 50, my mother 45. They had been fruit and vegetable and berry farmers so it was a short step to go from strawberries to periwinkle (or myrtle or Vinca minor). The parents needed to make a living because they had subdivided as much of the 80 acre centennial farm as they could, leaving 33 acres that did not perc and they were too old to get jobs working for wages. While subdividing they had built a few houses and landscaped them, thus they knew all about Pfitzer Junipers and Taxus. They knew this much about field growing, each year the shrubs got larger and heavier. And, as my father often said, he knew that each year he got a year older. He was looking for a product that did not get heavier every year.
During the first six years the business doubled each year—a classic logarithmic progression. There were several reasons: for one the economy and the profession of landscaping were just then expanding. LA’s needed to justify their existence and specifying acres of grass did not do it. And then the entire technology of landscape plant growing had just undergone a major upheaval. The parents had spent the year prior to starting the business travelling around the country, mostly to Ohio, studying existing groundcover businesses. The older nursery people were doing things as they always had; glass greenhouses with coal fire and hot water heat under raised sand benches with plants grown in the sand and pulled as sold and shipped bare root. The bare root plants restricted the times of the year they could be installed.
By the early 1960’s everything had changed. Clear polyethylene plastic film had been developed and in 1964 Rutgers professor Bill Roberts invented the double poly inflated covering that both insulated better and minimized condensation dripping in the growing and over-wintering structures. Some fellow in Tennessee invented intermittent mist propagation. And plastic flats had just been developed to replace the old wooden bedding plant flats. Because my parents were starting from scratch they did not have the inertia of an outdated system in place and could go with the latest technology. Also they could copy other nurseries, which they did early on by copying Zelenka’s system of using a Keyes 2 ¼” peat pot that fit 35 to a plastic Alma flat. They bent their own one inch water pipe hoop houses.
They looked for improved varieties. Early on they got ‘Bowles’ vinca minor from Spring Hill Nursery out of Tipp City, Ohio. It came originally from England where it was also known as ‘La Grave’. Hedera helix ‘Thorndale’ was the improved analogue for English Ivy, and was used in the Chicago area. As soon as it became available Pachysandra ‘Green Carpet’ was obtained from Gulf Stream Nursery in Virginia who had gotten it from France. This was a great improvement over the regular species; darker green, shinier, and a lower, more even habit. And so the nursery was started as a groundcover grower making many cuttings and mist propagating them. The market was originally Northern Indiana, Southern Michigan and mostly to small landscapers. It expanded quickly to the Chicago area with Bill Koehn of Rosemont Gardens being a major customer and promoter.
Delivery started with a half-ton GMC pickup truck and worked up to a 16 foot box truck and then a 20 foot International diesel. The work force was almost entirely high school students who could begin working when they were fourteen, it is agricultural work. It was our regular delivery of product, often directly to landscaping job sites, that made the business. Usually the laborers stopped working at the nursery when they turned eighteen, by which time they had developed wider interests—either college or girls and sometimes both at the same time. Production was in the summer for next year’s sales with loading and shipping being done in the Spring using after-school workers.
Because of the high demand for groundcover and limited production facilities—polyhouses with mist—we were always sold out for the year by early June. From 1968 to 1977 the parents did all of the management work themselves. Lou handled sales, taking phone orders, while supervising the production building and keeping the books. George handled all of the plant care—irrigation and spraying—plus field work and grounds maintenance. More importantly he did the thinking and planning. Their goal had been to make wages until George turned 60 in 1977. And so about that time, much cash was drawn out of the business, much taxes were paid, and much momentum was lost.
I, the son, had worked peripherally with the business over the years by driving delivery trucks and making fiberglass covered work tables and trailer tops. The parents were not easy to work with as they operated at a high level of intensity. Besides, we did not get along well. Also during the first ten years of the business I was busy being drafted into the army for two years and later on attending post-graduate school in Cleveland for three years. After much discussion and the making of many promises I started working full-time at the nursery in the spring of 1977. I was familiar with the intensity of market demand from years of making deliveries and talking to the customers. I also found that the main psychic satisfaction I got in life was making lots of things and so I doubled sales the first year just by organizing more workers. I also supervised the erection of ten 30’ x 144’ Nexus poly houses, thus doubling the polyhouse space up to 100,000 square feet on the 33 acres some of which was St. Joseph River flood plain.
Thus began a trend. We are now have 1,000,000 square feet of poly house space on 363 acres on six different properties. Most of the rest of this history will be an attempt to put a spin on this turn of events, or as my wife says, it is not a sign of intelligence to have this large a nursery at this many locations. I keep claiming that I was just trying to keep the customers happy by not running out of product. Alternate explanations of a personal nature are bandied about from time to time and all that I can say is that every decision seemed to be a good idea at the time.
We have had many adventures along the way from snow storms collapsing poly houses to high interest rates, recessions in the housing market, dalliances with mass merchants, and even the owning at one time of three semi-trucks. We expanded way past our ability to manage the complexities of the business and the many people needed, so once we hired a management consultant. There is nothing quite as humbling than to pay someone to tell you the obvious, and insult you along the way. We did learn from the consultant. There is a systematic way to recruit and hire good people, to fire less than optimal people, and to analyze how to do things better. We are all the better people for it.
And now back to nursery history. Dianne married me in the spring of 1978 and she immediately went to work at the nursery learning everything from my parents. She was able to get along with them better than me and so she learned, worked, and in between times, ran interference between us as we negotiated our way through the inevitable generational transfer struggles. This story helps explain why Dianne is currently the nursery manager and I am the field manager and writer of historical things.
The problem with listing the following endeavors that we have pursued over the years is that we sometimes pause to consider how far we would be now if all of the decisions made were correct ones. It is too late to devote much energy to the analysis. I am listing all of the various attempts and trials and new ideas because it will show how much we worked and tried and struggled. It will also show a lot of unwarranted optimism.
It started out with an early foray into medicinal herbs followed by miniature roses. Somewhere in here I took cuttings on every shrub planted around the nursery and so had viburnums and ribes and golden vicary privet and magnolia stellata. At least we made money on the privet. One time we made so many crimson pygmy barberry that we sold liners to Zelenkas. After the woody liner flurry that we did not take seriously enough to figure out how to market, we did the usual hostas and daylilies when they were in vogue. We did Japanese beetle quarantine screened growing for other nurseries. We learned a lot while custom growing for Michigan Bulb, mostly about ethics. For a short period we were growing for Wayside with some of the new European perennial cultivars. When the big box stores started up their garden centers I made a decision based on a series of premises. I decided that this was the wave of the future, that we needed to get in at the beginning in order to get some loyalty, and that it would be easy and fun. Amazingly, I was wrong on all three premises. The basic problem was that we were not quite big enough to have the facilities to grow efficiently for this large a customer. The plan was to make money once we were in with the customer and had expanded enough. Maybe that was the fourth incorrect premise. I was going to go on about dealing with reps and brokers but I am starting to cry. Anyhow, the conclusion is that we tried everything and with great enthusiasm as it involved making lots of plants and somehow, due to hard work, we stayed in business.
While dealing with the big box stores we got in with the Stepable ™ program big time. It seemed like a good idea and these little plants were groundcovers. That program has faded. Then, at one time we were growing up to one hundred thousand gallons of clematis per year selling them in bud and bloom in the spring. We got bare root clematis from a very good grower over in Poland and developed a system to grow and space and trellis and trim and heat and ship on time. Most of these we sold to other people who dealt with the mass merchants after we discovered that we were not tough enough for that experience.
We are now growing for the landscape market mostly, selling to re-wholesale yards and commercial and residential landscapers. Shipping is pretty even throughout the season, from spring to fall, and so we do not have the spring flurry of staying up most of the night any more. We are carefully researching the market for the latest plants which is why we are growing half a dozen named cultivars of Little Blue Stem grass and a dozen types of Big Blue Stem and about fifty varieties of carexes. Carex is my latest newest favorite plant. We have figured out how to produce it and with very little encouragement and some lead time we can kick out a million plugs a year. We are following the ideological lead of Roy Diblik and Brent Horvath and, a few years too late, that of the Lurie Garden in Chicago.
About fifteen years ago I decided that I wanted to devote more time to modern steam research with the ultimate goal of writing the definitive book on that interesting history and technology. The subject is little known and I had lists of old guys to travel around and interview. And so I told our very bright and ambitious and honest operations manager that it was easy and fun to own a nursery. It was hard to sleep at night for a few years after that, but at least I did not have to work very much. Several years were spent before figuring out how to structure the buy-sell agreement so that ordinary income tax did not need to be paid up front on the inventory. We are, like most agricultural establishments, on cash basis accounting. Things were going smoothly until the recent recession. Our agreement had liquidated damages for every possible contingency and so after getting burned out getting the nursery through the recession the purchaser backed out of the buy in the spring of 2014 and so, based on the original formula, we bought out the equity interest of our purchaser and now own a nursery again.
The first decision that I made when control was returned was to drop the last box store we were doing business with, the one that got us through the recession. That business had stretched our facilities way past their efficient usage. My clue that we were trying too hard occurred when I saw that we were growing rhubarb. The initial walks through the nursery were stressful on the heart. We have just now, in 2017, sorted out all of the plants inherited from the mass merchant business so that we can concentrate on landscape type plants. We no longer have the short thick early flowering garden center-type plants such as: campanula, aquilegia, dianthus, armeria, and heucherella.
This making nursery decisions after a fifteen year hiatus was a whole another interesting intellectual experience. At least I am older and calmer these days and I was able to conceptualize how to do it. There was market research of the new plants out there and then market research of the customers out there and a deep analysis of what kind of a business we wanted to own and manage during our golden years. Right now we are trying to fit the annual production to the size of the facilities. Dianne (the wife) is getting more assertive with age and she says that the old way of doing business—buying another farm and building more polyhouses whenever we got in a bind—is not going to be the wave of the future or the way of the future. It is easy to get all jammed up and thus spend all of the time moving plants around and not producing or selling them. We are busily putting together a new team to take over and do most of the work.
The future is quite interesting. New government regulations on trucking are giving smaller regional growers, such as ourselves, an advantage over the big coastal growers. While continuing to saturate the market with traditional groundcovers we are looking for a more premium product to grow that is not a commodity. We are working around the wide availability from over-seas of unrooted cuttings which have greatly lowered the barriers to entry of smaller growers into the market. We are trying to figure out how to market our large Pachysandra Green Carpet cutting beds with an annual potential production of ten million cuttings. And then there is the continual tension between vertical integration and horizontal integration. If we grow many different varieties of plants then we can be a one-stop shop and make efficient deliveries. However, we cannot be real efficient in the production process. And so it is the usual struggle to grow what sells easily within the delivery radius that we are dealing with. At the least, we are always thinking.
Right now I am happily returning to my farming roots and planting acres of perennials every year. These will be used for cuttings or side shoots or root cuttings or regular divisions made in the winter, all feeding into our annual one million gallon perennial production. When there is a large supply of a plant in the field we have many opportunities to rapidly produce. We have yet to figure out how to get our customers to tell us two or three years in advance what plants they will want to buy and so we are learning how to be organized for them. One of the problems in this business is that the native plant fervor (or is that fever) is taking over and I may have to give up my resolve to never grow a plant whose name I can neither pronounce nor spell. We have few alternatives in life than to continue the nursery and attempt to put out a good product, responsive to the market, and to our good customers. We plan on having a dynamic business into the future. We plan on being a good place to work. We plan on keeping up the struggle.
Dianne and I made a decision years ago to be on good terms with both our customers and our suppliers, and thus we have enjoyed many friendships. I am thinking that our suppliers are less interested in our cheery personalities than in the fact that we pay on time. One of the best ever things that I did was to join the International Plant Propagators Society at the invitation of Peter Orum. Because of that fine organization we have toured many nurseries and met many interesting people. We have toured nurseries in Holland, Great Britain, Canada, and Poland. I had not foreseen what an interesting life one could have being in this business. And we have enjoyed the friendship of our colleagues in the business—Dave McKenzie of Hortech and Peter Orum of Midwest Groundcovers.
We have finally figured out the trick to the propagation of Vinca minor ‘Bowles’. We are doing it consistently and effortlessly and my joy at figuring this out is mitigated only by the fact that if we had done it sooner I would be rich, sitting on a yacht, and not writing this history.