The following is the first in a series of blogs about how a third-generation nursery, orchard, and farm market nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge is working hard to produce healthy and sustainable trees, plants, fruits, and vegetables while restoring our waters at the same time.
Environmental site design is a holistic concept increasingly adopted by landscape architects for their projects. If it makes sense for landscaping projects, shouldn’t it also make sense for the nursery that produces the plants for them?
“Absolutely,” says Tom Saunders of Saunders Brothers, Inc., located along the Tye River—a major James River tributary—on the “Sunrise” [or East] side of the Blue Ridge foothills in Piney River, Nelson County, Virginia. “It took a lot of grading to make this operation fit the land.” That diverse venture of about 250 acres began with boxwoods (Tom’s father, Paul, is a world-class authority on them). They still form a major element in the nursery business, but Saunders Brothers, Inc. now also includes a broad range of woody ornamentals, flowers, and plants for wildlife plots. Also a newly added orchard with apples, peaches, and Asian pears, and a two-acre vegetable garden serves the Saunders Brothers Farm Market and a variety of wholesale outlets.
Paul Saunders is now semi-retired while Tom and his brothers, Bennett, Jim, and Robert, run the day-to-day operations. The business mix is constantly evolving, as members of the family and the staff (now 100 people) visit and listen to their customers, attend trade shows, follow trends in the landscaping industry, serve on boards like the Virginia Agribusiness Council, generally “keep their eyes and ears open,” and use all of that input to plan strategically. It is, Tom says, “a good team.”
The brothers stay close to several agriculturally-oriented academic institutions, especially Virginia Tech (Tom, a loyal alumnus, today drives the company’s maroon-and-orange Ford van), North Carolina State, and the University of Florida. They blend what they learn from these sources with professional advice from Charlie Thornton of Tellus Consulting, a Virginia-certified Nutrient Management Planner and Crop Advisor. “It’s important not to get complacent,” Tom says. “We learn a lot from trial and error. You get stung by the bee, you figure out what to do the next time,” he chuckles.
“From the beginning,” he continues, “water conservation has been a big part of our container production philosophy. We pump water from the Tye to irrigate the greenhouses, but we designed the nursery to capture all runoff water and recycle as much of it as possible. We built four ponds and enlarged a fifth to supply our greenhouses [more than 375 of them]. Not only does this design allow us the ability to reuse water, it also allows sediment and nutrients in runoff to settle out of the water before any overflow makes it back to the Tye, downstream from our irrigation ponds. For years, part of our water management program has been checking the amount of nitrogen in this water before it reaches a public water source. We take pride in knowing that the nitrate nitrogen has never reached levels unsafe for Virginia’s drinking water standard [8 milligrams per liter].”
—John Page Williams
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on how the Saunders Brothers work to produce healthy and sustainable trees, plants, fruits, and vegetables while restoring our waters at the same time. Read Part Two here.