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Going native

Wildland nursery in the tiny town of Joseph specializes in indigenous plants

It isn't exactly Beverly Hills 90210; in fact, it is quite the opposite. A small sign on U.S. 89 in central Utah points the way to a unique local nursery that specializes in native plants. As research for a series of columns spotlighting low-water-use plants this summer, I paid a visit there to learn more.

Wildland Nursery is an unusual business whose owner, Janett Warner, has an interesting story. Her advice will help you select water-thrifty woody plants that thrive in our area.

"My forebears were English botanists, and my parents were horticulturists by practice," said Warner. "While relying as they did on the income from their small truck farm, they raised me at the end of a hoe.

"They did not chain me to the furrow. Quite the contrary," she said. "My family and I were lovingly shoved into the neighboring foothills and canyons where, disguised as mountain men and fur trappers, we created hideaways in shady Gambel oak groves and gathered wild nuts and berries."

After taking time out to raise eight children and send them to medical school, architectural school and on to other advanced degrees, Warner decided to pursue some of those childhood interests.

"After I had raised my own children to love Utah, I volunteered to be a docent at Red Butte Garden. I grasped every opportunity to learn about the cultivation, use and care of plants."

She became a USU Master Gardener, certified arborist and a certified nursery professional and simultaneously earned an Associate of Horticulture Science degree from Utah State University.

After serving an internship at the Conservation nursery and completing a bachelors degree at BYU, she gave in to her passion and started Wildland Nursery. First located in a small back yard in Riverton, Wildland Nursery has now moved to central Utah to a farm in Joseph where there is plenty of room to grow.

Beneath a vast sky and surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the Utah landscape, Warner pursues her childhood recreation.

The change has been exciting but did require changes in her lifestyle. One of the first was to sell her Mercedes-Benz and buy a tractor.

"I could not deliver plants in a Mercedes," quipped Warner, "and I could not pull a tiller with one." Hence the Mercedes is gone and in its place is a tractor that she uses to prepare the soil and plant the trees.

Why did she chose Joseph as the site for her nursery? "Good land and good water and the right elevation. I had to come here to find affordable farmland," she said.

Most of Warner's customers are from out of state and are looking for plants that they cannot find at most local nurseries. Even though the nursery is not close to them, it is near the freeway, so it is working out well.

Part of what motivates Warner in her quest for native plants is that they are also water thrifty. Water conservation is vital, and she is anxious to share her feeling about how these plants are both attractive and make good sense in our landscapes.

Utah boasts more than 3,000 different documented native plants. These are the same trees, shrubs and wildflowers you find on hikes through the canyons, foothills and deserts of the state. Native plants grown in Utah soil, under Utah conditions will establish easier and have a better chance of living longer with fewer diseases and pest problems.

Pinion pines are excellent trees for most areas of Utah. They tolerate drought and have few pest problems. With some water they grow reasonably fast, but they usually do not outgrow their place in the landscape.

Warner also likes the limber pine. "It is so versatile and grows throughout the state. The long needles and the shape make it an excellent choice for many landscapes."

Looking at some of the deciduous plants, Warner quickly extols the virtues of the bigtooth maple. "This is the tree that is so colorful in our mountains and does equally well in our landscapes. She hastens to add that you must select a seed-grown tree that has never been grafted or one that is grown on its own root.

"Some nurseries graft the bigtooth maple onto the sugar maple rootstock. This defeats the purpose of having the native plant because sugar maple grows best in acidic soils. If we graft our native maple onto that rootstock it will never grow well in most areas of Utah because of our alkaline soil."

Chokecherry is another one of her favorites. "I love the color in the spring from the flowers. The fruit in the late summer is very attractive, and then it has some excellent fall color."

She also is enthusiastic about the native oak. "The gnarly Gambel oak is a wonderful tree for our dry hillsides. It survives well without much irrigation once it is established and will live for many years. If something damages one of the trunks, it is a simple matter to prune it out and let some new shoots replace it."

Several other excellent trees are part of our native landscape. Two that Warner recommends as understory trees are the Rocky Mountain maple and serviceberry. Both of these thrive in light shade from another tree. Rocky Mountain maple is a smaller tree but has a brilliant red color in the fall. Serviceberry is another great plant with good fall color and white flowers in the spring.

Don't forget the bristlecone pine, the Rocky Mountain and the Utah juniper and the both the curlleaf and deciduous mountain mahogany plants. These plants will add to your landscape without adding to your water bill.

As enthusiastic as she is about native trees, Warner does think there are many introduced species that are worth considering. "While I do enthusiastically encourage much more use of native plants, I believe we should not plant only natives. Many imported or exotic species do very well here and add to the diversity. Many of the plants in the nursery trade are descendants of wild plants that have been selected and introduced to the cultivated landscape because of their desirable qualities."

Joseph 84769 just might be the right place to look to help conserve water and make your landscape a place of beauty for yourself and the other creatures of the state.

Join Don Shafer and Larry Sagers on the "KSL Radio Greenhouse Show," which airs Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.