In her former life, when she had an office job as an information specialist, Karen Smith did not expect to fall madly in love with plants. It happened gradually, beginning a decade ago when Karen agreed to help out with the “grunt work” as her husband Mike started a composting and soil business in 2003.
Karen and Mike own and operate Longwood Plantation in Screven-Effingham County near the Savannah River.
At first, Karen tried her hand at chores like cleaning seed trays and transplanting seedlings to larger pots using the rich organic soil from her and Mike’s compost business. “I enjoyed the success we had doing this and watching things grow, and grow quickly,” she said.
Because of her new enthusiasm for plants, Karen found herself pursuing an education in horticulture one book and native plant conference at a time. She became a Sustainability Advisor through Georgia Southern University, and her current work towards a Native Plant certificate through the University of Georgia has satiated her thirst for knowledge.
Increased involvement in the nursery pulled her more and more from her office job, and her growing philosophy about thenative plants she raised furthered that shift.
Just as importantly, it helped turn family the business around. Southern Native Plantings, an offshoot of Longwood Plantation based on Karen’s passion for plants, is now another of the Smith’s successful businesses.
Karen is a believer in ecosystems, and the horticultural possibilities inherent in allowing nature – “Most bugs are specialists,” she says knowingly – to do what it does so well. “Everything has got to be in balance for everything to work right,” Karen says. “We have stripped the land of everything that was here, everything that grows here, everything that has grown here for tens of thousands of years.”Her business model countered the modern practice of planting more exotic plants than native. Her personal life seemed to counter the norm of fewer people working in horticulture and agriculture.
As the nursery became her own, Karen weeded out the non-native plants and focused on those that have been in Georgia since before the arrival of Europeans. She ventures into her own property to collect seeds and clippings to start the perennials that now define her business. The land has been in the family for nearly 200 years and is one of Georgia’s centennial farms.
The nursery brought the importance of biodiversity and healthy environments to light. “The more I learn, the more I realize the interdependency of all life and the need for biodiversity,” she said. Through continued education, Karen learned how native diversity could lead to healthier and organic production of edible plants.
At first there was a lack of demand for native plants and Karen sold fruits and other perennials. Fortunately, the native plant business has expanded as customers realize the relationship between their fruit trees and the natives they depend upon. “Diversity creates a clean, healthy and strong habitat… in balance and producing food for bugs and animals so to keep away from human food plants,” she said.
She also highlights plants that are beautiful year-round. She describes one of her favorites, the Georgia native plant of the year for 2009: “The Virginia Sweetspire is a nice open airy shrub that grows up to 8’ tall with slender, arching branches that have clusters of fragrant flowers that are 4-6” long and last for several weeks in early spring and summer. The leaves darken to red and purple in the fall and may persist throughout the winter.They grow in swamps and along the edges of streams and lakes in the wild and can tolerate flooding and shade but also do well in well-drained soil in the sun, especially when well mulched.”
Some other favorites Karen advocates for both their beauty and contribution to feeding and cover for wildlife are the Silky Dogwood (Cornum Amomum), Chokeberry (Aronia Arbutifolia) and Summersweet (Clethra Alnifolia). The Silky Dogwood is also known as a windbreak, and aids stream bank restoration and erosion control.
Since installing a greenhouse two years ago — and since she has access to organic soil through she and her husband’s business — Karen increasingly thought about pursuing organic certification for some of her plants, and after a few months of consideration, she decided to go for it. Smith isn’t pursuing organic certification for her native plants, but will hopefully be able to offer organic small fruits like blueberries, blackberries, figs, pomegranates, and raspberries in the near future. Several of her plants—pears, plums, blueberries, and more!—will also be available at ALFI’s Incredible Edible Grow-It-Yourself Fruit Tree sale at this year’s Conference.
Another exciting 2013 development for Karen: She’s taking her passion and expertise for the pollinating power of native plants to the Wormsloe historic site near Savannah, where she’ll be assisting University of Georgia researchers study the phenomenon by quantifying its effects on butterfly and bee populations.
“We already know native plants do a better job of pollinating, but we’re going to be quantifying it, counting them,” Karen said. “The native plants will be part of a whole fixture of things that can help augment pollination of fruits and vegetables.”
Karen still values her previous professional life. “I do keep fresh through environmental scanning of the computer sector. I enjoy talking about computers with folks and particularly helping older and disabled people understand and be able to use them.” She’s a testament to citizen scholarship and excelling through self-study, schooling and experimentation. Her simple desire to help out on that nursery in 2006 led to a new, deeply held interest and a new career.
Karen and Southern Native Plantings can be found every Saturday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Forsyth Farmers Market in Savannah, Ga.