Friday, June 19, 2009

Oh, the Possibilities!

Last Saturday I joined local Master Gardeners for a tour of Possibility Place, a native plants nursery in Chicago's south suburbs. We met at the Extension office. Our morning began with a bit of excitement, when Sue, (our Master Gardener Coordinator) spotted a large turtle preparing to lay her eggs right at the curb in a front garden near the office's parking lot. Not the safest place for mother or babies, one of the braver among us scooped her up as she hissed and complained, and moved her across the street, back to where she probably came from. Then we were off for our short ride to the nursery.

As we pulled into the driveway, the first thing we saw was this wonderful old barn. Possibility Place is so much more than a nursery.

Wisteria was blooming on the lovely arbor entrance.

I had to get a closer look at the weather vane on top of the arbor.
We did some preliminary exploring as we waited for our tour. We had to laugh when we came across this garden ornament.

Peeking through the woods, this friendly scene caught my eye.

Just as the clouds opened, we were greeted by Connor Shaw, the nursery's owner and our tour guide. Due to the rain, Connor decided to start our tour in one of the greenhouses. We learned a lot about the rewards, methods, and challenges of growing and selling native trees, shrubs, and perennials.

Connor Shaw (with raindrop on the camera lens)

Here, he's showing us one of his very special plug trays. Possibility Place uses a very different, (and expensive) container system for growing these plants. The holes in the sides and bottoms of the containers encourage roots to branch, instead of growing around the sides and bottoms.

Once a root tip hits the air, it stops growing. Using this method, known as air-root-pruning, stimulates root branching and produces a substantial, non-circling fibrous root system. This results in greater root tip surface area, allowing better absorption of water and nutrients, better growth, establishment, and vigor, and ultimately better plant health at the nursery, and later, in our gardens.
Earlier this spring I was impressed with how well the plants I purchased from a couple of native plant sales had already established and grown in my garden. The organizations hosting the sales had gotten their plants from Possibility Place. Learning about Connor's superior growing methods, I understood why the native plants I purchased were doing so well.

one lovely view after another.

Just about the time Connor was wrapping up his presentation inside the greenhouse, the rain stopped. We were able to go back outside to check out more of the beautiful grounds, with Connor as our expert guide.

one of several beautiful gardens on the nursery's grounds.

Our discussion continued, with Connor talking about the native trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, and forbs he grows on the grounds, his philosophies, and his extensive knowledge and experience.
white baptisia - isn't it gorgeous?

He discussed his design philosophy, identified many plants and discussed their cultural requirements, and talked about how he grows his gardens, 'stacking and packing' the plants. Stacking is planting by height, with trees, shrubs, and larger plants in the backs of the borders, shorter plants towards the front.

Packing is planting more closely than conventional wisdom might dictate, shading the soil better and leaving little light or space for weed growth. I was very happy to hear someone with his experience talking about this kind of spacing. (I tend to plant more closely than plant labels suggest.)

swamp rose - wonderfully fragrant.

Not only was I happy to hear that he plants this way, I felt the results spoke for themselves. The gardens are naturalistic and beautiful. Nothing looked overcrowded, and everything looked healthy and happy.

native honeysuckle - much more interesting and beautiful than the imported, invasive honeysuckle.

yet another lovely view. A few annuals add color.

I jumped at the opportunity to attend this field trip. It was only last year that I first heard of Possibility Place, as I was looking for a local supplier of native plants. I did already have some natives in the garden, and wanted to add more. Last year I became aware of a couple of local, annual native plant sales. I wasn't able to check them out due to conflicts in my work schedule, but learned that the plants were locally-grown at Possibility Place, this hidden south-suburban gem.

Primarily a wholesale grower, Possibility Place also sells to the general public. Choose plants through the catalog, call to place your order, and make an appointment to pick up your plants - it's that easy! Your plants will be set aside and ready for payment and pickup. They don't ship, but for us locals that's ok, because you'll really want to get a peak at this gorgeous, inspiring place.

Thank you so much Connor, for sharing your passion for native plants, for being so generous with your time and knowledge, and for letting us pick your brain! It was a pleasure and privilege meeting you, and a great learning experience. I think it's safe to say we all left with lots of information, ideas and inspiration, and an increased appreciation for native plants and the challenges and rewards you experience growing them for us.

Catalpa tree in bloom


  1. Gorgeous. Sometimes I think if I had to do it all over I'd plant only natives.........sometimes.

  2. Hi Linda, what a fun day. Natives tend to have very long roots so those specialized trays surely pay off. And, yep, your turtle looks like the snapper who visited my garden. I didn't dare pick her up, though! I haven't seen her since my blog update... I think she must have laid her eggs in the nature area surrounding my house.

  3. Hi K&V, It would be hard for me to give up some of the cultivars, but I definitely enjoy having the natives. I'm looking forward to seeing how the new ones perform, and I hope to see some of them self-sow.

    Hi Monica, it was a very fun day! I'm glad the rain stopped so we could do more exploring outside. The gardens were beautiful!

    I got close enough to snap (no pun intended) a few photos, but I sure wasn't going to mess with mama turtle. I'm glad someone was brave enough to do it though. She was dangerously close to the street and to the drive into the parking lot. I hope she stayed near the pond and didn't try to cross the street again.

  4. Thanks for the post.

    Especially for the part on spacing. Whenever I think of native plant gardens I never really imagine them being so lush, so this was an eye opener for me.

    That barn looks really awesome.

  5. Forgot to say, the catalpa is awesome; MBT just posted some photos before; I'd not seen the blooms IRL. I used to manage a little native demonstration garden, and it was fun! I have a lot of natives in my garden, interspersed with ornamentals. If you ever come to Ann Arbor (!), I can also take you to my friend Aunita's house--the most impressive garden I know, with lots and lots of natives. She also manages a large native plant garden at Furstenberg Park. There's also a native plant nursery 1/4 mile from my house, accessible through a walking path in Doyle Park! (Um, not that I'm trying to talk up a visit or anything! ;-)

  6. Linda~~What a treat...this nursery reminds me of our local natives nursery, Growild. I pack my plants, too and there are never any weeds in the Sunny Susan's bed! Probably 80% of what I grow is native...not bad....I would loath to give up daylilies, bulbs and lilies! gail

  7. Hi fellow MG!
    I really enjoy reading your blog. We have so many opportunities to learn and volunteer that it's just impossible to try all of them. You are a breath of fresh air to the group!

  8. What a great adventure. Beautiful place. Thanks for showing us

  9. That was really interesting. I had heard of air root pruning, but didn't really get it, now I do! Glad to hear that the way I plant has a name "packing". That's my method too.

  10. Hi MBT, It's good to have reinforcement from an expert on 'packing' in the plants! I've become even more of a packer since having this shade garden. Shade plants take a lot longer to size up than plants in full sun, and life's too short.

    Seems to me Lurie is 'packed' too. I think I'll be paying closer attention to spacing in public gardens after listening to Connor speak about this.

    Hi Monica, aren't they cool trees! I can imagine it must have been fun, and probably a learning experience too, managing that garden.

    I would really love to visit sometime, and see some of your favorite garden haunts!

    Hi Gail, how cool you have a natives nursery nearby! 80% natives is pretty impressive.

    I may never get to 80% native. I have a lot of favorite cultivars I wouldn't want to give up, but I'm sure enjoying adding more native plants to the mix.

    Hi D., glad you enjoy the blog! Thanks so much for your kind words!

    Teresa, you're welcome! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

    Hi Catherine, like you I'd heard of air root pruning too. It was really neat to see how it works, and the proof is definitely in the plants.

    I suspect a lot of gardeners are 'packers!'

  11. That is fascinating about the air root pruning. I had not heard of it.

  12. What a wonderful place to visit! I wish we had a nursery like this in our area. I like his idea about "packing"--my garden is becoming more and more this way, and it's true it does help to keep the weeds down.

  13. Hi Elizabeth, I thought it was pretty interesting too, and I have to say, the proof is in the plants - very healthy, substantial root systems, no circling roots, and they are establishing very nicely in my garden.

    Hi Rose, wish I'd known about Possibility Place years ago - they've been there for 26 years.

    I like his idea of "packing" too. I've always done it, and especially here with all the shade and tree roots we contend with. It takes forever for plants to get well-established here.

    After six years, although I've divided a few hostas and daylilies to share, nothing has needed to be divided yet, and no one would call this garden overgrown.

  14. Ahhhh...I want to go there now! Mom and I would love to see this place. Maybe in another visit to Chicago, we can arrange to go. I know she would love to make a return visit to spend more time at some of the places we went for Spring Fling and I always love going to Chicago. It's my favorite city!

    Thanks for this wonderful tour!

  15. Connor was a speaker at one of my Arboretum classes and he was so knowledgeable and showed us some great photos and ideas. I wrote about him on my blog cause he was the funny guy who said he likes to hire women because we save all plants (whether that's good or bad!)

  16. Hi Kylee, glad you enjoyed the tour. It was an inspiring place to visit, and I really think you'd enjoy it in person. Next time you plan to come back to Chicago let me know - it would be wonderful to see you and your mom again!

    Hi Rosemarie, very cool that you got to meet Connor and hear him speak. He is so knowledgeable, and very entertaining and funny.


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