Interview with Bill Carter, President of Prairie Moon Nursery

Based in southeast Minnesota, Prairie Moon Nursery is certainly one of the best known growers of native Midwestern plants and seeds, selling to both the retail and commercial markets. (Full disclosure: I am a frequent and unrestrained customer.)

Bill Carter, the current President of Prairie Moon, was nice enough to respond to written interview questions. Read on for his perspective on the business of native plants.

prairie moon staff
Prairie Moon staff, 2014. Bill Carter is at the far left, in the Superman t-shirt.

Q. Please tell us about the origins of Prairie Moon.

A. Short answer is that Prairie Moon began in 1982. That was the first year there was a profit and taxes were paid. Bare root dormant plants were dug and stored under bales of hay to keep them cool prior to shipping. There was no office and most of the work was done on Alan Wade’s porch.

Prior to that there was production here of Illinois ecotype seed to help supply what was needed by Windrift Nursery, which was the first in that state solely producing native plants and seeds. [Note: Windrift Nursery was opened by Doug and Dot Wade in the 1970s. It is no longer open. Their son Alan was a founder of Prairie Moon.]

Before starting Windrift, Doug and Dot Wade worked at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in the 1930s. [Note: In Wisconsin the Wades knew and were inspired by Aldo Leopold who wrote A Sand County Almanac.]

Q. How did you end up in your current position at Prairie Moon?

A. I moved to Wiscoy Valley Land Cooperative in 1991 where a number of the co-op members were involved with Prairie Moon. I worked in all aspects of the company and expressed my desire to become an owner when Alan Wade first proposed selling part of the nursery to the employees. At one point there were seven equal owners and now there are four of us. I took the role of President mostly because I was willing to be the spokesperson.

Photo from www.prairiemoon.com.
Photo from http://www.prairiemoon.com.

Q. What is the connection between Prairie Moon and the Wiscoy Valley Land Cooperative?

A. Wiscoy is made up of 12 separate homes and 450 acres of property. We own our homes but jointly own all the property. Alan Wade and a few other members of Wiscoy started Prairie Moon Nursery. PM is a private venture and only ever involved a minority of people who live at Wiscoy. Out of about 25 full time employees only four of us live at Wiscoy.

Q.Do you think that ordinary gardeners can collectively have a meaningful environmental impact through their choice of plants and methods of growing?

A. More and more wildlife is dependent upon ordinary gardeners due to habitat loss. Choosing native plants will ensure that there are caterpillars and other insects available to feed our diminishing bird population. Bees are now being brought into urban areas and even Common Milkweed is a plant that most people would like to have near their homes.

Photo from www.prairiemoon.com.
Photo from http://www.prairiemoon.com.

Q. How does Prairie Moon try to operate in an environmentally responsible manner?

A. I think the biggest thing really is just the promotion of native plants and telling the story of how important it is to have them. We do the basic reuse, reduce, recycling. Our farming practices are low impact and we have been using methods of weed control which do not require herbicide use. We of course do not use any neonicotinoid insecticides.

Q. Have you seen much evidence that the interest in straight species native plants continues to grow? Has it reached a mainstream audience?

A. Prairie Moon is growing despite the fact that we do not sell cultivars.  I think the desire for non-cultivar natives is increasing. Many job specs specify that cultivars cannot be used. Perhaps 100 of the species we offer can now be found in garden centers and general seed catalogs. Sedges are being discovered and some very plain looking plants like Early Figwort are now selling because of their attractiveness to insects.

Q. There has been something of a backlash against native plant advocates. For instance, Prairie Moon’s catalog was quoted disapprovingly as needlessly purist in Alan Armitage’s book about native plants. What’s your reaction?

A. You would think that with the billions being spent on plants each year that some of these folks would be content to let us give accurate information about natives. In the plant world many people make a good income by offering “new” plants. You can’t put a patent on plants unless you manipulate the appearance in some way and make it a cultivar of a native plant.

The industry is always promoting the latest fashon and it is quite profitable. In regards to Alan’s book I think he treated us with respect and I’m sure we were discovered by a few people after reading that. Fortunately there is finally some research being started about the suitability of cultivars. The industry’s response to what they think consumers want can be much different to what the wildlife needs. Let the science sort it out.

Visitors take a tour of Prairie Moon Nursery. Photo from www.prairiemoon.com.
Visitors take a tour of Prairie Moon Nursery. Photo from http://www.prairiemoon.com.

Q. How strict are you in your definition of “native”? Could a plant whose native range was in the southeast be considered native in the Upper Midwest?

A. On our website each species has information on native range. We let our customers decide on what is best for their area. If someone plants a species not historic to their region then it may not have wildlife value beyond just being a nectar source.

Q. I’m sure many of your customers  (such as myself) mix native and exotic plants. How do you feel about that?

A. Sorry, Jason. We do not allow mixing our plants with exotics. The PM Plant Police will be there soon. 🙂

Note: As of this writing the plant police have not yet arrived. I’m keeping a low profile, though.

 

39 Comments on “Interview with Bill Carter, President of Prairie Moon Nursery

  1. Bill Carter is very right: it’s important to have wild flowers in our gardens. Here, around my garden I very rare see bees and other pollinators.

  2. Really interesting Jason, thank you. There’s a big push in the UK to plant for pollinating insects (especially bees) but not necessarily sticking to native plants. Makes sense though.

    • The focus in North America is also based on Doug Tallamy’s research showing that there are far more native leaf-eating insects on native plants, which is critical for the rest of the natural food chain. Perhaps this is not as true in Eurasia, where there is easier migration of species.

    • I respect their perspective though I don’t share it entirely. Anyhow they fill an important need by supplying a wide variety of straight species plants.

  3. Loved the article, Jason–it was most interesting, especially the background. I have never bought anything bare root, but I know some who have and it’s been very successful for them.

  4. Very interesting! Living in the woods, as I do, it’s easy for me to forget that not everyone lives in such an eco-friendly environment. But even those who don’t can improve their situation one plant at a time. Even if they do mix them with exotics. 😉

      • I used to be a “mixer” but I quickly began to realize just how COOL our native plants are. I’ve ordered from Prairie Moon for the past 3 or 4 years (bare root and potted trays). The plants are top quality and establish well here in Michigan. I’ve decided that as my exotics die off, I’ll only add natives. There are SO many awesome plants to choose from. I’ll never have room for everything I’d like to plant! Besides, I really don’t want the Plant Police knocking on my door 🙂

      • You can certainly have a wonderful garden with only native plants, I’m just not willing to give up my favorite exotics, at least not at this point.

  5. I enjoyed this, Jason. I’ve been wanting to do a tour at Prairie Moon, and hope to do it soon. I’m thinking the best time to go might be late spring. My daughter went to school in Winona, but we always seemed to be short on time, visiting with her (of course!), while were there. But, I do want to check out the place! I’ve been pleased with the plants I’ve purchased online from Prairie Moon. I, like you, have a mix of native straight species and non-natives. I’m tending to plant more of a mix near the house, and more native plants toward the middle and back of the property, near the woods.

    • I think they only do a public tour once per year, and this year I believe it is this coming Saturday. I’ve wanted to go for a long time as well. I did go to the tour at Prairie Nursery one year, though it was horribly hot that day.

  6. Thanks again for letting me get Prairie Moon’s message out Jason. My co-workers here thought that the way I commented on our “using methods of weed control that do not require herbicide” might be misleading. While the amount of herbicide we use is minimal we still do use some especially for site prep in some areas. Other areas, such as Wiscoy Farm, are managed using organic methods.

  7. We need the purists to educate us with their point of view, even if most of us lack that kind of vigor or dedication.

  8. As a 9 year veteran of a 10 acre prairie restoraton, the staff at Prairie Moon has been instrumental in many of my succeses. While I still suffer some setbacks, it brings me great joy to walk around my restoration. We absolutlely need more young people to get the “religion” of native plants.. For what its worth, Prairie Moons open house is this Saturday. We went last year, and its quite a sight to see.. even in pouring down rain. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Rollie. I know what you mean about the joy you can feel walking around an area of prairie plants.

  9. It was nice of him to respond since this is likely his busy season. They do have a beautiful property. It looks so natural like it always existed that way.

  10. Prairie Moon is one of my favourite sources for plants and seeds. I am SO grateful for what they do. Thanks so much for providing a bit of background about the people involved.

  11. Very interesting interview, Jason. Places like Prairie Moon are such valuable resources not only for unrestrained customers, like yourself, but also as educators. I imagine that most gardeners (or people who have homes with gardens) don’t think about their plantings as having such an effect on wildlife and the general environment. I’m sure this post will convince the Plant Police to just give you a warning this time.

    • I love them, too. My fantasy is to move to Minnesota and work for them full time. This is not a fantasy that Judy shares, however.

  12. Trying to find where I can get your catalogs to order seeds from thankyou

  13. I’m trying to get in touch with billy. He is my cousin. Haven’t seen or spoke to him since i was a young girl. My mom is helen my dads name is robert andrews. If i have the right billy please email me. Thanks judy

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