Indie Awards: Selling weeds for a living

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Finalist: Hidden Gem

Native Plant Nursery

  • Owner: Greg Vaclavek
  • Founded: 1998
  • Full-time employees: 2
  • Website: nativeplant.com
Robert Vaclavek, Greg Vaclavek and Amanda Klain, left to right, at the Kerrytown Farmers’ Market | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Robert Vaclavek, Greg Vaclavek and Amanda Klain, left to right, at the Kerrytown Farmers’ Market | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

When Greg Vaclavek started Native Plant Nursery 16 years ago, people thought he was crazy. People kept asking him, “You’re trying to sell weeds?”

He didn’t just try, he did it. He’s become a fixture at the Wednesday and Saturday Kerrytown Farmers’ Market, where he does most of his retail sales and also gets to exercise his passion for teaching.

Ask him to explain the advantage of native plants over non-natives, and you’re liable to be listening for a while. “From the start, a focus of my business was education,” says the graduate of U-M’s School of Natural Resources. “Being at the farmers’ market and trying to educate folks, that’s definitely one of my favorite things to do.” He also teaches a course once a year at Washtenaw Community College.

Native plants attract a broader diversity of insects, Vaclavek explains, and that helps keep certain pests in check. They also serve as food for species like songbirds and butterflies —and who doesn’t like them? (Did you know, Vaclavek asks curious shoppers, that Monarch butterflies have to have milkweed?)

“Insects and plants have evolved together for thousands of years,” he said. “Besides, the plants that evolved here are the easiest ones to grow. They require less water, fertilizer and maintenance.”

Before starting his business, Vaclavek worked for the city parks department. As part of his outreach he would tell people about native plants and how they contribute to a healthy community. “People wondered, ‘Where can I get these for my yard?’” he remembers. “There was no place. But there was a need for it and interest in it.”

So Vaclavek took the entrepreneurial leap. Today his nursery grows local native species from Michigan seed sources and produces a diverse selection of native perennial wildflowers and grasses, plus some native trees and shrubs. Native Plant Nursery remains Southeast Michigan’s only native plant specialist.

Most of his retail sales are at the farmers’ market, but he also sells to schools —which need native plants to achieve certain “green” certification —and has done lots of business with Ford.

While it’s good to have big, well-heeled clients, Vaclavek measures his impact in smaller increments:  “We provide the opportunity for the community to have access to species that can make a huge ecological impact, even on a small scale. Every time one of our plants goes into the ground, we consider that a success.”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.