Nursery collaborates with N.C. State to solve production challenges

From its greenhouses and farm in Rougemont, Hoffman Nursery sells ornamental and native grass liners — or starter plants — wholesale to customers all across the United States and Canada. But when the company’s owners need solutions to production problems, they frequently look much closer to home — to the agricultural research and Extension experts at N.C. State University.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences scientists are now conducting three research projects in collaboration with the nursery and its owners, John Hoffman and Dr. Jill Hoffman. The experiments are designed to create a superior cultivar of a popular ornamental grass and to solve problems related to pest and weed management.

The work has the potential to benefit not just the Hoffmans but the entire nursery industry, one of the most valuable sectors of North Carolina agriculture. In 2009, greenhouse, nursery and floriculture crops generated more than $900 million in cash receipts.

One of the NCSU projects involves developing a seedless cultivar of the ornamental grass Miscanthus sinensis. Sometimes called silvergrass, this perennial grass is among the most popular in U.S. landscapes, but in some places, it has a tendency to reseed and cause problems in the landscape.

To get around that problem, Drs. Tom Ranney and Darren Touchell, plant breeders stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, are using biotechnology tools to create cultivars that won’t reseed and spread. They are testing plant material in the mountains, while the Hoffmans are conducting field trials at their piedmont location.

John Hoffman says the nursery helped fund the Miscanthus research because he expects there to be strong interest in cultivars that doesn’t reseed.

“We think it’s certainly a worthy plant for the landscape,” he says. “We thought if we could come up with something that wouldn’t reseed, it could go nationwide and, possibly, worldwide.”

In a second project, the nursery has partnered with N.C. State to consider ways to encourage beneficial insects – ones that prey on pests – to thrive in greenhouses. Specifically, they are looking at the Black Pearl pepper plant as a so-called banker plant to support the survival and reproduction of the minute pirate bug.

The bug is sometimes used to control thrips, spider mites and aphids, three of the most economically damaging pests of ornamental plants grown in greenhouses. Using beneficial insects provides an alternative to chemical pesticides, but the insects can be expensive and aren’t guaranteed to persist in greenhouses after their initial release.

Wendy Trueblood, a nursery employee, had heard about using Black Pearl in greenhouses, and she contacted Dr. Steven Frank of CALS’ Department of Entomology for advice on how best to use the plant. Because no research had been done on the topic, he enlisted one of his graduate students to find answers. Sarah Wong, a master’s degree student, is comparing greenhouses with banker plants and pirate bugs to houses without them.

The third research collaboration between Hoffman Nursery and N.C. State is also focused on controlling pests – specifically, weeds. With funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Interregional Research Project No. 4, most often referred to as IR-4, Dr. Joseph Neal of the Department of Horticultural Science is studying herbicides for ornamental grasses.

Right now, few herbicides are labeled for pre-emergence and postemergence weed control in ornamental grasses, mainly because pesticide manufacturers have little incentive to invest in the expensive process of developing and testing products for use in such minor crops.

Neal’s research is designed to help fill that gap by identifying new pest management tools for ornamental growers.

These ongoing research projects are just the latest efforts linking N.C. State and Hoffman Nursery. Indeed, the Hoffmans’ association with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reaches back to before they started the nursery.

Jill earned her master’s and Ph.D. in toxicology from the College in the 1980s, and John took courses with the late Dr. J.C. Raulston, a CALS professor and namesake for its JC Raulston Arboretum.

While operating a landscape business he started in 1981, John noticed a growing interest in using ornamental grasses and thought he could create a business to capitalize on that interest.  His hunch was confirmed by Raulston, who told his students that grasses were, along with aquatic plants and bamboo, the plants of the future.

“When he said that, it was like, ‘OK. We are headed in the right direction here,’” Hoffman recalls.

In 1986, the Hoffmans bought 45 acres in rural Durham County. Since then, Hoffman Nursery Inc. has matured into a successful horticultural business with more than 60 greenhouses and 35 full-time employees. They constantly strive to improve their efficiency and to be good environmental stewards, Jill Hoffman says, exploring ways to recycle water, make the best use of energy, mechanize production and shipping, and more.

The nursery’s Director of Sales and Marketing Shannon Currey says that collaborating with N.C. State researchers also leads to more efficiencies. Not only that, collaborative research is a mutually beneficial: NCSU has a chance to stay in touch with the industry and be aware of real-world problems it faces, while the nursery gains access to leading-edge solutions.

“We think that this application of research here at the nursery gives us a real edge when it comes to growing our grasses better, in an efficient and environmentally responsible way,” she says. “And all these projects have done that very directly.”

-Dee Shore

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