Podcast interview with Jane Thompson, owner of Indian Trails Native Nursery in Lake Worth, Florida.
ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Jane Thompson is the owner and operator of Indian Trails Native Nursery, a one-stop shop for Florida native plants in Lake Worth, the western end of Palm Beach County in South Florida. Jane supplies wholesale plants to landscapers and retailers, sells retail to the the local gardening public, and designs and installs native landscapes. She often advertises for the nursery that “We do it all: grow, design, deliver, install.” But “we” is often just Jane, a one-woman native plant whirwind. In the late 1990s, Jane became a career switcher, leaving a salaried job as a techie in the media industry for the … wild and unknown future of the native plant grower. Her love of nature and can-do attitude has served her, and her community, well, as Indian Trails Native Nursery continues to thrive under her care.
ABOUT OUR PODCAST
Go Native: the Business of Native Plants interviews seasoned native plant business owners and experts to help others learn from their successes and failures.
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Now listen to Episode 3 or read the transcript below to learn more. Go native!
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 3
HOST: Mitzy Sosa
Interviewee: Jane Thompson, owner, Indian Trails Native Nursery
Mitzy Sosa 00:03
Hello and welcome back to Go Native: the Business of Native Plants. My name is Mitzy Sosa, and I am your host, and I am so happy to be back with another episode. This time we’re going to travel to the south of Florida. We are talking to … go ahead:
Jane Thompson 00:19
Hi, my name is Jane Thompson. I own Indian Trails Native Nursery in West Palm Beach.
Mitzy Sosa 00:24
That’s right. Jane Thompson, Owner of Indian Trails Native Nursery in Lake Worth, Florida. Indian Trails Native Nursery is a certified minority business enterprise that grows, designs, delivers and installs Florida native plants for sustainable landscaping. The nursery serves both wholesale and retail customers. But Jane is always on the go. But she’s stopping today to speak to us. So thank you, Jane. We’ll get started by you telling us about the first native plant business just started and how it started.
Jane Thompson 00:59
So in 1998, I purchased Indian Trails Native Nursery from a man named Michael Zaffke, who started the business in 1986. At that time, the nursery was thriving with a thriving business and through hard work and dedication, we continue in his footsteps by focusing on much of the same plant species that he did: the grasses, the ground covers, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and some aquatics. At that time, I had just had my first child and wanted to leave my then white collar job. I was in tech support with Tribune Company and wanting to be with my son. So I left that job, took my retirement money and purchased this nursery which was right next door to my house, so that I could then be with my child. Little did I know the hard work that would be ahead of me, emphasizes hard, very hard work.
Mitzy Sosa 02:00
What plants did you start growing at the beginning? Were you mostly growing wildflowers or something else?
Jane Thompson 02:06
No, it was, it was a combination of all of those, but really, in order to supply the demand for landscapers, it’s important to have kind of a distributed palette. So like for example, the grasses: cordgrass, muhlygrass, Fakahatchee grass, groundcovers would be things like sunshine mimosa, twinflower, wildflowers, just the whole assortment of wildflowers, shrubs, many different shrubs, coffee, caper, privet, etc, etc. Trees, so that when a landscaper comes in to purchase, they don’t just have one type of thing that they’re buying for the landscape that they want to install, they have everything that you would need to put in a landscape with the different tiers. Trees being the tallest tier, shrubs the second tier, then the grasses and ground covers, etc.
Mitzy Sosa 03:01
Did you find it hard to manage the needs, like the dirt, for so many different plants?
Jane Thompson 03:07
That’s a really, really good question. And yes, first of all, we don’t call it dirt, we call it soil. If you call it dirt to Atlas Peat & Soil, who is our local soil provider, they’ll smack you on the hand and say it’s not dirt, it’s soil.
Mitzy Sosa 03:26
You’re giving away how much of a green horn I am in the industry.
Jane Thompson 03:29
I used to call it dirt too, until I was reprimanded. So to answer the question, so I’m in west Lake Worth. And I have a very hard time, and I’ve tried, growing scrub material. The majority of what I grow is pine flatwood material and coastal upland or maritime hammock type species. For some reason, it just seems to work here with the couple of different soil mixtures that I use and with my watering rotation. I’m sure if I tried a little harder with those scrub materials and put them off in a spot where they wouldn’t get any water, that would be another story but my focus is primarily on and it seems to work seamlessly, so I’m going with that is pine flatwood species and coastal hammock species. And it makes sense too, because most of the landscapes that you do, and some people will disagree, when you landscape around a house, it’s all fill. So coastal maritime hammock species thrive in that kind of environment. But everyone, not everyone, but there’s a drainage requirement by the Lake Worth Drainage District, in many of the homes that are built, where there’s a swale sort of outside of that mound that you have your house up on. And that’s where the pine flatwood species work best, is down where it may have a high water table or may have seasonal flooding.
Mitzy Sosa 04:57
And what has kept you going? What do you wish you knew when you started?
Jane Thompson 05:02
Well, what I know now that I wish I knew was that there are cyclical economic downturns that you must be prepared for. That, I will tell you it took me completely by surprise. Had I had a business degree, certainly I probably would have been able to weather that better. We barely made it through. But we did, and Indian Trails is thriving today. In fact, I can’t keep enough product on the shelf. So that , in and of itself is one of the most important things if you’re getting into a business long term, you’ve got to be prepared for those downturns. Another thing that was surprising for me about the business, this farming business in Florida, I grew up in New England, and my mother’s family had a farm for generations. And as I think back, they closed down in the winter. And so they had a seasonal business there too. So farming is, in essence, a seasonal business. So that was surprising for me, in terms of the money flow, you have the seasons though through the years they have changed. But back 10 years ago, I’ve been doing this for 22 years and 10 years ago, summertime, if you didn’t have enough cash to carry you through, you were struggling, so you’d have to tighten your belt. But then when the season picked up again, you’d have to work like the dickens to get that extra money to carry you through the off season. So that was something that I wasn’t aware of and learned about. However, through the years, I don’t know why it’s changed, but I don’t at Indian Trails have that seasonal ebb and flow anymore. The summers are just as busy as the winters. So I just wanted to touch on that.
Mitzy Sosa 06:50
Let’s also touch a little bit more on what are some of the most rewarding things, in your opinion, of owning the nursery.
Jane Thompson 06:57
The reward? Gee, what are the rewards …The most rewarding thing, I guess, would be my old job, as a tech support person in a white collar industry at the Tribune newspaper was dog eat dog, you know, people climbing the ladder, always had to be politically aware of things happening. I hated that. When I joined this Florida Association of Native Nurseries, there was none of that. Everybody welcomed me in with open arms, because we all shared the same mission that we wanted to try to get these natives out there in the marketplace to provide more sustainable landscaping options than the typical tropical plants. So the rewards were just the social aspect of it and peer camaraderie. I can also say that that living on this farm is just really, really peaceful.
Mitzy Sosa 07:57
So I live in a more urban area here in South Florida and driving into your nursery, I see beautiful open land. Is it a benefit to have that much open space? How was that? How has that played a part in having space for your children to grow up?
Yeah, the funny thing about that is, my kids hate to be outside. Here we bought all this land to raise our kids on, and when I was young, I was out in the woods exploring, so I wanted that for them as well. So buying out here, I thought they would just be all over the woods, in the cypress head, everywhere. But they turned out to be techies and nerds, so, unfortunately. I think what will happen is, they’re now 21 and 22, I think as they age, I think they’ll come back around to it, being exposed to that as they grew up, and the peaceful nature of that. Because when they do come visit, they’ve since grown up and moved out. When they do come visit, they do revel in the peaceful atmosphere out here. And as far as the space required for the nursery, when I bought the nursery in ’98, Michael had two sites, he had quite the thing going on. He had a five acre lot in a different field in a different part of town. And then they had this 10 acre site outfitted and it was it was really booming back there before that recession. So what what happened though, was then when that recession hit, I had to scale back to five acres and diversify. So, I leased out two portions. It’s 10 acres, two separate five acre parcels, so I leased out the north five acres to two different people for income to come in, because of that recession. I still say, it was important because we couldn’t keep up the quality, plants were not selling. They were just declining in the pot, going to pot, so I donated a considerable amount of them to a project that the City of Lake Worth was doing called Snook Islands, for a project that they were doing, because they ran out of money. So rather than just put ’em on the burn pile, I said look, just take these, put them in this project, I don’t want anything, just. And so I donated much of the material that was declining through that recession and scaled back and tried to focus on quality. And I still do that today. I’m still operating just on five acres, so I’m completely scaled back and focusing on quality and it’s doing, it’s working out very well.
Mitzy Sosa 10:30
Yeah, everyone I’m interviewing has had to adapt as a result of that recession. There really isn’t a handbook that you can give someone because who knows what will happen like this pandemic? How does someone plan for it?
Jane Thompson 10:46
Yeah, well, the pandemic actually has been good for business. I know that’s a horrible thing to say, because it’s a horrible thing that’s happening to so many people that are losing their lives and becoming very severely ill. But, but it’s actually caused people to just stop and take a break and, or they’re forced to, because they’re forced to lock down and they look at their surroundings, their own environment. And I, and I think that too, it’s causing them to need to have more nature. And I mean, we’ve seen studies and research that shows that immersing in nature is really therapeutic. And I think a lot of people are reaching out for that. I can’t keep enough wildflowers on the benches, people are calling for wildflowers because they can create these little butterfly gardens in their backyard for them and their their kids and them to just get outside and get out of the house and do something in nature and just feel connected to the earth, so.
Mitzy Sosa 11:39
So I just graduated from Florida Atlantic University, and I did some research there with native plants and, and green spaces. So I was working with the public health office within the university. So what you’re saying about people benefiting from green open spaces was a thing that we wanted to push for a lot during, during the pandemic, and really just for any, any students that that are on campus to have a space to, you know, connect to earth, as you say. I think we really did see people connect to the outside a lot more during this pandemic, just never go outside. So do you think that as people become more aware of the benefits of native plants, green spaces, do you think we will be moving towards landscapes that look more natural?
Jane Thompson 12:33
That question — because I just had a very disturbing experience with a customer. Okay, so we have what they call snowbirds. Folks that live up north and then they come down here and they go back and forth. But the pandemic has forced them to stay. And so they’re, they’re doing different things. So I had this one client who called and who was recommended by her neighbor. And when they contacted me, we had a few different meetings about the landscaping that they would like to have in their very large lot in a planned unit development. Now typically, those planned unit developments have very sterile non-native landscaping, and that is pruned, regularly boxed. Very neat, very tidy, but they asked for something more natural and different than what everyone else has in their yard. So, I planned this, we removed several areas of their lawn and put in landscape beds. And they hired me because they wanted to not only have something different than their neighbors, but they wanted to attract birds, butterflies and such. So all these Florida native plants in these different beds, removing a considerable amount of sod, and all of a sudden here come the rabbits. The rabbits are eating up the plants that we have installed in their landscaping. The woman was beside herself and practically trembling at the thought of these rabbits. And I said it brings joy to my heart to see that these rabbits have something to eat, because there isn’t a whole lot for them to be eating around here. And I said why is it so bad that you have the rabbits, and she said because they’ll be sleeping in the grass. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I just didn’t know how to respond to that. So I, actually she was so angry and adamant about these rabbits and wildlife eating her plants. I was just at a loss for words. Like, I didn’t even know how to educate this woman because she just couldn’t, she couldn’t fathom the idea that the butterflies and worms were going to be eating her Chapman’s Senna that I installed for her. So long story short, the only, the only saving grace was I agreed to, at my cost, replace eight of the plants that were being devoured the most with eight of her choosing. And I did that yesterday, and I’m gonna go trap those rabbits and rehome them in my woods.
Mitzy Sosa 14:56
It’s crazy that people want butterflies and other wildlife but don’t realize that they need to eat the plants. That is how ecosystems work.
Jane Thompson 15:08
Educating … I have a hard time educating some of the people that I deal with that are like this woman, I don’t know how to turn them around. So I could use some lessons on that.
Mitzy Sosa 15:26
So what is the most common mistake that you think native plant growers make, something that might hold them back?
Jane Thompson 15:32
I’m not aware of well, maybe for me, it’s being able to turn people like that around. Maybe that’s a common mistake of mine. Because it’s so much easier when folks come in, and they share the same mission. And they are just really, really ready to change their landscaping from non-native to native, or at least change part of it. But I’m not I’m not really aware of any common mistake or changes that I’ve seen over the years involving running a farm. All I know is that maybe, well, I can’t imagine anybody going into farming would not realize it’s gonna be hard work. All I have to say is you just must be prepared for the hard work, the dedication, perseverance, and the commitment and to be prepared to tighten your belt when times are tough and work like the dickens when times are good.
Mitzy Sosa 16:22
So definitely a lot of hard work. What changes have you seen over the years that make it easier or harder to become a native plant grower? And are there tools or resources that make it easier?
Jane Thompson 16:35
Not tools like a rake and a shovel, you’re talking about tools like advertising tools and using technology? I guess getting at making sure that you have a brand and getting your brand out there. I use these because they’re readily available and practically free, so I host my website for under $10 a month on Vistaprint. It’s very inexpensive, and I only get three pages. But it works extremely well. I asked people periodically how they found me and it’s either word of mouth, or they’ve found me on Google or, and if they found me on Google, most of the times, it’s because of the way that Vistaprint my, my website to be spidered, or I don’t know what the terms are anymore, it’s been years. But the search engines find me because Vistaprint has hooks in it the way that it would allow for people to find me, I have had people calling me saying hey, I saw your website, we can recommend some changes to make it better. And I’m like, I don’t need any changes. Because it works just fine. I get many, many, many, many people finding me that way. So. So that’s one moment. And then Facebook, I will take photographs of the posts on the benches, and post them on Facebook and boost the post. And I can boost the posts across however many miles I want, nationally or locally. So that works very, very well. I get a lot of post engagements that way. I will also boost at my cost, I’ll see certain like about the monarchs that there was an article that came up showing how the monarchs are becoming further and extinct. Different articles that I feel are really, really important for our industry, so I’ll boost those posts at my cost via Facebook, the mechanic there. So there’s those two, and then the search engine FANN, and the Institute of Regional Conservation. They have some really good search engines with some really good information. FANN offering you know members across the state and plants that are provided by those members and their advertising. But the Institute for regional conservation is really, really, really instrumental. I actually have links to their site from my website. And when you list a plant on their website, at least for South Florida, they’re trying to move more towards Central Florida but but their primary database includes South Florida species, you can get a really, really good set of information about different plants through IRC. So the Internet over the years, obviously, is instrumental in reaching customers and disseminating the information that we’re trying to disseminate about native plants.
Mitzy Sosa 19:38
And that education about native plants is very valuable. So I’m going to bring us back to kind of just wrap up here. I have one last question for you. And it’s gonna help us wrap up what we’ve been talking about for the last 20 minutes. If you could design a beginning native plant grower program, what would you make sure it included?
Jane Thompson 20:04
I don’t know. If I could design a beginning of native plant grower program. Definitely, you know, I think some of the things that I’ve learned through the years, I took this course, it was a landscape technician course through FNGLA. And I learned a lot about, I mean, you’re talking beginner beginner. I learned a lot about the importance of botanical names versus common names, the different characteristics of a plant and how to recognize the different characteristics of a plant to determine the family. I don’t know that that’s very necessary or not, but you know, it’s good scientific information and makes you knowledgeable. I think that program for beginner involving those basic business knowledge about the economic cycles, that’s important. And things that really hit us hard, the seasonal ebbs and flows, being involved in the best management practices because of our water quality and how important it is to keep our water water quality fixed the water quality from the phosphorus runoff. Again, I think that propagation techniques are very, very important. There are still a couple of species that I can’t figure out 22 years later, and I can’t figure it out. Marlberry just can’t do it. I can’t figure it out. And then I guess just making sure that they that these beginners are aware if these beginners are truly interested in growing Florida native plants, that they are aware of like minded groups like the Florida Native Plant Society, Florida Association of Native Nurseries, Institute for Regional Conservation, because those are resources that they can use to further increase their knowledge about natives and where to get them.
Mitzy Sosa 21:54
And where to get them, that is very important indeed. All right, folks, that is all we have for you today. Jane Thompson, thank you so much for joining us. It has been a great load of fun, and I feel like we’ve learned so much already from you. If you want to take a road trip down to Lake Worth, Florida, you can stop by and visit Indian Trails Native Nursery and meet Jane Thompson yourself. Remember to keep an eye out for even more podcasts coming your way. We will have Dave Chiappini joining us in the future and also Steve Beeman to come talk about some of his Beemats. You can head on over to nativeplanthort.org and learn even more about the Native Plant Horticulture Foundation and about some educational opportunities so you can learn even more about native plants. To find your nearest native plant nursery and get your own natives, you can visit the Florida Association of Native Nurseries website at FANN.org. Thank you everyone for listening and see you next time.