Possibility Place Nursery began in 1978 on just 5 acres of land near Monee, Illinois. The plant material was comprised of native and non-native trees and shrubs. In 1983 we began growing only native trees and shrubs. We now produce native trees on 55 acres with an additional two acres of trees and shrubs in five gallon containers.
We first started a typical balled and burlapped nursery operation. We had some survival issues with difficult to transplant tree (oaks) and it seemed like an awful lot of soil was leaving with each tree. In the mid-80’s we introduced to a method of growing (Root Makers) designed by Carl Whitcomb at Oklahoma State. The root bags worked! Our plants were growing well and our on-site survival rate was higher than ever. We use the same bag system although the fabric has been updated many times.
In the early 90s we started growing trees in an above ground system. A study done by Western Illinois University showed that trees planted in August were far superior to spring planted trees.
In the late 90s we stared a five-gallon operation to grow shrubs as well as trees. Like all new systems we have had our trials and tribulations but we feel pretty comfortable with this system.
After years of studying and growing and testing our plants in all kinds of situations, we have tweaked every aspect of our growing system to produce plants that can adapt faster and grow more quickly on all kinds of sites. It is from our experience that to produce a strong plant, the plant should be allowed to grow to its true form. To that end, we tend to let our trees and shrubs take on a more naturalized appearance. The bags that we use promote a strong root system, the anchor of any plant, and our plants have some of the strongest around. We do prune our plants but no shaping of limbs takes place because that would remove a source of food, which might harm the plants’ growth rate.
Nearly all of the woody plants we grow come from seed we have collected locally, that is to say from northern Illinois and adjacent areas. Clients regularly ask for plants that are specific for sites they are working on. We try to help everyone who calls for plants so that they can walk away from our farm with the plant they wanted or needed for their site.
How did you get started in the nursery business?
Connor Shaw was 9 when his father, an executive at Marshall Field’s, moved his family from Lake Bluff to a farmhouse in Monee, Ill. “My dad had a vision of becoming a gentleman farmer,” Shaw says.
The setting was not exactly bucolic. The house had been vacant except for a large family of rats. Three outhouses, numerous sheds, a chicken coop and a barn were in woeful need of repair. “My dad would say the place had all kinds of possibilities, but when my grandfather saw it, he sat down on the steps and cried.”
That was in 1957 and local farmers still plowed with horses. The 1860s-era house soon was made livable and 13 outbuildings were demolished. The rural environment slowly fostered the young Shaw’s interest in raising livestock and growing plants. “I had lived three blocks from the beach, but out here were cows, sheep and chicken.”
It became a working farm for him and his three brothers. “We showed sheep at the county and state fairs. And I netted $1,500 a year (selling them). It was as good as you could do for a kid in the ‘60s,” says the 54-year-old Shaw.
The livestock is gone and the 80-acre farm now is home to Possibility Place, a wholesale nursery started by Shaw and his wife, Jo, in 1978. Nearly 60,000 trees thrive at the nursery, which specializes in trees and shrubs native to northeastern Illinois. More than 18,000 trees are planted each year, mostly from seeds collected in Show’s home garden on the property and elsewhere within a 150-mile radius.
Besides growing eight of the nine oaks native to the Chicago area, Shaw offers hackberry, redbud, fringe tree, pagoda dogwood, downy hawthorn, Kentucky coffee tree, blue ash, wafer ash, buckeye, blue beech, American beech, butternut, yellow birch, serviceberry, sassafras, persimmon, sour gum, prairie willow, ironwood, quaking aspen and viburnum.
There are scores of others. All are underused, but highly attractive, durable species that can withstand the Midwest’s sweltering, droughty summers, freezing winters and impenetrable clay soils. Many of these delightful natives, like Juneberry or American plum, offer spring blossoms, berries, interesting bark, fragrance or brilliant fall color. They are little known to most homeowners and retail garden centers, but Shaw is changing that.
Municipalities, golf courses, universities, park districts and homeowners are among the nursery’s 500 or so clients. “We’ve been buying materials from Connor for about 10 years,” says Mike Stelter, forester at the Downers Grove Park District. “It’s not so much that we went the native route. We’re looking to diversify the plantings instead of sticking with just a few types. There’s a rule of thumb that you try not to have more than 10 percent of one species of trees in your inventory.”
Thinking outside the box
An exceptional plant palette and an unorthodox method of raising trees and shrubs have popularized the nursery. Most growers sell trees dug during spring dormancy before leaves sprout. Up to 80 percent of the tree’s root system is left in the ground; remaining roots are stuck in a ball of soil held together with burlap. Newly planted trees often suffer transplant shock requiring years to recover before resuming normal growth.
Shaw’s seedlings are nurtured in 1-gallon pots before they are transplanted into special in-ground root bags where they grow for an average of five years. In the spring, the tree is dug and the root bag removed. It’s then prepared for sale, placed in an above-ground container that holds special soil and fertilizers and receives daily irrigation.
“Our above-ground container system allows us to provide trees bearing 100 percent of their own roots. A tree or shrub with a fibrous root system not only transplants well but thrives,” Shaw says.
This practice allows trees to be successfully dug in late summer, something most growers do not attempt.
“Most people don’t think about planting trees in summer,” says Tom Green, horticulture professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill. Green is working with Shaw, who donated 60 bur oak trees for the project, to analyze planting times and their impact on tree health. “One of the problems that nurserymen have is that they’re dependent on spring sales,” Green says. “The study shows that there’s another time of the year you can plant trees.”
“He’s employing a lot of new technologies,” says Jeff Iles, chairman of the horticulture department at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. “The thing I like about him is that he’s not afraid to try new things.”
Shaw and Iles are studying success in transplanting but oak, chinquapin oak, blue beech and American linden at various times in the year. The university planted 100 of Shaw’s trees in spring, late summer and fall. Preliminary data show that late summer and fall planting were successful.
“I’ve learned more from Connor about plants native to this area and how to use them than anybody else out there,” says Dave Ward, golf course superintendent at Olympia fields Country Club. Ward plants about 45 trees, 150 shrubs and a large number of native prairie plants from Possibility Place each year. “We have close to 100 percent success now transplanting oaks that we didn’t have in the beginning,” Ward says.
Their 2-acre yard is a monument to native plants. “There are 105 native shrubs in the Chicagoland area and we have about 50 of them in our yard,” Shaw says. Serviceberries, bottlebrush buckeye, redbuds, shingle oak, sumac, Chinquapin oak, paw paw, New Jersey tea, spicebush, elderberry and witch hazel are among the “woodies” in perimeter plantings and island beds.
“In 1985, there was nothing in the front yard except evergreens,” Shaw says. “Everything we planted had a 1 1/2 inch caliper (trunk).” A catalpa, planted from a seed in 1988, now holds center court at the front of the yard towering over shrubs.
In the back yard, Jo mixes natives, such as delicate prairie dropseed, pale purple coneflower, wild petunia, Culver’s root, queen-of-the-prairie, mountain mint and asters, with old-fashioned peonies, phlox, and daylilies. The hefty, eye-appealing borders attract butterflies and curious clients.
“People have a really tough time when you say natives. They think of roadside and weedy. We created a garden to show them off and there are always comments and questions,” she says.
Shaw has added more than 125 species of native herbaceous plants, grasses, sedges and rushes to the catalog. “It fits a niche in the market,” he says. Some trees are sold with a group of 18 prairie plants as companions.
Sons Kelsay and Tristan are old hands, having helped their dad collect seeds since they were 4 years old. Kelsay handles the nursery’s marketing and Tristan manages operations. “I realized I liked being outside. I don’t want to spend my life indoors,” Tristan says. “It can’t always be a picnic, but I like the relaxed atmosphere. It’s low stress and easy going.”
“We don’t believe in the status quo. We are constantly testing species, fertilizers, soil mixes and transplant ability. I’ve had a lot of failures. We’ve learned what takes and what doesn’t,” Shaw says.
The learning process has paid off. “His trees will be here long after we aren’t,” Kolar says.