Today’s nursery industry can be a delicate path to navigate. Customers are savvy, competition is high, and the market is full of high quality plants. In such an intense market, some growers are finding new territory to grow and sell unique and interesting plants not found very often. Kevin Campbell, owner of Campbell Family Nursery in Harmony, North Carolina, is taking the prickly path – growing coldhardy cactus – and he says, “It helps to have something different.” Finding his own special, unique niche in the market is the way to go for this second generation nurseryman.

Kevin Campbell, owner of Campbell Family Nursery in Harmony, North Carolina.

Campbell was born into the nursery industry, following in the footsteps of his parents and older siblings. Nestled in the foothills of western North Carolina, the family nursery started in the mid-1950s, in Elkin. They later moved the nursery to nearby Iredell County and expanded to about 60 acres of both field-grown crops and container production. Having grown up in the nursery industry, Campbell feels that, for him, growing is “in the genes.” He says he learned most of his trade from hands-on work in the nursery fields, and felt led to continue on the path his parents had traveled before him.

In the late 1980s, due to illness in the family, Campbell took over production for his family. He grew many of the same crops his family had been growing for years: hollies and camellias, because everyone else continually told him to grow the tried and true sellers. Yet, he always felt he wanted to concentrate more on plants native to western North Carolina.

Branching out

After 2008, the economy changed drastically, and selling the same plants became increasingly competitive. It was around this time that Campbell decided to branch out on his own and grow what he had always wanted to specialize in – native western North Carolina plants. He says people told him for years what to grow and sell, but it wasn’t until he changed to natives that his business started to grow and flourish in this new economy. His big sellers are dwarf red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis), which is used for a variety of jams, jellies and wines.

Campbell grows most of his nursery stock from seeds and cuttings that he collects, with permission, from the surrounding countryside. Many times, he has had to scale cliff faces to reach the plants he was after, but he feels it’s worth the risk. He supplements some of his stock by purchasing liners, but propagates most of the stock himself.

In 2010, though, Campbell branched out again, and started growing cold-hardy cactus. All the cactus he grows are native to North America, and many varieties are native to North Carolina. Campbell also grows several local varieties of eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) each with different colored blooms, native to nearby Wilkes and Surry counties.

One of Campbell’s best selling plants, Aesculus pavia (dwarf red buckeye) is a North Carolina native.

Photos: Courtesy of Anelle Ammons, unless otherwise noted.

Cultivating cactus

While most people typically think of cactus as hot climate lovers, all of the cactus Campbell grows are cold hardy to Zone 7a (0°F) or below, with some species that survive temperatures of 20°F for a short period of time. The cactus require good drainage in the landscape, but tolerate the winters and snow well, requiring no extra care or handling. Cactus also need very little water in the summer, making them a great addition to a low-maintenance landscape. Plants that you can drop into the ground and forget about are becoming increasingly popular.

The prickly nature of cactus—such as this Opuntia fragilis (brittle prickly pear)—makes it difficult to weed in the production plots.

The cactus Campbell grows come in a variety of shapes and sizes to appeal to different tastes. They bloom in the summer with beautiful colors of yellow, pink or red, and many produce a purple fruit that adds not only color and interest to the garden, but also can be eaten or used in jellies. Many of the cactus selections have paddles that are edible, and some of the paddles produce hues of purple in the winter. He says the cactus make great guard dogs, because not many pests are going to want to push their way through the spines of a cactus. Try planting a spiny cactus under your teenager’s window to keep them from sneaking out at night.

Campbell states that the overhead on cactus is very low. They require good drainage in the pots, so he uses a mixture of pine bark, cow manure, gravel and sand, which makes the containers heavy to move and ship. However, the added benefit of the weight is that he rarely has to worry about them blowing over in the nursery yard. The cactus are low nitrogen users, so they have very little need for fertilizer throughout the year and only require a small amount of lime to keep a neutral pH. Because they do not require watering, except in long drought periods, growers don’t have to worry about excessive water bills, nutrient leaching, or runoff collection.

A selection of Cylindropuntia imbricata (cane cholla or tree cholla) stands tall among Campbell’s variety of cactus offerings.

Dealing with interlopers

As far as integrated pest management is concerned, Campbell has very few pest problems with his cactus. Aside from the occasional tortoise or rabbit that decides to take a bite from the paddles, there have been no insect or fungi problems on the cactus that need managing. In coming years, there may be the threat of the wooly cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, coming through North Carolina. But because he runs a small nursery, around one acre, he can easily walk the cactus rows to scout for problems. Pesticide then can be spot sprayed, when necessary, rather than a blanket application to all plants on a calendar basis.

Weeds are another story. Campbell has to hand-pick the weeds around the spiny plants, and over the years he has developed a few techniques to help protect his hands from the spines. He has found the biggest problem with weeds in his pots, though, revolves around where the substrate originated, and how it was treated. He feels that using substrate that you know is weed seed free goes a long way in keeping problems out of your pots.

On his own

Since he runs such a small nursery, Campbell performs most of the work himself. He does have some help from his two adult daughters at different times of the year, and he hopes they will follow in his footsteps, becoming nursery growers as well. He says he plans to hire some part-time seasonal help in the spring to build his inventory after a big move this past summer, but he typically is his only employee.

Several cactus selections offer edible parts.

Sales and marketing

Campbell sells most of his plants at local farmer’s markets or out of his nursery yard, direct to retail consumers. Most of his business comes from one to two hours away, and consists primarily of people interested in native plants or something unique for their yard. He sometimes ships his plants across the country, but the majority of his sales remain close to home.

Campbell relies heavily on word of mouth advertising, although he markets quite a bit through social networking on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Campbellfamilynursery) and Twitter (@cfnursery). He is a member of the North Carolina Native Plant Society (http://www.ncwildflower.org) and is listed in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center database (www.wildflower. org), both of which direct a large amount of traffic to his nursery. Campbell has found that his time spent at farmer’s markets results in an increased awareness and recognition from customers who will later come to his nursery to purchase plants. He also discovered that speaking at nearby libraries, master gardener groups, and local garden clubs expands awareness and interest in his inventory, resulting in increased sales.

The biggest challenge Campbell has faced in his operation is working with a clientele that doesn’t understand native plants or their usefulness. He often has to spend a good deal of time with customers discussing the many advantages of native plants and their role in our local ecosystem. He loves the history of natives and the advantage they offer to our native wildlife, so he enjoys educating those customers who are interested to learn. Despite the difficulty of educating some of his customers, Campbell says meeting lots of different people is one of his favorite things about owning a small nursery.

As for the future, Campbell feels “you have to have a big online presence” in order to continue being successful in the industry. He has found that you can’t depend on local sales like you could in the past, so he plans to boost his online sales with a website.

He encourages growers to find a niche market, something different and unique, and grow that. His advice to growers is, “Don’t ever listen to anybody else.” He has found that if you follow your gut, and grow what makes you happy, the customers will follow. “When you succeed at something you’re not supposed to, it’s nice.”

Campbell’s small nursery in the foothills of western North Carolina specializes is natives as well as cactus—a few found naturally in the state, but always a surprising selection.

In other words, take the prickly path, the one less chosen, and see how your business can grow.

Cover Photo: iStock | Lokibaho