From its beginning in a friend’s back yard, to the purchase of the first five acres, to its current 1,000-plus acres in five locations in two states, Midwest Groundcovers has grown to become a leader in the horticulture industry.
The past ten years have ushered in considerable change, with the expansion of the 1-acre greenhouse and development of the fourth major growing area at the Virgil Nursery; the purchase of The Natural Garden and development and introduction of the Natural Garden Natives® brand; the update and expansion of the St. Charles sales yard; and the redesign of the St. Charles display and educational gardens. Internationally renowned designer Piet Oudolf consulted on the renovation of the award-winning gardens.
A significant renovation of the St. Charles office was completed in 2018, relying upon the original building through the reuse of salvageable materials, and incorporating several innovative and sustainable elements.
Throughout the last decade, production has increased to offer a broad range of ornamentals, greatly expanding the company’s inventory.
Ground covers are now joined by more than 500 cultivars of perennials, ornamental grasses and locally sourced native plants. The selection also includes nearly 200 varieties of deciduous shrubs, broadleaf evergreens, conifers, vines, and shrub roses.
More than 100 varieties of ground cover plants continue to thrive in production. Midwest’s own Hocus Pocus Groundcovers® brand, established in 2013, is a collection of more than 85 hardy plants that are colorful, easy to grow and maintain, and “cover like magic.” Special groups are selected for sun, shade, and dry sites, as well as those that tolerate foot traffic. There’s even a group of miniature plants suitable for fairy gardens.
The Natural Garden Natives® collection features more than 200 flowering forbs and prairie grass plants indigenous to the upper Midwest. The Natural Garden Natives brand was presented in 2011, following Midwest Groundcovers’ acquisition of The Natural Garden. These local ecotype natives are genetically adapted to thrive in Illinois; they originate from seed and stock plants that were collected in the 1970s and 1980s within a 90-mile radius of the St. Charles nursery site.
Launched in 2008, Midwest’s Bud & Bloom Collection offers garden centers an opportunity to purchase eye-catching, ready-to-sell selections just in time for the spring rush. The collection includes trees and shrubs, roses, hydrangeas, annuals and perennials, vines, grasses, and even Cottage Fresh Herbs.
The Michigan Nursery continues to develop with the completion of a significant heated greenhouse expansion; greenhouse improvements and new construction, as well as development of additional growing areas, continue in Virgil. Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Midwest Groundcovers is well-positioned to carry on its tradition of innovation in propagation, production, and distribution of quality plants.
Now encompassing five locations that, combined, produce more than 16 million plants annually, Midwest Groundcovers provides top-quality selections for garden centers and landscapers in the Upper Midwest.
As Midwest Groundcovers observes its 50th year in business, changes in leadership are poised to continue the company’s success in honoring the past and developing the future. Christa-Orum Keller accepted the position of Chairman in 2017, and with the 2019 retirement of forty-year Midwest veteran Gary Knosher, she has assumed the role of President. Gary maintains his role as Director.
Founder Peter Orum has reduced his day-to-day responsibilities, but remains active in his onsite experiment station, working on projects for the Midwest management team, and with the horticulture industry locally, nationally, and internationally.Learn More...
As Peter says, everything begins with an idea; it’s what you do with that idea that determines your success. Midwest Groundcovers began with an idea to grow and distribute quality ground cover plants. Within the first ten years, that idea grew from a company of two people, five acres and a family car to a staff of twelve and a six-figure sales revenue.
Growth required expansion, and in 1974, the Orums purchased additional acreage a few miles north of the original property. This new acquisition would become the St. Charles Nursery; the original site was retained for propagation, and the company office, sales yard, family home, and production facilities were moved to the new location.
With the incremental purchase of adjacent acres over the next several years, the St. Charles nursery grew to more than 160 acres. Propagation and production soon included perennials, shrubs, evergreens, and grasses, and in 1986 the company became a licensed propagator and grower in the new Chicagoland Grows® plant introduction program. The program, a partnership among the Chicago Botanic Garden, The Morton Arboretum, and the Ornamental Growers Association of Northern Illinois (OGA)—of which Midwest is a member—develops, selects, and markets a broad range of plants suitable for the Upper Midwest and similar regions. In the years since the program’s introduction, Midwest has sold nearly three-quarters of a million Chicagoland Grows® plants.
The 1980s were a period of rapid growth. When a customer picking up plants at the St. Charles nursery wanted to purchase peat moss —which Midwest Groundcovers did not sell at the time—Peter made an on-the-spot decision to sell him a few bales from the production area. In that simple transaction, he saw an opportunity to further serve nursery customers and to expand the business. In 1981, Midwest Trading was established to develop, manufacture, and distribute growing media and other hardgoods. Now a separate sister company, Midwest Trading operates at the Virgil Nursery site, where a state-of-the-art mix plant was built to produce media.
In 1986, Peter took the advice of mentor John Wilde, and friend and advisor Bob Erlandson, and the company acquired a 144-acre farm in Glenn, Michigan. This nursery now covers more than 300 acres and continues to produce perennials, ornamental grasses, and ground covers.
It was also in 1986 that Peter and Finn Aagaard established Midwest GROmaster. Initially created to support Midwest Groundcovers’ needs, the company has supplied growers across the United States with fertilizer injection systems, ebb and flow growing benches, and recycling water systems for more than 30 years.
By the end of the decade, acreage continued to be added, sales had more than quintupled, and the company employed a staff of 84.
Midwest realized considerable growth in the 1990s, with the further acquisition of land and development of infrastructure. In cooperation with Midwest’s nursery managers and consulting engineers, landscape architect Christa Orum-Keller, Peter and Irma’s daughter, planned and designed the company’s St. Charles headquarters, which included sales and administrative operations, sales yard, distribution facility, and trial and display gardens. The office was officially opened in 1994, the same year that the company issued its 100,000th invoice.
Christa joined Midwest on a full-time basis the following year, and in 1997, Christa and her husband, Craig Keller, moved to Denmark for a year to train in various nurseries. Craig joined the company in 1999.
International plant breeder Anthony Tesselaar expanded operations beyond Australia, and in 1994, Midwest Groundcovers was among the first nurseries in the U.S. to become a licensed grower of the Flower Carpet® ground cover rose. The rose was released to the gardening public in 1995 to much acclaim, and Midwest expanded its agreement with Tesselaar to include additional rose cultivars and perennials.
At mid-decade, the Michigan nursery crew launched the container-growing operation with potting of select perennials; Juventino Castillo, hired in 1972 as Midwest Groundcovers’ first full-time seasonal employee, moved to the Glenn Farm location to help develop the site’s production facility. The first farm at Virgil, comprising 174 acres, was purchased in 1995, preparing the company for future growth—and change.
Acreage at both the Michigan and Virgil nurseries increased during the 90s, but the St. Charles location became subject to negotiations with Kane County officials when the county identified a large tract of land at the north end of the property as critical for construction of a regional bridge over the Fox River and the extension of Stearns Road. Eventually, a sixty-six-acre plot was ceded to the county, and construction of the county bridge and roadway was completed in 2010. The St. Charles nursery today comprises nearly 90 acres, and remains home to Midwest’s office, sales yard, and distribution headquarters. Although some production remains, most has been relocated to the Virgil and Michigan nurseries.
Groundbreaking on the Virgil nursery took place in 2001, following careful planning for development led by Peter and a team of Midwest professionals, as well as consulting land planning and civil engineering professionals
The 250-acre site is divided into five discrete growing centers, each of which is dedicated to specialized crops. In 2005, the nursery also became home to both Midwest Trading and Midwest GROmaster, when both companies moved operations from St. Charles.
Plant collection and branding programs grew during the 2000s, resulting in Midwest Solutions®, a program developed to bring successful plant combination solutions to landscape designers and contractors. It’s an easy-to-use system of designing with hardy and beautiful companion plants selected to provide sustainable plant communities.
Midwest’s Bud & Bloom program, launched in 2008, offers garden centers an opportunity to purchase eye-catching, ready-to-sell selections just in time for the spring rush. The collection includes trees and shrubs, roses, hydrangeas, annuals and perennials, vines, grasses, and even fresh herbs.
By the end of the 2000s, and heading into its fifth decade of business, Midwest Groundcovers was well-positioned to drive further growth.Learn More...
Midwest Groundcovers has deep roots in horticulture and a strong tradition of innovation. When founder Peter Orum immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s, he brought with him a solid foundation in the practices and traditions of horticulture, an engineer’s knowledge of systems, and an entrepreneur’s drive.
He gained his horticultural knowledge from his experience and training on the two-acre nursery of his father, Palle Ørum, in Jutland, Denmark; his nursery apprenticeships at Spejlborg and Vilvorde Nurseries; and his education at the Vilvorde Horticulture School in Copenhagen. But more than that, Peter had an entrepreneurial spirit and a vision of the course his life would take. It is a career and calling that has been defined by hard work, passion, and a fearless determination to succeed.
Peter’s organizing, planning, building, and management skills were honed during his service as an Engineer Officer in the Danish Army Corps of Engineers, and these attributes have been essential to his success in the horticulture industry, as well as to Midwest Groundcovers’ inception and development. Peter achieved lieutenant rank in less than two years, and he cultivated leadership skills that would qualify him for his first job in the United States: supervisory trainee at D. Hill Nursery Company in Dundee, Illinois. After only a few months of training, Peter was promoted to Superintendent of Propagation, and served in this position for almost seven years.
Despite Peter’s success at D. Hill Nursery, he could not suppress his entrepreneurial drive. In 1969, he and his wife, Irma, began a life-long journey that would establish and grow the Midwest family of companies. They began by rooting several thousand cuttings in the West Chicago backyard of their friend and mentor, John Wilde. That same year, the Orums purchased five acres of land on Illinois Route 25, just north of St. Charles, Illinois.
The Midwest companies were built through the collaboration of many talented and dedicated people, and, in the early days, friends and family worked on weekends and evenings for wages of hamburgers and beer. Irma employed her bookkeeping skills and relied on her many years of experience in business administration to nurture the new company. Her dedication to fostering its growth was evident in her full participation in day-to-day nursery operations, including potting plants, sticking cuttings, watering, and mowing, all while caring for family and home.
To supplement his expertise in horticulture, as well as his management and construction skills, Peter logged many nights studying business, finance, and accounting. He earned a bachelor of science in Finance and Accounting from Northern Illinois University in 1978.
The initial vision for the five-acre nursery was to produce and sell quality ground covers at fair prices to local landscapers, independent garden centers, and nurseries. This simple and wise business philosophy translated into continuing success for the Orums, and fueled the expansive growth of Midwest Groundcovers during the coming years.Learn More...
Besides fabulous blooms and exceptional hardiness, what do the following plants have in common? Zinfin Doll® Hydrangea, ‘Wizard of Ahhs’ Veronica, and ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ Perovskia? Besides having some intriguing and clever names, these plants were part of our exciting New Introductions for 2020! Each spring, we introduce 20 to 30 new plant selections from all product groups including groundcovers, perennials, shrubs and natives. While many are new to the industry, some may be well-known plants that we choose to add to increase our product offering or substitute as an improved selection. Regardless of the reason, most of our New Introductions are trialed for a minimum period of one year, to ensure that they meet our standards and will perform well throughout the season in the Midwest region.
If you have toured our St. Charles nursery, you likely have seen our trial gardens that surround the lower level patio outside of our Main Office and frame the west side of the upper level near the Wholesale Office. Here we trial a small quantity of 3 of each plant to see how it performs in the landscape over a period of 12 months or more. We welcome you to walk the gardens anytime during business hours, and provide your feedback or offer suggestions on other plants to trial. Each plant is labeled with the botanical name and year planted, and Feedback Forms are conveniently located in acrylic boxes staked in the garden for your use. If you’re unable to make it out to our site, you’re still welcome to submit plant suggestions anytime to any of our Sales Representatives or submit a Customer Plant Request on our website.
Besides the trial gardens in St. Charles, we have 5 growing shelters in our Virgil nursery—nearly 8,000 SF of growing space—dedicated to plant trials. With this space, we’re able to trial between 50 to 100 varieties and grow larger quantities of each—for example 20-25 #1 containers. Sometimes, we start with a liner in our Greenhouse and then pot it up and move it to the growing shelter to evaluate its growth and performance. This gives us the opportunity to figure out our “production recipe” to help our growers produce it efficiently. Louis Manzella, our R&D Technician in Virgil, is responsible for overseeing the Virgil trial space and making sure that each variety is labeled, logged, and maintained. Irrigation is provided, but we do not fertilize or treat for pests or diseases in order to test hardiness and disease resistance.
Our Accession Team, including representatives from Production, Sales, Marketing and Purchasing, reviews the plant trials 2-3 times per year. If requested, we will provide feedback to the plant breeder or brand program supplier once the evaluation period is complete. New Introductions are typically identified by July, allowing us time to start production and begin work on our Marketing updates. By the time the winter trade show season arrives, we have more exciting New Introductions to showcase at our booth and share with our customers! So, I’m sure you’re wondering, what may be new for 2021? Although it’s somewhat early in the season, so far, we’ve been impressed with the improved cultivar Sedum ‘Prima Angelina’, the new double flowering Crème Brȗlée™ Potentilla, the chartreuse-leaved Cornus alba Neon Burst™, and reblooming Spiraea Double Play Doozie®. In the meantime, be sure to check out our exciting new selections for this year! Although quantities are limited, you can check availability 24/7 on our website by using the New Introductions search filter. Why not try our new Opening Day™ Doublefile Viburnum that features dazzling white baseball-sized blooms to celebrate the long-awaited Opening Day of baseball?Learn More...
We are always looking for ways to improve our plants and services to better serve our customers. Last summer we introduced our new on-line ordering system that allows you to place your order anytime—even during non-business hours. This new website feature required a meticulous overhaul of our inventory system to ensure that the available crop quantities were as up-to-date as possible, so that we could deliver the plants that you ordered as promised. This year, we are implementing a new initiative to improve our website crop photos to ensure that the images shown are an accurate representation of the crop that your order will be pulled from. With multiple crops of over 1600 different plant varieties and sizes in our inventory that are grown in 5 nurseries and in 2 states, this is not a small undertaking! Even more challenging is that the plants continue to grow, bloom, get pruned, etc. throughout the season.
Mulenda Bisoga, is one of our Inventory team members that is responsible for taking our crop photos. Mulenda has been working for Midwest since 2017, when he started working in Production and later became the Inventory Coordinator at our Virgil nursery. Each morning, Mulenda receives a list of up to 50 requests for photos that customers have submitted through our website. This list is broken out and re-distributed to the Inventory members at each nursery location. Once the list is received, Mulenda and the other Inventory members head out to the field to take photos that capture the current growth stage of each crop. Using our customized software, the photo gets uploaded to the website immediately, so it’s available for customer use—typically less than 24 hours after the request was submitted. He uses his knowledge of each plant species and our Production schedules to assign a photo expiration date that indicates when the plant will likely advance to a different stage of growth and no longer resemble the photo. For a slow-growing, non-blooming shrub like Juniper, the photo may last for 30 days. For a blooming perennial, like Hellebore, the photo may expire after one week. While in the field, Mulenda also updates the crop notes indicating height, width, bloom, etc. so customers know what to expect.
In addition to taking crop photos for our customer requests, Mulenda is working on providing current photos of all of our available plant crops for the website. In less than one month, he has collected photos of over 350 plants! He will continue to upload photos throughout the season, and keep updating them as the crops change and are sold through.
For those customers unfamiliar with our crop photo requests, you must login to our website using your email address and Midwest password to access this feature. To see the current crop shot, simply click on the photo icon displayed under the SIZE column for any plant variety. If a photo does not yet exist, then click on the camera icon to submit your crop shot request. The following business day you will receive an email from MGSales with a new crop photo of the plant you requested. You may request up to 5 crop shots per day, to help you with your purchasing decision.Learn More...
Spring is a very busy time of year at Midwest Groundcovers, as we begin uncovering the growing shelters that house and protect our plants over the winter. We utilize poly sheeting in all five of our nursery locations as covering for our nearly 3,000 growing shelters and roofing for our greenhouses. The process begins each year in October, when our crews begin covering the plants in our growing shelters with 4 or 6 mil poly. Each shelter can house up to 2,500 #1 or 430 #5 containers (spaced). Using pneumatic staple and nail guns, a crew of 10-12 workers can cover up to 100 shelters per day! Less hardy plant varieties—such as roses and Hydrangea macrophylla varieties—require a double layer of poly covering (with insulating air between them) and Microfoam thermal blankets for added protection. In mid-October, the plants are fertilized with potassium nitrate to help prepare the roots for winter.Learn More...
"The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Winter is winding down and spring is just around the corner! The absence of cold temperatures triggers the awakening of plants and stimulates the early stages of seed growth. A seed contains the genetic material (DNA) for future generations—whether it becomes a diminutive violet or a mighty oak! At Midwest Groundcovers, we propagate approximately 80% of our native species by seed. In order for seeds to wake from a state of dormancy and germinate, the temperature, moisture, air and light conditions must be acceptable. Our growers are well-versed in the optimal conditions needed, for each of the many native plant species that we propagate using this method, to ensure rapid and uniform germination.
Propagation begins each year in late summer/early fall, when we hand collect ripening seed from our mature plant stock at the Midwest Natural Garden and St. Charles nursery. Our native stock plants represent local ecotypes that are genetically adapted to our local growing conditions. A crew of 2-3 growers harvest and clean the seed using various sizes of screens to separate out the chaff and dust. The seed is collected in large plastic bags, labeled with the date and genus/species and then stored in the cooler until needed. Then starting in November, our growers begin a process called stratification that involves mixing the seed with fine silica sand and water following a species-specific ratio based on seed size. For example, a very fine seed like Lobelia is mixed using a ratio of a pinch of seed to 4 cups of moist sand, while a large seed like Silphium is mixed using a ratio of ½ cup of seed to 4 cups of moist sand. Once mixed, these bags are returned to the cooler for 10-120 or more days to allow for the water to break down the seed coating and activate growth. Some seeds with an extremely hard coat, such as Baptisia australis, benefit from scarification, which may involve using sandpaper to help break down the outer coating to allow water inside. Other seeds, such as Callirhoe involucrata benefit from a hot water treatment to open the seed coat. Woodland ephemerals, such as Asarum, may require two dormancy periods. Dormancy helps to ensure the survival of a plant species by allowing some ungerminated seeds to survive a natural catastrophe.
Germination may take several days to several weeks depending on the species and time of year sown. Some crops, such as Sporobolus heterolepis, do not require stratification and can be sown immediately into trays. Antonio Betocourt, one of our growers in St. Charles, sows Sporobolus seed using a 50/50 mix of peat moss and perlite (produced by our sister company, Midwest Trading). The seeds are then lightly covered with a fine layer of vermiculite to promote water retention. Once planted, the trays are hand misted every 1-2 days to encourage germination. Growing conditions are carefully monitored and maintained using heaters, fans and high-pressure sodium grow lights. Before long the seedlings are transplanted into plugs and eventually into larger #1 and #3 containers. Thanks to Mother Nature and the skill of our knowledgeable and attentive growers, a 1-gallon plastic bag of S. heterolepis seed (approx. 3.5 kg) may produce over 80,000 #1 size plants in one season!Learn More...
In January, we are busy preparing an enticing display of plants to be used during the winter trade show season. In order to produce lush foliage and beautiful blooms in the dead of winter, we started planning back in July when our Sales Team drafted a list of plants to be promoted, so that a detailed forcing schedule could be created by the main grower at our St. Charles nursery. In August, we began transferring plants from our Michigan, Virgil and Midwest Natural Garden nurseries to St. Charles. Upon arrival, they were moved into the cooler, where light and temperature are carefully controlled, in order to initiate dormancy.
Then beginning in November, after each plant variety had spent the correct number of “chilling hours” in the cooler, they were moved into our Show house for a calculated number of “growing weeks.” The now-dormant plants were pruned and shaped and strategically staged to provide the correct conditions needed to initiate growth. Temperature, light, water, humidity, fertilizer, and air circulation are closely monitored and controlled by our Production and Plant Health teams 24/7— including holidays. If a heater fails or a fuse is blown, the whole crop is at risk. The challenge is to provide the ideal growing conditions for each of the 90+ varieties ranging in size from 3” to #5’s—all within the same 1400 square foot Show house! Inevitably some plants may grow too fast, so they are transferred to a 2nd Show house, with cooler temperatures and no supplemental lighting, in order to slow down growth. Other “long day” plants require short nights in order to initiate blooming, so we use night interruption lighting to trick the plants into thinking the nights are getting shorter.
Many months have passed, and soon it will be time to polish the pots and pack up for the big show—iLandscape! We invite you to stop by the Midwest Groundcovers booth to savor a glimpse of spring including some exciting New Introductions and a clever candy-themed display. Nepeta ‘Kit Kat’ anyone?Learn More...