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A Legacy of Growth

Published August 27, 2019

As Midwest Groundcovers celebrates 50 years, founder Peter Orum hands the reigns to daughter Christa Orum-Keller.

by Sue Markgraf
Greenhouse Management

The seeds of Danish-born Peter Orum’s success in the U.S. horticultural industry were sown in 1969 on 5 acres of growing fields in St. Charles, Ill., and cultivated with two pairs of hands and a unique idea.

With his wife, Irma, by his side, Midwest Groundcovers was ready to take root.

Today – as his family-based company celebrates its 50th anniversary with year-long programs, special events and a new book on its history – Orum is stepping back to pursue other aspects of the business and is handing the reigns to his daughter, Christa Orum-Keller, president of the company.

The journey from “there” to “here” is fodder for entrepreneurial textbooks and a testament to following one’s passion with deep commitment and fierce dedication. Within 10 years of starting Midwest Groundcovers, Orum’s vision grew to include 12 employees and expanded acreage. But the foundation for his inspirational career was laid long before he immigrated to the United States in 1965.

Orum gained deep knowledge and understanding of horticulture while training at his father’s two-acre nursery in Jutland, Denmark. Nursery apprenticeships at Spejlborg and Vilvorde Nurseries and his education at the Vilvorde Horticulture School in Copenhagen provided a natural foundation for his budding career.

The organizing, planning, building and management skills he later learned as an engineer officer in the Danish Army Corps of Engineers were essential to his career, and to Midwest Groundcovers’ eventual inception and development. Orum earned lieutenant rank in less than two years and cultivated leadership skills that would qualify him for his first job in the U.S., as supervisory trainee at D. Hill Nursery Company in Dundee, Ill. After months of training, he was promoted to superintendent of propagation, a position he held for almost seven years.

Despite his success at D. Hill Nursery, Orum could not quell his entrepreneurial drive. In 1969, he set out to pursue his passion and from propagating one plant, Orum grew a company. He worked the horticulture side of Midwest Groundcovers. Irma nurtured the business side and helped with day-to-day nursery operations, all while caring for their home and growing family.

“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,” Orum says.

Today, Midwest Groundcovers is appreciated for its philanthropy and its significant contributions to the industry the family’s patriarch helped nurture. He’s served on association boards, including the Horticultural Research Institute, where the company has contributed nearly $1 million through the years, and the former American Nursery and Landscape Association, now AmericanHort.

In the past decade, Midwest Groundcovers has provided more than $600,000 in plants and plant material to garden shows, industry events and non-profit organizations. The Midwest Family of Companies’ donations and employee contributions have exceeded $58,000 to charitable Illinois-based shelters such as Hesed House in Aurora and Hope Haven in DeKalb. Likewise, employees annually contribute to the horticulture industry through active service on committees and boards. 

Expansive growth

From its original 5 acres in 1969, the Midwest Family of Companies now operates state-of-the-art nursery production facilities on five sites in St. Charles and Virgil, Ill., and in Fennville, Mich., – combined, totaling more than 655 acres. What started as an operation rooting several thousand cuttings in a neighbor’s back yard is now a company that produces more than 20 million plants in one of the broadest collections of species and plant groups of any nursery in the United States. This includes more than 130 varieties of groundcovers, 500 varieties of perennials and ornamental grasses, 250 species of native plants and 275 varieties of deciduous shrubs, broadleaf evergreens, hardy shrub roses, conifers and vines.

From its earliest days, Midwest Groundcovers’ detailed water management and conservation practices have been at the epicenter of its unwavering commitment to sustainability. Orum called on his practical agricultural view and background in engineering to build his company’s green infrastructure, digging ponds and installing pumps and water conservation systems first for the south nursery and then each of the company’s consecutive locations.

“The biggest impact-item we have invested in from the beginning – and continue to invest in – is our water conservation systems,” Orum-Keller says. “We plan and work with civil engineers and the county, and we comply with stormwater runoff requirements. At Midwest Natural Garden, for example, we spent several hundred-thousand dollars regrading, building the irrigation pond and pump station, and cultivating the new collection.” 

The next generation

Orum-Keller has her own vision for the company’s future and has already made her mark on the family business. From collecting plant flats as a toddler and making cuttings, weeding, mowing, potting and growing her own small crops under her parents’ tutelage as a youngster, to sales, marketing, logistics, finance, administration, inventory, purchasing and production planning as an adult – she has held nearly every job in the company.

With a master’s degree in business administration and economics from DePaul University and an associate’s degree in horticulture from Joliet Junior College, Orum-Keller is a licensed landscape architect and Illinois Certified Nursery Professional. In the early 1990s, she planned and designed Midwest Groundcovers’ St. Charles headquarters, sales, distribution and trial garden facility, completed in 1994 and updated in 2017.

The 90-acre site houses Midwest Groundcovers’ and Midwest Trading’s sales yards, as well as nine naturalistic landscape display beds and trial gardens. Some were updated and expanded two years ago under Orum-Keller’s direction. The trial gardens serve as unique outdoor classrooms where customers and staff observe and analyze mature plants, and trial and review new varieties. Midwest Groundcovers regularly hosts industry tours, field days and educational lectures at its St. Charles headquarters, providing an advanced-education platform for members of the Illinois American Society of Landscape Architects, American Society of Landscape Architects, Perennial Plant Association and many others.

Among the newer beds located along the front of the St. Charles office building is a modernistic garden created by renowned Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, planting designer of the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park, New York City’s High Line and the Garden of Remembrance in Battery Park. Midwest Groundcover’s Piet Oudolf “New Wave” Garden features more than 5,000 primarily herbaceous plants, including 62 varieties of both native and exotic species growing closely together to create a unique tapestry.

Within the last decade, Orum-Keller and the company’s leadership have increased plant production, offering more than 500 cultivars of perennials, ornamental grasses and locally sourced native plants.

Orum-Keller was the driving force behind Midwest Groundcovers’ purchase of The Natural Garden in 2011, which established the company’s Midwest Natural Garden native growing nursery and enabled it to launch the Natural Garden Natives plant brand. The collection’s sales have grown 44% in the past four years, indicating the success of natives in the Midwest line-up.

She offers a hint about what the next half-century might hold for her family’s business.

“Midwest Groundcovers is well-positioned to carry on its tradition of innovation,” Orum-Keller says. “We are determined to retain the entrepreneurial creativity that built Midwest – indeed, we are driven by it.”

While her dad reduces his day-to-day responsibilities, Orum-Keller says he will remain active, working on projects for the Midwest management team and with the horticulture industry locally, nationally and internationally. Still making his mark on the industry he loves.

“Everything begins with an idea,” Orum says. “It’s what you do with that idea that determines your success. Life is not easy, but it is always interesting.” 

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