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.
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.
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.