- Charlie Proutt
Drivers traveling through Charlotte on Route 7 may be too distracted by the view of Lake Champlain to notice the modest entrance to Horsford Nursery. Its grounds lie at the base of an embankment, down a twisting dirt drive, so they’re hidden from the road. That’s too bad, because the 45-acre spread — open from mid-April until Christmas — is really quite spectacular, especially in May, when the lilacs and crabapple trees are blooming.
Founded in 1893, Horsford claims to be Vermont’s oldest nursery. Frederick Hinsdale Horsford established the business, which has passed through several subsequent proprietors. Owners Charlie Proutt and his wife, Eileen Schilling, bought it in 1985.
Proutt, a 49-year-old Maryland native, came here in 1976 to pursue environmental studies at the University of Vermont. He began working as a member of Horsford’s landscaping crew during his summer vacations. In 1978 he left UVM to start his own business, Distinctive Landscaping, which is now the landscaping arm of Horsford.
Proutt collects memorabilia from Horsford’s early days. His latest find is an item that actually predates the nursery — an 1887 “Pringle & Horsford’s” price list he bought on eBay. Back then, 12 wild ginger plants sold for 75 cents. Now you can get one for $8.
On a recent sunny Sunday, Proutt guides a reporter through Horsford’s fields of trees, greenhouses stocked with fuchsia and Brazilian red hots, and display gardens dotted with bleeding hearts, tufted violets and a cheerful medley of tulips.
SEVEN DAYS: How has the business changed since 1893?
CHARLIE PROUTT: Cyrus Pringle and Fred Horsford were plant collectors. They were of this era where you would go for three months and collect plants in Costa Rica, or Europe, or various places. They would send the plants back to [Horsford’s] nursery, and then they were sold mail order. So it was a mail-order, mostly perennial nursery. That lasted right through the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s, it became more of a place a local person would go to get plants.
When I first got here in the late 1970s, they would grow things like yew; they would grow a few maples; they grew some lilacs. It was more for 1960s-style landscaping, where you buy your ranch house and plant a blue spruce and a red-leaf maple.
When we bought [the nursery] in the 1980s, it had really declined quite a bit. There wasn’t much left. We reintroduced the catalogue. We bought a lot of stock from other nurseries, and displayed it well and started selling it and started rebuilding the business. Now we grow almost 80 percent of what we sell.
Every year we’ve been growing a little bit more, and buying a little bit less, and opening a few new fields. We’ve also started display gardens, and that’s attracted people. It’s good for people to see how the plants grow in Vermont. If you go to a big-box store, they’re loaded with plants shipped from Tennessee oftentimes. They may or may not survive our winters, but that plant you’re buying this year won’t look like that next year.
That’s the one thing at Horsford’s — our plants look like they’re grown in Vermont.
SD: How do you compete with the ever-expanding gardening departments at stores like Home Depot?
CP: The trend for this kind of nursery is bad. They’re dying all over the United States. I don’t know why we’ve been successful.
I think, first off, our prices have actually gone down in the last 10 years, probably in response to [big-box stores]. Second off, we’re just really careful with how we grow things. We don’t have any transportation losses, we have very few crop losses, and we have no throwaways. Because we’re a nursery, when you come to buy something here, it’s still in production usually, so it’s still growing. It’s not like it’s been stopped, shipped, no more fertilizer, no more anything.
We also have big stuff. Like, if you want a tree in your yard and you go to Home Depot, you pretty much get a small little thing in a pot. We grow big trees. They can’t possibly do that. They can’t possibly have the lilacs we grow in the field.
There’s a niche, I think, for real nursery stock, which they don’t really carry.
SD: How environmentally friendly are you?
CP: Compared to most nurseries, we’re very environmental. We do almost no pesticide spraying. We do a lot of green manures. There’s grass in between all of our rows. We still use chemicals, but we use them as infrequently as we can.
We also use geo-disks. It’s a piece of fabric you slip around the plant, and it eliminates any weed-control problems. And we reuse them. Most nurseries spray for weeds. We don’t.
SD: What are some of your other innovations?
CP: Oh, boy, there’s tons of them. The acid shack.
SD: Yeah, I saw that building by the irrigation pond. What is that?
CP: Our water is too basic [alkaline], so we have to acidify it. It took us a long time to realize that, because a lot of crops don’t care, but other crops do, and they weren’t doing as well. So the water in the pond and the water in the wells, we have to add acid.
Even this drip system is sort of an innovation, as low-tech as it is. See it working there? It’s only watering the ball of the plant. And it’s on a timer. The fact that you’re just dripping the water where it’s being used by the plant not only conserves the water but also keeps disease down.
Oh, and we’re putting up a windmill. If we ever get permission. Our neighbors are battling us tooth and nail. We want to put a 120-foot, power-generating wind turbine over there, and our neighbor, he’s saying it’ll ruin his view.
We also run our trucks on bio-diesel. We recycle plastic pots and we give you a deposit for them. The next thing is really to start generating some of our own power.
SD: Why does this work appeal to you?
CP: I love the seasonality. I love having laid-back winters. I love being really busy in the spring. In the landscape aspect of things, we do a lot of projects. And the projects have a beginning and an end, and I love that. I don’t like being indoors that much.
SD: Do you ever see the impact that your plants have in people’s lives?
CP: Oh, yeah, especially with landscaping. One guy one time was going away on vacation. We put a pool in his backyard, and they liked it so much they cancelled their vacation. I mean, it was a really nice pool, well landscaped.