Nursery Photos & History
Peter and Leslie van Berkum started Van Berkum Nursery in 1987. They persuaded the owners of the sandpit near their apartment in Chester, NH to let them start a wholesale perennial nursery there and piped water in from a nearby river. Their original focus was to grow plants for massing and ground cover. Since less than 5% of landscapers from northern New England used perennials at the time, they did some careful thinking about how to create a market for their product, and how to set up a ‘user-friendly’ wholesale nursery.
After three years they bought their current site in Deerfield, NH, 22 acres under pine trees on a beautiful marsh surrounded by hills. They set up their new site in the summer and moved all their plants in the fall, a project they say they never want to repeat. This property was originally in the woods, thus ideally suited for their growing interest, native perennials. In 2008, they were hit by a tornado. The 117mph winds knocked down all the shade trees that sheltered our perennials. The nursery was rebuilt with a 2 acre shade structure and came out stronger than ever. This has become such a large focus of their operation that they started a named line, ‘New England Woodlanders’ of strictly propagated woodland plants native to the New England region. Plants in this line include Cornus canadensis, Caltha palustris, Ferns, Polygonatums, and many more.
In addition to their Woodlander line, the van Berkums grow over 800 varieties of perennials, both for sun and shade. They are constantly looking for new and exciting plants to add to their list.
About ½ of the Van Berkum plants are sold to the landscape trade. This is a market that requires a steady supply of plants from April into November. They ship 80% of their plants by trucks into northern New England. The balance is picked up by customers, which they encourage all their customers to do periodically to get a feel for the nursery and the plant material. Garden Center sales makes up the other ½, and they are striving to fill the garden centers demand for quality and specialty plants and offer the option to preprice plants. Potting is done steadily from March through September to assure good availability right through the fall.
Propagation is a major aspect of the production process. They propagate many of the plants they grow. They do extensive work with cuttings, seed, division and root cuttings. They have a well equipped propagation facility that produces starter plants for them 10 months of the year. Over the years they have bought several neighboring properties giving total usable of about 20 acres. Van Berkum Nursery today employs 10 people year round and 35 additional people during the spring and summer months. They feel fortunate to have some of the best horticulturists in the area working for them. They now produce about 750,000 plants a year. They are striving to remain a small family run business, with some old fashion values about quality, but also to be efficient in all aspects of running the nursery. They maintain 9,000 square feet of display gardens, which even in the wholesale business, they feel is a valuable tool for education of both their customers and themselves.
This fits in with their goal to run their wholesale nursery with a retail feeling. Along with the display gardens, all the nursery beds have informative signs to help walk in customers find plants. They put out a descriptive catalog that can be used as a design tool for landscapers, as well as a sales tool for garden centers. There are location lists to help customers find plants quickly and knowledgeable staff members are always available to talk with customers about their plans and questions. Orders can be pulled in a few hours for pick up….or, as many people opt to do, one can bring lunch and design “on the spot”, in this park like setting.
Van Berkum Nursery has won numerous awards. Among them the 2005 Jeffery H. Butland Award, for outstanding family owned business, given by the SBIA. And the 2015 Outstanding Leadership Award, presented by Ascentria Care Alliance for excellence in hiring practices and helping with immigrant workers.
Biographical information for the founders, Peter and Leslie van Berkum
Peter got his B.S from UNH in Plant Science (now referred to as Environmental Horticulture). Since then, before starting Van Berkum Nursery, he studied horticulture in the Netherlands for a year, both taking classes and doing practical studies at numerous different growing operations. He has also worked at a number of nurseries in the US, including Pine Knoll Farm in Gig Harbor Washington, White’s Greenhouses in York Maine, and lastly, Lake Street Garden Center in Salem, New Hampshire, where he ended up as head grower. He served on the board of directors and as president of the New Hampshire Plant Growers Association. He was also co-founder (and current board of director) of the New Hampshire Horticulture Endowment, an off-shoot of the NHPGA that has raised over $100,000 and grants money annually for research in New Hampshire Horticulture. He was the 2012 recipient of the Perennial Plant Association Grower Of The Year Award. Outside of his professional life, Peter enjoys his family, music, reading, studying wildflowers and most of all spending time in the outdoors.
Leslie grew up in northern Maine, studied music and education at Colby College in Waterville Maine, and then taught elementary school for several years before joining Peter in creating Van Berkum Nursery. She has lectured for both regional and national symposia, been a member of many organizations and is a past president of the New England Nursery Association (NENA). She enjoys working in the display gardens, and enjoys singing, reading, yoga, and learning new things.