Woodbury Couple Uses Native Plants To Rebuild Forests, Backyards

Dec 2, 2013

When you buy plants at a big box store, a lot of the plants aren't from Connecticut. Some are even invasive. Lisa and Kyle Turoczi are working to change that. As co-owners of Earth Tones Native Plant Nursery in Woodbury, they've even been contracted to rebuild a forest. 

"What can the shrub do for nature? Is it a host plant for certain butterflies?"
Lisa Turoczi

"You always dream about building a forest," said Ms. Turoczi, a landscape architect. "You feel so, 'Wow!'" Earth Tones is a native plant nursery and educational center. The Turoczis also do landscaping for homeowners and land trusts. Every plant they use is native to Connecticut.

I met with them in their office, which is a barn built from trees harvested and milled on site. On the table were plans for a forest, which the couple helped build for the Farmington Land Trust in 2011. "We can't bring in 50-foot trees, so we have to look at it, and think, what will this look like in 30 to 50 years," Ms. Turoczi said.

Not surprisingly, planning out a forest involves a lot of legwork. Included in the plan is soil information and schematics plotting out space for trees, shrubs, and perennials that will offer food and habitat for birds and insects. "It's all the aesthetics one would normally do when you're doing landscaping, but now we're looking at it and saying, 'What can the shrub do for nature?'" said Ms. Turoczi. "Is it a host plant for certain butterflies? Is it going to produce sweet berries or berries that have tons of protein for muscle mass? What is this bush, what is this flower going to do?"

The plans even sketched out the forest floor and called for special mulch and leaf litter from the surrounding forest, which was gathered and spread on top of the final soil layer. 

The office at Earth Tones in Woodbury has a frame that was built using timber milled and harvested from the company's property.
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

But not all of Earth Tones projects are so wide-reaching. Most of their day-to-day work involves backyards. There's more than 400 varieties of native plants growing in their nursery, which winds upward across the rocky landscape. It's tiered with lots of pathways, and it's set up by ecosystem. Look one way and you'll see shrubs. Look another: wetland perennials.

"People are not familiar with the native plants and the native palate," Ms. Turoczi said. "When we start telling them you have 400 species to choose from, they are very excited, and impressed that they are not going to have a boring landscape."

Kyle Turoczi said the couple first got the idea for their native plant nursery in 1995. They were working on a wetlands restoration project, and trying to find a fairly common Connecticut plant -- the Swamp Azalea -- but no nurseries carried it. "So we drove four-and-a-half hours to New Jersey, to this crazy guy's little native plant nursery," Mr. Turoczi said. "We're driving all the way to the Pine Barrens to get five plants that shouldn't be hard to find here."

They began harvesting and planting native Connecticut seeds. The Turoczis worked out agreements with homeowners and land trusts, but the process took time, especially because Mr. Turoczi said Earth Tones uses no pesticides. The company began planting in 2000, but didn't open to the public until 2005.

Kyle Turoczi said native plants are stronger, and they connect us to the unique biodiversity of New England. For instance, some plants are native to both California and Connecticut. "But not all natives are created equal," said Mr. Turoczi. "If you're getting a plant that's been grown and is from California, genetically I don't feel it's connected here. There's knowledge in those seeds." 

The sign inside Earth Tones Native Plant Nursery. Lisa and Kyle estimate more than 10,000 plants grow on the property. All are species native to Connecticut.
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

During the winter, the couple spends time planning for future projects. Back inside the office, they show me plans for a wildlife pond and an outdoor classroom for Naugatuck Valley Community College. And then there's the "rabbitat," a project done in collaboration with he U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The goal: to protect the threatened New England Cottontail by giving homeowners a template for a backyard that really attracts rabbits. "Like color by numbers, this is plant by numbers," Ms. Turoczi said. The plan includes shelter and food sources for the animals. "Lots of different shopping centers for the rabbits to buy and eat whatever they want or need," she added.

The Turoczis estimated there's roughly 10,000 plants growing in their nursery. But pinning down an exact number is really hard. "I'm excited because then these plants are out there and helping the birds and people are understanding the importance and the connection between nature and plants and doing their part in their landscape," Ms. Turoczi said. "Even if people put stuff just in their backyard and are just worried about their backyard, if all those backyards were connected, we'd have a much healthier system."

For more information about native plant growers and Connecticut's organic farms and food, visit CT NOFA.