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Native Nurseries changes hands as it celebrates 40th year

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Many of the birds that cleverly hang around Native Nurseries may have flown further south for the winter. The wildflowers so cherished by the nursery won’t bloom for several more months. The Christmas trees are sold and the weather is cold — but none of that is inhibiting the gentle delight of Native Nurseries’ tight-knit team as they celebrate the Centerville Road store’s 40th Birthday.

Now in the hands of its new owners, Elizabeth Georges, 30, Seth Dunaway, 33, and the founder’s son, Joseph Walthall, 32, and with the family-like support of its 14-15 employees, the passion and mission of Native Nurseries seems not to have faded: “Bringing people and Nature together in their yards and gardens with native plants, birds and other wildlife, and doing it all organically.”

Native Nurseries, 1661 Centerville Road, will have an open house from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, to mark the occasion with hot cider or organic coffee. There will be discounts, drawings for a squirrel-proof birdfeeder and free scoops of birdseed.

It all began in 1980, when Donna Legare and Jody Walthall, a young couple who had met at the University of Florida in Gainesville moved to Tallahassee with a modest dream. They would begin a nursery on the small acre of land Walthall’s mother had given him on Centerville Road—once part of a cattle pasture. 

Admitting that they weren’t experts on growing the species of north Florida plants they so admired, they associated themselves with specialist-growers. They learned from the Webb family of Superior Trees; wildflower growers, Collier Clark, Melanie Darst, and Dan Miller and their current wildflower expert, Vanessa Crisler. O’Toole’s Herb Farm was a teacher about vegetables, as is Jessie King today.

The Walthalls expanded their “natural footprint.” It is the one planted in an organic approach to growing, to weed control and fertilization, and to a healthy environment for birds and pollinators that make the whole cycle go. Though the couple may not have known it at the time, they were on the very forefront of a world-wide movement which respects nature and strives to leave it intact.

As the years rolled on, Native Nurseries expanded its partnerships and developed collaborative workshops with school newcomers, experienced gardeners and animal enthusiasts alike.

With over 30 weekends of classes and workshops each year, herb growing, birding, organic fertilizing, and general sustainability are hot topics. St. Francis Wildlife provides interactions with hawks, owls, and other avian guests; master bird-bander, Fred Dietrich discusses winter hummingbirds; and one weekend is devoted to family birdhouse-building. 

This is how now-President, Joe Walthaller says he and his sister, Vanessa, grew up. Though he started out pursuing another career, “there is something about being outside all the time, working in this environment that I couldn’t turn away from.” He is the “financial head” of the team.

Vice President, Elizabeth Georges followed a similar path. “I was headed for a degree in nutrition,” she says, when her first experience in a Community Garden changed her course. With her hair tucked beneath a woolen cap and her cheeks rosy from the cold, Georges says she has been with Native Nurseries for the last seven years and now divides her time between outside inventory and in, handling retail sales of seeds, herbs, and gift-shop items.

Landscape Designer, Seth Dunaway is the third of the managing owners. Slim and athletic, he has worked at Native Nurseries for 12 years. He has just climbed down from a massive truck hauling thousands of pounds of stones. He will use them creating ponds, butterfly and rain gardens, and other sustainable settings. 

As lovely as is the Christmas season, each of them seems to look forward to spring when the native wildflowers and trees will come on the market — Colombine, Indian Pink, Trillium, and Sparkleberry.

Georges’ eyes seem to dance as she anticipates their arrival in a few months. In the meantime, the trio is organizing for additional community-invited classes: “How to Attract Wild Birds to Your Yard,” “Invasive Plants,” “Totally Tomatoes,” and “Birding for Beginners,” among them.

Arriving at Native Nurseries’ 40th year and with the new team in place, Donna Legare and Jody Walthall have turned some of their attention to other pursuits: there is more time for boating, for Tai Chi, for personal bird-watching and for volunteering.

Yet most Saturdays, you will find them on the turf they love best. Wandering the plot of land along Centerville Road, chatting, teaching, sharing with their customers the delights of Florida’s outdoors — and how to keep it delightful.  

Contact Marina Brown at mcdb100@comcast.net.

If you go

What: 40th Anniversary Open House

When: 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11

Where: Native Nurseries, 1661 Thomasville Road; Please use driveway next door to the nursery with ‘Workshop Parking’ sign seen from Centerville Road.

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