Arnold Clemenson grew vegetables on the family farm in Estell Manor for the first two decades he worked it, in the tradition of the farm’s founder, grandfather Elia Clemenson.
But Arnold Clemenson, 59, had seen some other possibilities while working in the 1980s for the Cape Atlantic Soil Conservation District. That brought him into contact with the federal plant materials center in Cape May Court House, which had developed the Cape variety of American beach grass.
That plant, which thrives in the salty desert conditions of ocean dunes, was proving crucial to stabilizing beaches and reducing flood damage.
So in 1995, Clemenson started growing beach grass. The market for it was strong, and today he has five acres planted in beach grass, which is used in projects from Maine to Virginia.
“Beach grass is planted after dunes are pushed back or sand is pumped out of the ocean, to hold the dunes in,” Clemenson said. “Sometimes it lasts for years, other times it’s washed away quickly by storms.”
One good thing for a farmer is that beach grass is mainly planted from November through March, giving the farm a strong off-season crop, he said.
Clemenson saw that interest in other native plants and demand for them was growing as well.
The state Pinelands Commission was campaigning for use of such plants in its management zone, even requiring them in certain areas.
A commission guide, “Landscaping With Native Pinelands Plants,” lists the advantages of their use:
n Conserves precious water;
n Reduces need for costly and potentially toxic fertilizers;
n Provides food and shelter for birds, butterflies and other wildlife;
n Local plants are adapted to local conditions and healthier;
n Maintains the area’s biodiversity.
So Clemenson started adding a couple of new varieties of native plants each year until they comprised his whole crop. Now he offers about 25 native species wholesale and the business is named Clemenson Farms Native Nursery.
He sells his plants to landscapers and retail nurseries, and he also supplies perennial flowers to organizations such as the Master Gardeners of Atlantic County and New Jersey Audubon.
On Saturday, the farm will try making its native plants directly available to the public with a sale from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., beginning with a short talk about their uses.
Some of Clemenson Farms’ offerings also will be available at the fifth annual Cape May Harbor Fest on June 16.
The plants also need less water and fertilizer at the farm, Clemenson said. The vast majority just sip at trickle irrigation tubes minimizing runoff.
Everything on the farm is grown in containers, mostly 1 to 7 gallons, with 2-inch plugs or quart containers for some, he said. They start in a greenhouse, often from seeds and cuttings collected on the farm.
Clemenson named several popular varieties and their benefits, including:
n Northern bayberry — “Birds eat the fruits in winter and they stabilize the back part of dunes;”
n Black and red chokeberries — “Nice landscaping plants for around the house, and they attract wildlife.”
n Inkberry — “A shrub, similar to boxwood, but it can be made short and globe shaped.”
n Silky dogwood and red-twig dogwood — “They like a little wetter areas, and they have nice flowers.”
n Elderberry — “Grows in pretty much any type of soil, fills in, is kind of wild looking but good for wildlife.”
n Smooth sumac and staghorn sumac — “Good for roadside restorations.”
Clemenson said many native plants can be trimmed and given the more formal look some people prefer in their yards.
Meanwhile, he said he and wife Christine, a teacher, give talks occasionally at libraries and schools about the use of native plants.
And the next Clemenson who will perhaps run the farm someday, their son, Joseph, 11, already knows the native plants well enough to advise customers.
Clemenson Farms Native Nursery
Location: 108 Linwood Ave., Estell Manor (a short dirt road off Cumberland Avenue/County Highway 637)
Owners: Arnold, 50, and Christine Clemenson, of Estell Manor
Employees: Six part time
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