PITTSBORO — When Rachel Nelms started working at Cure Nursery — which used to be located on Buteo Ridge in Pittsboro — in 2020, she never imagined she would open a native plant nursery of her own.
Fast forward three years, and Nelms is now preparing to host a grand opening event at her own plant nursery — Rachel’s Native Plants — on Friday, April 21, at The Plant in Pittsboro.
“We are a place people who want to change the way they think about conventional landscaping can come to,” Nelms said. “As more people learn about native plants, I want them to know that we’ve got a wide selection that we’re working with other native plant nurseries to provide local ecosystems that would do well in our area.”
Nelms’s passion for native plants started in 2016 after her three children returned to school after summer break. The stay-at-home mom decided to look for something to do for work.
“I remember I was sitting at a stoplight thinking about what I was going to do, and my options were to go into landscaping … or bartending and waitressing,” Nelms said. “With little kids, I knew I didn’t want to go back into the bar business, so it just occurred to me to do landscaping.”
After purchasing a lawn mower and a leaf blower, Nelms became a plant grower. She started her own landscaping business, and not long after she was contacted by someone wanting landscaping done in exchange for sharing knowledge on a new subject for Nelms: landscaping with native plants.
“She said, ‘I’ll pay you for four hours, and at the beginning of every shift, we’ll walk around the property and I’ll show you all the native plants,’ and that’s what we did,” Nelms said. “I would probably spend an hour or two every Saturday, just walking around all of her different microclimates … and she would just point out all the native plants … that’s when it clicked for me that I should do native plant landscaping.”
From there, Nelms learned more about pollinating plants and native flora through Facebook groups and other online resources. She started to grow milkweed — the only plant monarch butterflies will eat — in milk jugs and began to incorporate more native species into her landscaping jobs.
One of the places where Nelms would buy her plants was Cure Nursery. Eventually, Nelms started to work with the owners and staff. Instead of working for a paycheck, Nelms was paid in plants.
Cure’s owners were looking to retire, but they wanted to ensure there was still an initiative promoting the use of native in Chatham County. They talked to Nelms about starting a nonprofit or her opening her own business, and Nelms and her husband decided to pursue starting an nursery. The couple bought land in Staley, across from the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing site, and planned to start growing their new nursery they named Love Supreme.
Then, tragedy struck; Nelms’s husband died unexpectedly in January 2022, putting her nursery dreams on hold for what she thought would be forever.
“We were going to live on the property, retire and all that stuff,” she said. “I had resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to do the nursery anymore.”
Nelms wasn’t going to continue her native nursery dreams until Lyle Estill, co-owner of The Plant in Pittsboro, reached out to her after he heard Cure Nursery was closing its doors. Estill asked Nelms whether she would consider opening her own native plant nursery at The Plant. She said that’s when she decided to accomplish her dream and to honor her husband’s memory.
“I think of him with almost anything that I do,” she said. “So even though we’re not at Love Supreme, I built this to look just like that because I wanted to remember him here.”
From there, Rachel’s Native Plants broke ground in September 2022 and officially opened earlier this month. The nursery is located next to the solar panels on The Plant’s premises, and it’s home to a wide array of plants including azaleas, dogwoods and more.
Nelms said native plants are crucial to supporting the ecosystems certain creatures depend on for survival.
“Things like oak trees support a larger number of beneficial insects than say, a non-native maple tree,” Nelms explained. “It’s not just about horticulture and having pretty landscaping, but with such a large farming community in Chatham County, specifically, we need these pollinators to pollinate our food. If we can plant things that are a little bit extra beneficial, not just any old pollinator plant, but things that serve a purpose later, we can all live together.”
Since opening Rachel’s Native Plants, Nelms said she’s received positive feedback from residents.
“[Some feedback] I’ve gotten is that it’s stunning, that it’s really well laid out, that there’s a nice selection and that the plants look really good and healthy,” she said. “It’s a nice vibe at The Plant to begin with … I think by being a company here in Chatham, we can be a place people can come to who want to help and who want to come to a place that is also trying to do the right thing.”
A year ago, Nelms was grieving the death of her husband and what she thought was the end of her native plant nursery dream. Now, with her nursery open for business, Nelms said she’s ready to see what this business has in store for her — including possibly expanding to the land she and her late husband bought in 2021.
“I had this tragedy happen, and I would have been fine just wallowing in my grief, but instead, my life had something else bigger planned,” Nelms said. “I’m just this instrument … I’m just trying to follow what I think is the next right thing to do, and I feel like in my world, there are no obstacles. It tells me this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.