Putnam’s Legacy: The Upstate Native Nursery
The first thing you might see turning into the property that houses the Upstate Native Nursery is Miller and his son Matt fishing. It’s a timeless sight. And then there’s Ty, the Border Collie. He doesn’t bark much, but he’s always there to greet new arrivals. There’s minimalist signage to help you navigate, and a certain homey, welcoming gravity there that kind of guides you in.
The Upstate Native Nursery isn’t a business, really, simply a dream begun by Kitty & Miller Putnam that intersected with an opportunity to help the non-profit South Carolina Native Plant Society. Kitty’s dream became an Upstate legacy. The story begins almost two decades ago, and continues today as a tremendously popular program for the Upstate community.
About Miller & Kitty
The property at 180 Lakewood Drive in Greenville, is the family home for the Putnams where they raised their sons Matt and Tate, and where you occasionally run into one or more of their five grandchildren visiting or working on one of their own projects in the workshop, pottery shed, or among the bee hives. Or fishing.
It always feels kind of laid back there, but in fact, the Putnam’s are rarely idle and the SCNPS volunteers expend a tremendous amount of energy propagating, dividing or purchasing around 5,000 native plants there each year for the community.
It really began around 2005 with Kitty’s desire to grow things. She’d stumbled into the SCNPS at an activity in Conestee Park near their home, and finding kindred spirits, she began by volunteering to keep the left-over plants from the sale at their home until the next sale.
‘Back-in-the-day’ the Society collected plants from members and sometimes purchased them for resale to the
community. The demand for non-native plants in our residential landscapes really took off in the 60’s and had the unintended consequence of severely limiting the generous diversity of native plants on the market.
Kitty loves making things grow and had always wanted a greenhouse of her own. As an early volunteer at the plant sales, in her words “I saw an opportunity to make native plants easier to find in the community.” That was the magic moment; and a legacy was born. Shortly thereafter, Miller began the labor of making dream, reality.
Miller Putnam is a powerhouse of energy, practical wisdom, and craftsmanship skills. He earned an undergrad degree in Parks & Rec, and a masters in Therapeutic Recreation. During his professional career, Miller’s love for working with his hands drifted into a second career as a building contractor. Over the years his workshop has assembled the kind of tools that would make even MacGyver jealous. He can build anything. He’s also a gardener, a bee-keeper, and a potter, and on a given day, you might catch him musing about plans for building an airplane!
Around 2006, Miller began backfilling the family swimming pool with dirt, and started shopping for a second-hand greenhouse. He found one in Gilbert, SC, made the deal, and over the next four years he and Kitty disassembled, transported and re-assembled over the old pool. In 2011 Kitty had her own nursery and the Upstate Native Nursery had a new home.
Miller and Kitty along with others like Susan Lochridge learned through trial and error how to propagate native plants. As the successes mounted, next came the inevitable need for a nursery to house the mature plants, which led to an irrigation system, a deer fence, a new ‘Gator’ to move the plants around the nursery, a potting-soil making operation, and on and on. It was and remains, an endlessly evolving source of improvements to test Miller’s craftsmanship.
Native Plant Sales:
Prior to 2012, the Society held native plant sales in various locations taking contributions from members and friends and in turn providing them to the community. In the beginning, the sale was based on donations, rescued plants, and some purchases which were paid for out of membership fees, but after bringing the Nursery online, the Native Plant Sale began to generate the bulk of the inventory, enabling a much broader collection of native species.
Society volunteers continue to this day to donate seed, cuttings, and divided plants to the effort. An important group of volunteers called ‘The Greenhouse Gang’ work together all year in a learning and social environment to grow these plants to transplanting maturity. Miller teaches a free propagation class at the Nursery each year which is a great favorite to enthusiasts wanting to expand their own skills. Quite often those students join the Greenhouse Gang to enjoy the camaraderie and learn from the more experienced members
Another team of volunteers keep the Nursery running. Moving plants around to optimize sun, adjusting the irrigation system, pruning, weeding, and other normal needs in the life-cycle of the plants. Still another ‘Plant Sales Team’ undertakes to bring the plants to market twice a year in the spring and fall sales.
Susan Lochridge, one of the longest running Plant Sale Directors for the Society, recalls in 2003 selling about 700 plants, and records indicate that increased steadily until the year 2010 when they sold about 2,000 plants. Beginning in 2011 these all-volunteer teams work at the Upstate Native Nursery to maintain a diverse inventory of over 5,000 plants, including over 200 different species native to our Upstate ecosystems, and in 2020, in spite of Covid, they sold almost 4,000 plants.
This legacy of the Putnam’s has been woven into the fabric of our Upstate community in a way that ironically resembles the life-cycle of a plant. A seed is planted, nurtured in the right place, blossoms, drops seed, and expands into a colony.
Although native plant societies can be found in all 50 states, few if any others have their own nurseries, making the Upstate Native Nursery unique among non-profit all-volunteer operations. As such, it funds Upstate and statewide activities and projects of the SCNPS, the benefits of which sometimes extend even beyond our state borders.
The South Carolina Native Plant Community and the Upstate Chapter host numerous educational events free to the
public through the year, as well as a variety of interpretative activities like hikes throughout the state. They make grants to other local schools, parks and organizations in the interest of preserving and restoring our native plant heritage which in turn, preserves and restores our wildlife and ecosystems. Some of the funding goes to team with other conservation minded organizations for the establishment of rare plant preserves, and invasive plant removal.
The funny thing about heroes is that they seldomly had lofty aspirations. They just had an idea, perhaps a dream of their own, and a desire to make their world a better place.
By Doug Lockard, March 2021