Steve Castorani has always gotten satisfaction from working with his hands. Growing food in his gardens, a project in his woodworking shop, renovating a 200-year-old house, tinkering around on his 1946 Chevy truck or his motorcycle — the 64-year-old president of North Creek Nurseries is a worldly, well-rounded individual. It’s a trait he says has served him well and he recommends it to any aspiring horticulturist.
“Try and learn as much as you can about as many things as you can,” he says. “It’s great to be a specialist, but to run a farm or nursery you need to have an understanding of many different things. Plant geek plus engineer, business specialist. Be open to new experiences.”
At age 16, Steve began studying at the University of Delaware (UD). During that time, he started his first business. With his mom’s help, he bought a $500 pickup truck and a rototiller. After graduating in 1979, he began a landscape design and installation business.
Then, he founded Gateway Garden Center, a business his wife Peggy still manages.
In Gateway’s early years, Steve met a few influential Philadelphia-area plantsmen that guided him on his path. Dr. Dick Lighty, the founding director of the Mt. Cuba Center, was one of Steve's professors at UD. Dr. Darrel Apps was a prolific daylily breeder and former nursery owner who was leading the education program at Longwood Gardens. After attending one of Dr. Lighty's lectures at the Delaware Center for Horticulture, Steve expressed interest in incorporating grasses in his landscape designs. Dick suggested he seek out Dale Hendricks from GreenLeaf Perennials (now Aris), who was growing grasses on the side.
Dale was interested in native plants and ecological landscapes and wanted to start a specialty nursery.
After a few months of conversations, the two men decided to start a business together. Steve and Dale founded North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pennsylvania in 1988.
In those early days, Dale was the driving force behind North Creek’s plant selection. Steve’s clear head and conservative approach to the business made for a strong foundation.
“He obviously took risks on the likes of me,” Dale laughs. “But of the two of us, I’m the crazy risk-taker and he was the level hand. That level hand is really what’s needed to run a business of that size.”
Along the way, Dr. Apps convinced Steve and Dale to get involved in the International Plant Propagators’ Society. That proved to be an organization that benefited all sides. Steve developed friendships and found mentors like Dick Bir, a North Carolina State University professor and extension specialist who was one of the godfathers of the modern native plant movement. And Steve was true to the IPPS ethos “To Seek and To Share,” taking leadership roles, including president, giving talks at meetings and tours to teach the younger generation, as he once was taught. He was awarded the honor of Society Fellow in 2005 and became the recipient of the society’s prestigious Award of Merit in 2012.
Dedication to natives
In 2004 Steve co-created the American Beauties Native Plants brand with Mark Sellew of Prides Corner Farms. When the brand was established, it partnered with the National Wildlife Foundation’s wildlife habitat program. During the first 10 years of the program, the brand donated more than $275,000 to NWF. North Creek makes a point of trialing all the plants it propagates.
Dale says that Steve pushed to make sure the nursery was growing landscape-friendly plants, not just ones that would excel in “the rarified environment of the greenhouse.”
North Creek maintains its landscape trial gardens on the property and invites potential customers to tours and open houses.
Listen and lead
Steve respects his employees and the decisions they make. It’s a good leadership mentality, he says, and it helped during the recession when North Creek needed to find areas from production to shipping that could become more efficient.
“Make sure you are a good listener,” he says. “It’s best to gain a thorough understanding of people and processes before making judgments. Everyone has a story and you will be amazed what you can learn by asking questions.”
The current COVID crisis is another example of how successful nursery owners need to be able to roll with the punches.
“You have to be adaptable, have faith in the future, stay focused and work hard,” Steve says.
Steve Castorani’s parents were Italian immigrants. His father, a mushroom grower, died when Steve was two years old. His mother, who ran a liquor store in Wilmington, Delaware, raised him with the help of his grandparents.
The family gardened and grew a lot of their own food. Coming from Italy and growing up during the Great Depression, they were self-reliant — a virtue that Steve learned well.
When he was eight years old, Steve’s mother enrolled him at Girard College, an orphanage for fatherless boys in Philadelphia. Stephen Girard had no heirs and used his vast fortune to set up a school that would mentor and educate fatherless boys from poor families.
“What that meant back then was to prepare us for life by training for a trade or a vocation so we would find employment for the rest of our life,” Steve says.
The Girard curriculum was quite different than what a young boy would learn in a typical orphanage or boarding school. Steve learned woodworking, electrical, even became a mechanical draftsperson before he was 16. Although being away from family was difficult and he didn’t always enjoy his time there, Steve’s experience at Girard shaped him into the man he is.
“My deeds must be my life, when I am dead my actions must speak for me.”
Those words were inscribed into the chapel at Girard College and Steve read them every time he walked into the building. He’s always remembered that quote, and Girard’s words remind him to put value on his time and the actions taken in his own life. From having a family and raising two sons and seeing them be successful in their own lives to being an entrepreneur with the opportunity to make a difference in others’ lives. He encourages others to find their passion and focus on what’s important. He’s proud of his accomplishments at North Creek, as well, and the difference it has made in the lives of many people.