Situated at the head waters of Paint Creek in a fertile valley of eastern Eau Claire county, Paint Creek Nursery grows most of what we offer from seed or cuttings we harvest across western Wisconsin. We concentrate or efforts on species of native trees and shrubs that benefit both humans and our environment. We serve private land owners, government entities, clubs, resale nurseries and garden centers. Our unique product offering, affordable pricing and years of experience combine to make PCN a leader in conservation products.
About The President
Employed as a project manager for a local manufacturer for nearly two decades, Patrick McInnis worked countless hours using these valuable lessons along with a passion for the natural world to build what is today Paint Creek Nursery Llc.
About The Staff
PCN staff consist of dedicated friends and family alongside hardworking seasonal help that are back bone of this demanding/thriving business.
About The Board
Patrick McInnis (President)
"Dedicated to providing quality, affordable nursery stock that benefits mankind and the environment."
A PCN Story
By: Molly Wendtland
With the Work of the Soil
Pat McInnis can string up a fishing or hunting story impressive enough for anyone to believe it. There’s a certain credibility that goes with a person who navigates nature on a regular basis, and he spends plenty of his time trying to snag a catfish or waiting for the buck of the season. But Pat, with a wife and four children, a tree nursery, and a screen printing business, has more responsibilities on his mind. “People tell me how busy they are and I just laugh,” Pat says. And he usually looks like he’s on the verge of it—Pat is one of those people who always seems ready for a good story, probably a stretcher since this is Wisconsin, and the flannel shirt he wears is like a signal to other men: tell northwoods story now. His eyes are in a perpetual state of tree bark-brown twinkle, as though he’d always have something to say if asked what he’s thinking.
Pat McInnis is a man of the land at heart and in business. He started the tree farm Paint Creek Nursery in 1987. At the time, he was taking classes at UW–Eau Claire and working as a design engineer at Spectrum. One day, he was driving around listening to a history lecture on tape and saw the “For Sale” sign. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s my dream,’” he says. “Owning land—I could grow stuff and make money.” The land came with more than a little difficulty, though. “A thousand dollars was like a hundred thousand to me,” he says. “I was making four, five dollars an hour. I couldn’t even afford to pay attention. I pretty much built this business on credit cards.”
But Pat’s addiction to growing trees went way back, and debt couldn’t force him into tree rehab. He was raised by parents who gardened, and took his first major hit when he was eight years old. He planted silver maple seeds in the garden, and sixty-five of them sprouted and flourished. By the time he was ten, the trees were six feet high and he had them arranged in rows in the garden. Meanwhile, his grandfather lost a vast number of elms to Dutch Elm disease. Pat asked him, “Grandpa, do you want me to plant these maples in your yard?” Even then, Pat was looking at his orderly rows of trees and thinking they deserved better homes—space to spread out and grow into what they had come from. And his grandfather, who was sixty-three years old at the time, said, “You can plant ‘em. I’ll never see them grow up, but you can certainly plant them and you and your kids can enjoy them.” So Pat armed himself with a shovel and five-gallon pail and dug the trees out in increments that made the frequent bicycle trips more challenging. His grandfather paid him two dollars for each tree, and the turnaround was faster than he had imagined; he lived to be eighty-four and saw the trees reach about twenty-four inches in diameter and fifty feet in height. It was Pat’s first tree sale, the first show of independent profit from this well-loved hard work. “I kind of started thinking about it even then,” says Pat. “You know, if a guy could grow trees and sell them—wow. How cool would that be?”
So when Pat decided to start a tree nursery, he’d already had experience with growing trees and had an idea what it meant to be a farmer. He knew it wasn’t a quick and easy way of making a living. The first year did nothing to encourage him. In 1988, his first planting year, the summer saw a hard drought. “I bought eight thousand trees that I was gonna grow up for Christmas trees, and planted them that spring out in the field, and lost ninety-five percent of them to the drought,” he says. He knew he wouldn’t be able to invest as much money the next year, so he looked into growing trees from seed—made use of his card to W.D. McIntyre Library, became a seed catalogue junkie.
That season, he took to planting seeds. After a few years, the seeds had sprouted and progressed into sturdy seedlings. “I put an ad in the Trading Post, and the phone rang off the hook,” says Pat. “That fall, I planted everything: oak, maple, pine, spruce.” One of the main problems then was not having enough trees ready. “It’s kind of like not having enough worms when the fish are biting. It’s a nice problem to have.”
So then Pat got into the seedling-growing cycle he works with now—the seasonal processes of mimicking nature. The first thing he does is actually collect the seeds, usually in the fall. Then, often with the help of his children, he strips the hulls off of the seeds, using a blender. “Many times, a bird will eat the berry, and it goes through its crop and takes all its pulp off, like putting it through a blender,” Pat says. Then the seeds go into buckets of water for three to four weeks. This prompts the seeds to sink to the bottom, but that’s not the only important part of the process. Pat says, “A seed generally has inhibitors in it—hormones that prevent it from germinating. And water will flush those inhibitors out of the seed. Water saturates the seed coat and pulls inhibitors out of the seed over time.” This, he says, mimics autumn rains.
The seed then has to be stored at a certain temperature for a while, kind of like Baby Bear’s porridge—not too hot, not too cold, but just right. If the conditions aren’t just right, the seeds can drop into double dormancy. That means they won’t grow until the following year, and that’s only if there are still enough starches in the seeds to keep them alive. “All of these factors are just telling the seed, ‘Okay, it’s safe now. You’ve got enough moisture, you’ve got enough warmth, there’s been enough time that’s elapsed since you’ve been eaten. It’s warm and it’s wet. Time to germinate,’” Pat says. After they’ve sprouted, there’s the matter of keeping the trees watered, and transplanting them so they have space to stretch out, Pat says. “Keep them wet and keep them shaded and happy and not too much wind and they’ll grow.”
But at this point, the weeds begin to struggle for their territory. And through the years, Pat has learned his share of deadly lessons in trying to fight the weeds off—chemical control has been unpredictable. Spreading fertilizer and spraying his tree beds for overpowering weeds have frequently done more harm than good. “I’ve spread fertilizer and gone out there in two days and everything is dead—killing eight to ten thousand of them.” Over time, Pat has also noticed that weeds are becoming more resistant to chemicals. They are one of his biggest problems and irritations. He’s currently dealing with a weed he thinks may be yellow nutsedge, a non-native plant known for its resistance to herbicides. It has a poor ability to compete with other plants, so when the other weeds have been killed off, nutsedge has more strength to take over. Pat has found that even digging it out by hand is worthless, that it only grows back just as strong. Now, he says, “I can go right over them with the strongest herbicide out there and it won’t kill them—it’s kind of frightening.” Pat did, in fact, decide to kill off all the trees in one bed in an attempt to eliminate the weeds. The trees are gone but those weeds remain even now.
Pat says that overusing chemicals is making the plants resistant, but he also thinks global warming factors into it. “The temperatures get warmer in the spring,” he says. “The whole weed cycle gets thrown off—you’ve got stuff germinating and weeds coming in faster and bigger and more virulent.” The weeds take advantage of the warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels, and plants like ragweed look like the beginning of Jack’s non-leguminous beanstalk.
There are more strange changes Pat has been noticing in the nursery, some things which he refers to as “freak deals.” Two years ago, he planted seeds in autumn as usual, but many of the seedlings—sugar maple, winterberry, most of the shrubs—came up in February. Pat knew they couldn’t lie dormant long enough. He had no choice, really, but to watch them freeze; stare at the fist that would soon punch him in the gut. “You know they’re all going to be gone, they’re all going to be wiped out,” he says.
In the past few years, Pat has also seen a lot of sun scald, a tree’s version of a sunburn. Trees are coming out of dormancy sooner in the spring, he says. The sap begins flowing, and the frost isn’t as deep as it used to be, so the trees are left vulnerable in their less dormant state. Then, in February and early March as the trees are starting to grow, snow falls again, which Pat says doesn’t actually bother them. He says the problem is, “The next day—because the highs always follow the lows—the sun comes out and it burns the trees because it reflects off the snow.” The change in weather patterns—possibly due to global warming—is making his business of mimicking nature more unpredictable. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going on in the wilds if his carefully monitored seedlings are dying.
And yet, weather issues aren’t the only things affecting Pat’s business. He deals with a lot of customers who are involved in the conservation reserve program. The government-supported program pays landowners to plant and grow native trees, thereby creating forest land that is temporarily protected from being developed. However, participation in this program is decreasing as the price and demand for corn increases. “They wanna take their ground that they’ve been planting trees into—or maybe planning to plant trees into—and take that out of the conservation reserve program and plant it to corn.” This not only upsets his tree business, it upsets the balance between conservation land and agricultural land. It’s another case where politics push aside the priorities of nature, Pat comments. “The USDA says, ‘We need more corn ‘cause we gotta get out of foreign oil. So go ahead and take it out. Plow that shit under and plant corn.’” It frustrates Pat, a man who takes pride in the trees he plants, who does his part to encourage giving back to nature. “We’re losing conservation reserve program lands, we’re losing stewardship incentive program land, and as a result, my seedling business is going down,” he says.
But he doesn’t let that keep him down most of the time. He works with a lot of customers who are new to planting trees, so he also does a lot of teaching. Rather than being annoyed by what people don’t know, he enjoys helping them out. “People are becoming better stewards of the land—they want to plant their own trees,” he says. It’s important to Pat that he’s doing what he loves and is in a position to make a difference at the same time. Especially with customers new to planting trees, he has the opportunity to pass on his enthusiasm for all that grows. “They’re decent people that want to better their environments,” he says. That’s what makes his efforts so valuable—he helps turn good intention into action, shows people how to get dirt under their nails and love it.
In some ways, Pat is living the ideal life—not the ideal for most people, maybe, because where there’s a headlamp, there are hours spent moving irrigation hoses in the dark. For Pat, it’s not about doing things the easy way. “My brother says to me all the time, ‘You want to go hunting? You want to go fishing? There’s more to life than work.’ But I like going out and working with my trees, doing the field work, way more than I like fishing.” Pat is living his dreams and not resenting the extra work it takes to “feed the addiction,” as he says. Through his dedication to the tree farm and the support and assistance of his family, he is taking the road less traveled and covering his tracks with field-raised trees sturdy enough to survive the city. “Someone once said—and I forget who it was—that ‘If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,’” Pat says. “And that’s the way it is for me today. I just love what I do. If there were more daylight, I’d be out here. I never get sick of it.”