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Don Shadow: a life dedicated to "new and useful" plants

Don Shadow doesn’t like to use the word "unique" in describing the plants that he grows. But the word can certainly be applied to Don himself.

A fourth-generation nurseryman, Don has operated his own nursery in Winchester, TN, since 1973. But Don’s interest and expertise extends beyond plants to the animal kingdom. There are more than 600 animals in 60 different species living and breeding under Don’s watchful eye.

He has 14 different species of deer and 46 camels, as well as antelope, zebras, tapirs, lemurs and many more.

Currently, Don is raising Chinese Red Panda babies, the first ever to be successfully bred by a private individual in the United States. Don works closely with Zoo's who regularly send him animals for breeding, based on his remarkable success record.

But whether it’s growing tender bamboo for his pandas or developing new varietals of fruit trees, Don’s first love remains in the realm of plants.

He doesn’t describe his plants as "unique" or "rare" as he believes words like that can be misleading and even create anxiety among amateur gardeners who might think that they wouldn’t have the necessary skill to grow such plants successfully.

"I focus on varietals that I describe as new and useful," explains Don. "These could be plants that are ideally suited to a particular location due to their color, form or habit."

Don travels extensively and has noticed that Americans are beginning to move towards planting styles already popular in countries such as Japan and England. "Smaller spaces need trees and shrubs that match the scale of those spaces," he points out. "Large, majestic trees just don’t work in the smaller landscapes we’re seeing now around newly-constructed homes."

Many of the "new and useful" plants that Don is working with reflect this downsized milieu. He is developing a new Chinese fruitless Red Bud that will bloom when only 10" tall, as well as PeeWee Hydrangeas and a pygmy white Dogwood that produces tiny, perfectly-formed blossoms.

American families are spending more time than ever before enjoying their backyards, particularly with the rise in popularity of "patio living." A patio extends the home into the backyard, and homeowners are looking to add attractive, colorful plantings to their outside environments.

"There’s a renewed interest in what I call heirloom plants," said Don. "Trees and perennials that were popular with our grandparents but fell out of favor until very recently."

Another trend that Don sees is the increased use of "edible landscape:" fruit trees and bushes, berries and brambles. "They’re decorative as well as very useful to the home chef," he notes.

Color is an important aspect of the plants that Don develops. "Colorful blossoms and foliage continue to be important," he says, "But I’m also seeing interest in trees with colorful barks that still add color to the landscape in the winter. Trees such as red and yellow stemmed dogwoods, yellow stemmed weeping willows and colorful maples."

Don is widely recognized, nationally and internationally, both as an expert horticulturist and for his success in saving endangered animal species. He has received numerous prestigious awards for his services to horticulture and his latest project involves the development of a botanical garden and animal park dedicated to education and the preservation of flora and fauna.

New and useful. The perfect phrase to describe the trees, shrubs and plants that he cultivates and nurtures. You could also say that "new and useful" is an apt description of every day in the life of Don Shadow.

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