PONTOTOC – If you’ve got a shade tree in your yard that’s been planted in the past five or so years, there’s a pretty good chance it got its start in life just outside Pontotoc.
Goldleaf Farms, a 220-acre tree farm, was started in the Black Zion community by Phil Cates and his business partner, John West, in 2001.
Cates grew up in Pontotoc, graduated high school there and got his degree in landscape contracting and business management from Mississippi State University.
After working with a landscaping business in Tampa, Fla., and then running his own company, he moved to the Atlanta area where he worked for a nationally known company called Lifescapes.
“We were what you call a landscape design build company,” said Cates. “We didn’t just draw up a landscape plan; we also installed it. We were recognized in Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living and Verandah magazines.”
When Cates got the itch to start his own company again, he looked no further than home. On family land in Pontotoc County, he planted a couple acres of trees. Each year, he took in more and more land.
Today, he has 45,000 trees comprised of about 150 different varieties, including the maples, elms, magnolias, river birch, camellias, cedars, redbuds, cryptomeria, ash, ginkgo, hollies, ornamental cherries, oaks, willows, viburnum and arborvitae.
Kent Townsend, who also grew up in Pontotoc, manages the Pontotoc operation, while Cates oversees the 70-acre tree farm he started in 2002 in Ball Ground, Ga., near his home outside Atlanta.
Tips from a pro
Fall and winter are the busiest times for the folks at Goldleaf Farms.
“November through April, while the trees are dormant, that’s the best time to dig and the best time to plant,” said Townsend, who has been with the Pontotoc operation from the start. “This is the time of year when the sap is down, when they’re not so stressed, not trying to produce leaves.”
When getting ready to plant a tree, Townsend recommended digging a hole six inches wider than the tree’s container.
“That gives the roots a place to go,” he said. “Then, pack the dirt tightly around it and sprinkle some Triple 13 (13-13-13 fertilizer) around the rootball. And water it well. When I say water well, I mean 12 gallons of water a week. Put a couple of handfuls of fertilizer on top of the soil around it every three weeks for the first year.”
Townsend said when people ask him for trees that are fast growers, he typically recommends crape myrtles and maples.
“But any tree will grow fast if you water and fertilize it,” he said.
He also cautioned about placement of trees in the landscape.
“Know what the tree is going to do before you plant it,” he said. “Don’t put it two feet from the house or right under a power line. And don’t plant trees too close together. If you’re going up a driveway, you want them 20 to 25 feet apart. That seems like a long way away but 10 years from now, they’ll be pretty close to touching each other.”
Goldleaf Farms, which bills itself as “growers of distinct trees,” sells mainly to wholesalers and landscape contractors.
“We’ve got several landscapers around here that buy, including Tupelo, Memphis, Birmingham, Nashville and Columbus,” Townsend said. “We usually shoot for about a 150-mile radius.”
Cates said most of the farm’s customers are in the Southeast, although he did recall shipping some trees as far away as Rhode Island.
“We are blessed that over the years lots of local landscapers in the area have discovered us,” Cates said. “We ship trees to a lot of colleges. MSU and Ole Miss have both used our trees.”
And while Goldleaf Farms is happy to sell trees to individuals, they first have to pass a couple of “tests.”
For one thing, many homeowners are looking for trees in the 5- to 6-foot range, and many trees at Goldleaf Farms are 15 feet tall or more.
“When they hear that, they realize they’re better off going to a local nursery to get something smaller,” Cates said.
Individuals also have to provide some type of trailer to haul trees from the farm.
“The average rootball on one of our trees weighs 250 pounds,” Cates said. “This just isn’t something you can load up in the back of your car.”
But if someone has five acres of land that can stand an 18-foot-tall river birch and a trailer to haul it off in, he’s welcome to it, Cates said.
The work and time and money that goes into nurturing a tree for three years at the farm – the average time one grows before being dug up and sold – comes with a price, though.
“People think it’s hard to give $100, $150 or $200 for a single tree, and it is,” Townsend said. “But you get what you pay for.”
Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal