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Meet Mr. Sustainability: Conservation is a way of life for Summit County member

Tom Dayton welcomes the heavy rain that causes neighboring gutters and storm sewers to overflow. It means he’s getting a good supply of water for the thousands of plants and trees grown and sold at his business, Dayton Nurseries. He’s set up a system that captures all the rain or snowmelt on his 40-acre property and sends it to his one-acre, 9-foot deep irrigation lake. Having all that water on hand helps cut down on his costs – on a hot summer day, the nursery can use up to 100,000 gallons of water.

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Tom Dayton stands in a botanical garden he created between his nursery and his house. On the 10-acre garden, visitors can get landscaping ideas as well as see how large shrubs and trees will grow over the years.

“It’s ironic that everybody is worried about water runoff and I want it,” said Dayton, vice president of Summit County Farm Bureau.

Capturing and recycling the water is much more than a cost savings for Dayton. Sustainability has long been a way of life for the Norton resident and nowhere is that more evident than at his nursery. On top of his barn is a green living roof filled with sedum plants (and decorative petunias) that help absorb rainwater to slow down runoff while also helping cool the building. Last year he started installing solar panels to reduce his reliance on fossil fuels and provide a more environmentally friendly energy source. Instead of using pesticides, he brings in “good” bugs called nematodes to fight the bad ones. Nematodes are microscopic worms that are harmless to humans but deadly to destructive insects like thrip and aphids that destroy plants. Weed control is by hand or by use of coco discs (compacted coco peat) in pots, eliminating the need for herbicides.

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To help slow down runoff from the barn’s roof, Dayton put in a green living roof with sedum plants helping absorb rainwater and petunias adding a splash of color. The green living roof also helps cool the building.

Dayton’s gardening, landscaping and conservation tips are popular topics on the Saturday radio program “Ready, Set, Grow” that he has hosted on WAKR 1590 AM. He has advised county engineers on what plants to put in open ditches to help with water absorption and filtration and has done numerous presentations on his storm water containment system. In 2015, Summit County Farm Bureau honored Dayton with its Distinguished Service Award for his extensive environmental and conservation efforts. Friend Andy Troutman calls him “Mr. Sustainability,” the perfect description of Dayton.

“I’m always looking for ways to reduce my use of water, energy and pesticides and enjoy explaining to customers what I do,” Dayton said as he pointed out one of the many signs in his nursery that describe his environmental and conservation measures.

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All rain or snowmelt on the 40-acre property is captured and sent to Dayton’s 1-acre, 9-foot deep irrigation lake, which he uses to water the plants.

Walking through his nursery, Dayton talks about his promotion of plants that attract pollinators, which are responsible for one out of every three bites of food. He points out a flowering shrub commonly called St. John’s Wort as an illustration of how his customers’ attitudes about bees have changed in a positive way over the past couple of years.

“It used to be I couldn’t sell (the shrub) even after lowering its price. It was because it was covered with so many honey bees that it was like they were painted on it. People were scared of the bees,” he said. “Now I’m seeing a change in mindset and more people are buying plants to attract bees.”

Dayton got his start with gardening at an early age. Every Saturday morning, the then elementary school age boy was awakened by a pounding on his bedroom door. It was time to get up and work in the family garden. When he turned 12, he asked his father for some money and was told he’d have to earn it. His father had some advice.

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An automatic watering system waters the plants from the bottom every day, allowing for stronger root growth. This system eliminated the labor intensive watering by hand and allowed Dayton and his employees to focus more on customers.

“My dad said ‘See that street out there? Cars go up and down it every day and you need to figure out a product that they want,’” Dayton said. The family garden immediately came to mind, and in a week’s time he’d made $40 selling produce. For the next five years he ran his own farm market and decided to make a career of it with the help of his father, Del, who had been growing and selling Christmas trees on land that now houses Troutman’s Winery at Wolf Creek. Dayton went on to graduate from Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technology Institute with an associate’s degree in horticulture. In 1973, he and his father started selling Azaleas and other nursery stock and as the business grew, Dayton bought more land and moved to the present location.

Today, Dayton Nurseries has about two dozen employees and sells trees, shrubs, roses and more than 800 varieties of perennials as well as fresh produce in the summer and fall. Customers are invited to stroll through an adjacent 10-acre botanical garden where they can get ideas for planning and constructing various gardens as well as see how large shrubs and trees can grow.

Dayton describes his work as never-ending and he’s OK with that. It’s all part of his philosophy.

“They say ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But that’s not how I see it,” he said. “My philosophy is ‘If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway because you can always do it a lot better.’”

Featured Image: Sustainability has been an integral part of Dayton Nurseries, which sells trees, shrubs, roses and more than 800 varieties of perennials as well as seasonal produce.

Photos by Bryan Rinnert

Amy Graves 

Amy Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.