By Cassandra M. Vanhooser
Don Shadow steers his white, extended cab Ford F-150 along a bumpy fencerow on a farm near Belvidere, a community just outside Winchester in Franklin County. His voice drops to a whisper as he searches the brush for his new Grevy’s zebra mare and her filly colt.
“They’re right down there,” he says softly, pointing to the corner of the enclosure. “They’ve got big, round ears and little pinstripes; the rarest zebras in the world. There’s the mother, and there’s the baby! See. This is the reason I’m interested in Grevy’s zebras!”
You might call Shadow a modern-day Noah.
Though he doesn’t limit himself to breeding pairs, he supports more than 800 wild animals representing some 60 different species, a collection that rivals many of the country’s zoos and wild animal parks. Instead of rising water, he’s helping save them from a flood of development and indifference sweeping the globe. His ark: the fenced pastures and woodlands on the patchwork of farms he owns in and around Belvidere. Says longtime friend, Atlanta landscaper Gene Cline: “If it’s rare, and it doesn’t live on the moon, Shadow has it.”
Shadow’s menagerie includes Bactrian camels, water buffalo, bearded pigs from Borneo, and six different species of cranes. Capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, happily share their ponds with tapirs, distant relatives of the elephant. Thanks to recent additions, including the prized Grevy’s, Shadow now owns one of the largest collections of rare equids. Among them ranges a small herd of rare Nubian wild donkeys, an animal thought to be extinct in the wild and not found anywhere else in the U.S.
“I have people say to me all the time, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you spending all this money on fencing wire and feed?’” Shadow says. “It’s a strain right now to feed and water 800 animals every day. But if I don’t do it, who will?”
If raising and breeding rare animals is his passion, growing and selling plants is Shadow’s mission. A fourth-generation nurseryman whose plant knowledge is encyclopedic, he founded Shadow Nursery in 1973 on 500 acres he bought from a neighbor. Today, his wholesale commercial operation is highly regarded by nursery growers and landscapers across the country for producing “new and useful” plants.
“I don’t ever say ‘rare and unusual’ because it makes people think they can’t grow these plants,” Shadow explains. “I have alternative livestock. I don’t have anything that is ‘exotic.’ If you use the word exotic, people think it is going to escape and populate the world.”
Like explorers of old, Shadow travels the world seeking botanical beauties to bring back to the U.S. Last year alone he visited Belgium, Holland and Japan. He personally favors small, budding trees, but slender, columnar plants rank particularly high on his wish list these days, thanks to a trend in the U.S. toward more compact landscapes.
“With the small landscapes, I am looking for smaller trees and shrubs,” Shadow says. “My Japanese friend said to me, ‘Shadow-san, I don’t understand you. You come from such a big country, but you come over here and you look for little plants.’”
Lucky for Shadow, there’s no finer place to grow things – large or small. One of the true garden spots of Tennessee, Belvidere sits on the state’s Highland Rim in the shadow of the Cumberland Mountains. Though nearby Manchester ranks as the state’s nursery capital, dozens of growers have planted their businesses in and around Winchester.
“We’re in a transition zone,” Shadow explains. “We can grow for north or south, and we’ve got good soil. The more I travel, the more I realize what a nice place I live in.”
There’s an experiment around every corner on Shadow’s various farms. He keeps an eye out for chance seedlings and native plants he can tame for nursery stock. New varieties of Japanese maple grow in fields and wait to be potted, as do mildew- and disease-resistant dogwoods. Rows of Southern heirloom apples grow on a south-facing slope beside Shadow’s circa 1842 white-columned, redbrick home.
“I’ve got 149 varieties of Southern heirloom apples,” he notes. “Since I’ve gotten these, there are three or four of these that the parent trees has blown down or died. Now I have the only ones. We’re going to grow and sell these someday. Landscapers are starting to use more fruit trees.”
The love of all things wild and wonderful drives Shadow today as much as it did the day he started his business. “I’ve just always liked them,” he says of the rare animals he collects. “People always ask me, ‘Which do you like best? Plants or animals?’ I say, ‘Which day?’ If we’re grafting Japanese maple or doing something with a rare plant, I’m more interested in that. If we’ve got a zebra or a camel being born, I’m more interested in that.”
Shadow dreams of someday opening a botanical and zoological park where he will share his favorite plants and animals with visitors from around the world. His plan includes a section called “Shadows of the Past,” stocked with heirloom plants and heritage animals.
“I love plants and I love animals, and I’ve devoted my whole life to them so the next generation can enjoy what I have,” Shadow muses. He likens his lifestyle to that of an art collector. “To me, plants and animals are living art.”