Entrepreneurs Kurt Frega and Shawna Joplin of Dirtbag Gardens discuss their new community-focused public plant nursery, plus discover other local gardening resources
By Caitlyn Yaede | Photography by John Michael Simpson
The path from museum curators to entrepreneurs was an unconventional one for Kurt Frega and Shawna Joplin, co-owners of Dirtbag Gardens. Their plant nursery is home to lively perennials, vibrant North Carolina natives and a sprawling 7 acres of mostly wooded land. But this won’t be the case for long, says Shawna, who has big plans for the lot she and Kurt bought shortly after meeting in 2019.
While working as curators at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the two would often go plant shopping after work. It wasn’t long before Shawna’s husband, John Nugent, found the Dawson Road property – formerly home to Niche Gardens – and sent it to Shawna and Kurt. Things moved quickly for Dirtbag Gardens, which soft opened in fall 2020 and officially opened the following spring. Kurt and Shawna were met with overwhelming support from the former staff of Niche Gardens, who volunteered to mentor the duo during their entrepreneurial journey.
The team prides itself on keeping uncommon plants in stock and steering clear from invasive species. “We are trying to grow things for everyone,” Shawna says. Her personal favorite – begonia Julau – is a hot pink plant native to Malaysia. The nursery also offers plant care services, as well as at-home consultations.
Both Shawna and Kurt grew up with an appreciation for nature. Some of Kurt’s earliest memories were from his family’s log cabin in New Hanover County, North Carolina, where he explored the property’s several wooded acres with his older brother. These adventures helped Kurt realize that he was meant to be outdoors. He went on to study biology at North Carolina State University. Shawna’s green thumb can be traced farther west, to her upbringing in Los Angeles, where she grew perennials, medicinal herbs and vegetables with her great-grandmother. “I don’t speak fluent Spanish, and she didn’t speak fluent English, but growing up we used to garden together all the time,” says Shawna of her close relative, who emigrated from Mexico.
The ways that nature can connect people is part of Dirtbag Gardens’ philosophy. Plants, Shawna explains, are for everyone. “You don’t have to have a garden. You don’t have to own your house. You don’t have to have a big backyard. You don’t even necessarily have to have a window,” Shawna says. “There shouldn’t be boundaries to wanting to own a piece of nature.”
Fostering a love of nature and wildlife is a task that follows both Kurt and Shawna home. Kurt lives with his wife, Jess Frega, and 6-year-old son, Oscar, who already has aspirations to become a farmer. Given the opportunity to grow anything he wanted, Oscar chose to plant, water and harvest a stalk of corn in the front yard of their Hillsborough home and plans to bring in popcorn made from the crop to share with his classmates. In what Oscar calls the home’s “yucky room,” Kurt cares for a variety of cactuses, reptiles and turtles.
Shawna lives off Jones Ferry Road, in “country Chapel Hill” with her husband, John, 13-year-old son, Walter, 15-year-old daughter, Evelyn, and rescue dog Ronda. It isn’t home without their two cats, Taco and Tuesday, tarantulas and a snake named Sheila.
When she isn’t at the nursery, Shawna is propagating tropical plants in her home, serving as park superintendent for the City of Mebane and walking the Haw River with John. Meanwhile, Kurt does home renovations on the side, often taking a break to explore the nearby North Carolina Botanical Garden – his favorite outdoor area in town.
Looking ahead to their own vision for the nursery, the two have plans to build upon the mostly undeveloped lot, creating room for educational spaces, trails and a lively pond on the property. “There’s so much character and history from the last four decades here, and we really want to preserve some of that,” Kurt says. “But also, we’ve got a lot of dreams and schemes with this place.” With shared backgrounds in conservation education and wildlife, Shawna and Kurt hope to make Dirtbag Gardens not just a nursery, but a destination as well.
“We want people to understand that the nursery is, by no means, a finished product,” Kurt says. The two explain that they will be building, changing and improving the space for the length of time they own it. “Anybody that decides to shop with us is helping us with that vision.
BUY YOUR PLANTS IN ORANGE COUNTY
Camellia Forest Nursery
620 N.C. Hwy. 54 W., Chapel Hill
Ornamental and tea camellias and other Asian trees and shrubs
3261 N.C. Hwy. 54 W., Chapel Hill
Eno River Farm
2127 St. Marys Rd., Hillsborough
Mums, ferns and annuals and perennials
Farm & Garden Center
3517 N.C. 86, Hillsborough
Annuals and perennials, fruit trees, hanging baskets, vegetables, 16-inch geraniums
Fifth Season Gardening Company
106 S. Greensboro St., Carrboro
Hydrophonics and organic gardening supplies
Greener Visions Nursery
110 Storybrook Farm Ln., Chapel Hill
Japanese maples and abelias
250 S. Churton St., Hillsborough
Indoor house plants, rose bushes and vegetable plants
Piedmont Feed & Garden Center
4805 N.C. Hwy. 54 W., Chapel Hill
Everything from annuals and perennials to trees, shrubs and unique specimens
300 N. Greensboro St., Carrboro
Trees, house plants, herbs, vegetables and Christmas trees
Town & Country Hardware
11470 U.S. Hwy. 15-501 N., Suite 106, and 1129 Weaver Dairy Rd., Chapel Hill
919-969-1400 and 919-929-7797; townandcountryhardware.com
Various hanging basket plants
Westlake Ace Hardware Chapel Hill
157 Chatham Downs Dr., Chapel Hill
Vegetables, indoor houseplants and tropical plants
Woods Farm & Garden
1218 U.S. Hwy. 70 E., Hillsborough
Bedding plants, garden seeds and mulch
– Compiled by Lena Miano