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Great Gardening: Experts at a landscape symposium stress the importance of native plants

Some conferences produce results – my hope from the Ithaca Native Landscape Symposium held last weekend. It was designed primarily for landscape architects and environmental scientists, and about 25 ecologically minded citizens and professionals from our region attended. Many came from the Western New York Land Conservancy and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers. There were four master gardeners; two Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy staff; growers from Amanda’s garden; Ellen Neumaier from the East Aurora Tree Board; Lynda Schneekloth from Sierra Club; Dave O’Donnell from the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm, and several CNLPs and environmental engineers. Ken Parker was there – a native plant expert and experienced grower – and Lyn Chimera, writer and teacher about native wildflowers. Collectively I’d call this crowd our eco-brain trust. They are the people who can glean from such a conference, identify goals and make them happen. We did identify goals, but they are not without obstacles.

Native plants wanted

This topic is important for every citizen, not just plant nerds, yet it still escapes broad awareness. If you ask a group of people why choose a native plant, many will say, “They’re easier – they grow better in their own region.” (Good answer, partially. It’s generally but not always true – and there’s much more to it.) Then if you ask them their impression of native plant gardens they will almost universally say, “They look messy, unkempt and weedy.” Not necessarily so. Just ask Uli Lorimer of the Native Flora Collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, or landscape architect Laura Hansplant, ASLA, of Roofmeadow: Native gardens can be designed to please the eyes of the non-believers. Mostly. Thoughtfully.

The broader answer about “Why Natives?” is that native plants meet the needs of native insects which in turn serve a complicated food web. Without the insects all ecology dissolves. Native insects require the plants with which they co-evolved. (Caterpillars of monarchs require milkweeds, and the spicebush swallowtail butterfly larvae need the spicebush – Lindera benzoin.)

Then comes the more challenging part: In many cases it is critical that plant seed comes from the same place (provenance) as the creatures it is serving. Why? Isn’t the DNA and pollen and nutritional value of a spicebush or New York aster the same whether it came from Virginia or Connecticut? Sometimes it is not. Seed from the same species grown in different places will eventually produce slight differences. The timing of bud development could be off, with disastrous results if the southern cousin fleshes out too soon in spring up north. Or plants from different places differ in the timing of flower production. If it opens and finishes too soon, or too late, it could be out of sync with the pollinator species that used that flower type. And those are just tiny glimpses of all the ways that members of an ecosystem are co-dependent. There is so much that we don’t know.

Here’s the rub: There are not enough sources of locally grown plants or seeds to meet the needs of native plant projects in our region. What’s the region? It’s a wobbly definition. Political divisions – Erie County or Buffalo/Niagara – are irrelevant. Geographic, meteorological or USDA zone definitions are more useful. But it is clear that within the WNY home turf we need growers of native seed plots and plants.

It is not the fault of the industry that this doesn’t happen easily. Speakers from Pinelands Nursery of New Jersey and the Long Island Native Plant Initiative spoke about the obstacles, opportunities and some success stories. It’s a tough business. Nurseries have to grow a living product, and they are nearly always weather challenged. Most consumers want uniform, flowering and tidy-looking plants in matching pots – specifically during a very few weeks when the shoppers are in the mood. Unfortunately many native plants are neither compact, tidy or showy at exactly the right moment. Even more challenging, if a grower produces a large volume of plants for a project, what happens when the project is delayed or worse – canceled? Keeping the plants for an extended period is expensive, and growing anything you can’t sell is unacceptable.

What’s a grower to do?

“It’s a huge hole in the green industry. Landscape architects must be able to talk with nurseries directly,” said Don Knezick of Pinelands Nursery. Somehow there must be a way for nurseries or farms to produce seed-growing plots for the most needed native plants, and then to grow them in sufficient numbers for anticipated projects. (In some places volunteers do the seed collecting and cleaning.)

For homeowners and gardeners, using native plants is important even if the source isn’t local. They still help pollinators and serve most ecosystem needs. It’s the large restorations that need help with sourcing.

The projects will come

Witnessing the convergence of WNY influencers last weekend, and hearing the passion for habitat protection and restoration, I concluded that a surge in demand is happening. It is and will be followed by a scramble to find great numbers of native plants with as local provenance as possible. Landscape designer Dave Majewski of Premium Services Inc. wants native plants for rain gardens, bio-retention swales, and green parking lots. Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, Garden Walk Buffalo Niagara gardeners, block clubs and community gardens want them. Landscape architect Joy Kuebler and others seek natives for green roofs and school gardens as well as LEED-certified residential and commercial projects. Olmsted Naturally of the BOPC aims to make Olmsted Parks the greenest in the nation – and that means natives. WNY Land Conservancy is protecting, restoring, planting and seeding thousands of acres in the Buffalo Niagara region. They helped the Town of Clarence adopt a project called Greenprint that will protect forests, meadows, stream corridors and working farms on 1,315 acres. Largest of all, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper will shop for thousands of native plants for its Buffalo and Niagara River restoration projects such as the RiverBend restoration.

Now all we have to do is get the users in touch with the growers for a long-term plan. We have the people and organizations with the native plants passion, and we have a talented growing and farming community. It can happen.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.