29 April 2009

"Where can I buy native plants?"

I've removed 2009's dates to avoid confusion.
Find 2010's native plant sales by clicking here.

Wild ginger - easy native woodland garden groundcover

Red baneberry - another woodland garden stalwart.

I like this plant because it's easy, fills out nice, and it's never been a bully. Even cooler? when those red berries are starting to drop, I start squishing some of the other berries on the plant to check for mature (black and hard, not white and mushy) seeds. I can plant those seed immediately directly into the ground and I've had a lot of success. Sometimes, to be extra thorough, I put some of the seeds into a ziploc baggie w/ hard moist sand, zip it up and rub my hands back and forth hard on the outside of the bag just to try to scratch up the seed coat / remove any growth inhibitor they may have. (I do that with a lot of berry seeds, basically i'm trying to gnash its coat like some furry critter would with its teeth, or bird would with its crop.) Now, lots of my neighbours have them too...and the shady city park plots across the street from my house, friends, absent landlord properties who've given me permission to replant them after i take out their weeds.

Problem shade? Try Virginia waterleaf (in this pic, they're the ones at the end of their white-purple bloom). It prefers moist soils, but I'm constantly surprised how well it tolerates less than ideal garden situations, various lights, moistures and soils (does slopes well too). Looking for more widely adaptable problem woodland shade tough guys? Big leaved aster, zigzag goldenrod and woodland sunflower . But caution! Those last two species can spread / colonize quickly - although that might not be a bad thing when you're dealing with problem clay, but they're also allelopathic: produce a phytotoxin to kill / discourage competition from other plants nearby. However they seem to put up with each other fine, and they're summer and fall bloomers too: times when you want not only colour, but coverage to prevent weeds from establishing. So, I plant them in either isolated pockets or super problem invaded areas like places where I'm trying to replant while removing vinca/periwinkle, exotic euonymous spp, goutweed, DSV or garlic mustard.

Pagoda dogwood - easy elegant woodland shrub, good wildlife value too.
Good for under planting deciduous tree woodlands.

New to native plant gardening?
Have a blast and thanks for fighting-the-good fight. The alternative is supporting exotic invasive horticultural crap, and that's not just dull (no bio-regional identity or stewardship), it's devastating. (For the real newbies: ecologically devastating biological invasions through careless horticulture practices are not unique to our region (somewhere on the other side of the planet someone is cursing our native Canadian Goldenrod right now).
I forget who I'm about to paraphrase but, "any plant in the wrong place can cause harm." Most of this can no longer be excused as ignorance or casual accident.)

But... even when you are gardening with native plants, what I really wish I could tell you is how to save yourself from regret and grief later. Start with common plants, they'll get your soil back into action too. Also, think about why no wild-digging. N
o secret about it: those early errors, temptations and stupidities / lapses-of-good-judgement have always been there. (And if you're reading this, then ignorance is already no excuse). I've had my own mistakes, regrets and transgressions. And whether I try to chalk them up to naiveté, ambition, good intentions or recklessness, they keep coming back to hurt me more now than they did then. Rremember any frogs, bugs or animals you injured as a kid? It comes back to feel like that. No wonder, because the results are the same, just not as immediately evident. There's no wiping that slate clean and no real way to make up for it either: native plant gardens are no substitute for the complex fragile symphonies and necessities of the real thing.

Besides, a lot of native plants cannot exist outside of their super-specific habitat. Not just garden magazine and plant tag basics like light, moisture or pH -- but impossible to duplicate soil/plant/biota relationships and ecological processes. Some of those necessary associations are only known well enough that the best minds can tell us that they don't understand them. So bet-my-ass you can't buy it in a bag or replicate it in a landscape-in-bondage.

Our best native plant nursery growers know those differences better than you or me, because they've pushed those limits, out of curiousity
or even out of crisis rescue situations at first maybe. What makes them our "best" is that they went on to do it with some accountability and scrutiny for legitimate restoration and conservation purposes, and have some ideas about impacts and sustainability over time. Not just vanity or profit. BTW: a plant that someone poaches today, even if they manage to prop up for a whole three years in their garden before they can say "and then it never came back" (without ever reproducing to boot), is not a temporary success, or even just a Failure, it's shameful. Or think of it this way: the good nurseries are a pre-qualifying test of what can survive and thrive in your garden or not: if a plant can't handle a nursery process, it has little to no chance of surviving your yard.

Native plant sources (like the ones I've recommended above) and recommendations appropriate to your region (e.g. see "Local and regional native plant recommendations & inventories") do matter: if you see crap like "grows in Zone 3-6" be more-than-cautious.

There are more than a few fundamental differences between the plants you can buy from the good native plant nurseries and those that you want to avoid (e.g. distantly sourced, cloned or patented cultivars -- and even poached plants -- at most conventional nurseries and parking lot garden centres). Unfortunately, most conventional nurseries and garden centre staff I talk to still don't know what those differences are.

I've learned most of what I know from good people, and the rest I learned the hard way, with no shortage of heartbreak and damage along the way. My advice? Make it easier for yourself simply by starting out by visiting the good native plant nurseries / sources already short-listed on this site. I don't go out of my way to trash the sketchy ones (although one of these days, I'm bound to lose my patience and let loose), and of course I am not perfect, or done being educated, and of course I don't know all the nurseries. Also, any propagator or eco-restorationist worth trusting can give you hard examples of how they have had to compromise their best possible practice scenarios in order to make a living and keep their business alive in what can be a less than perfectly funded or educated or accountable marketplace (
including some big orgs, CA's and muni budgets, mandates and boards). They're also more skeptical than you might be: the best ones are constantly reevaluating their plantings' success or failure, over time, asking themselves which of their efforts are financial, wildlife and genetic "sinks". But, if they're listed on here, or if they've met SER-O or FGCA criteria, it's because they've already proven they can do one or more things (e.g. responsible ethical propagation, accessible public education, collaborative research or consultation, conservation) right.

If you want to learn more than (whatever makes it on to) this blog can teach you, treat yourself just by talking with folks at our local native plant nurseries and
events. May and June are beautiful months for it! Bask and wallow! :)

I've had the luck to help a few hundred folks select native plants for their gardens. It's been an education. Every garden / site is different: land use history, soils, (ranging from contaminated fill -> remnant prairie or forest), topography and physiography, moisture, what folks want and how they use the space. But usually the gardens around here are small, the soil is cultural and the appropriate plant selections are often different from larger-scale restoration plantings that can handle dense suckering or periodic flooding for example (also a tree like Eastern Cottonwood, which i love in good large natural areas near water, is a fire hazard in intensive residential urban areas: i've seen its fluff light up (maybe it was just someone's careless cigarette butt?) and catch four property's wooden fences on fire for example) and both of those plant selection situations are different from the rarest plant communities I find walking trails in remnant areas too. I think what i want to do is start posting pictures of some of the more common and popular garden species on posts like this about native plant gardens, and some of the rare remnant stuff I only find on trails and distinguishing the difference for folks who may not know.

This red trillium is one of the older plants in my garden. it's thriving into a nice clump right now. I've even been able to collect and plant some of its seeds before the ants do, and with a little help from William Cullina's article on Understanding Trillium Seed Propagation i'm trying to see if i can grow them. i do have some early trillium leaves coming up nearby, problem is it's also close to a white trillium, so i won't know for a few years who's who? until i successfully propagate it however, i'm still skeptical about this plant in a garden (i don't see red triliums in many native plant gardens, so i have a nagging wonder if there's a good reason for that). what i really have to do is buy another one and see if i can cross pollinate them, then see if their seeds grow.

Like most of my plants, I planted it with some bonemeal (yes not vegan, apologies, but, it's a natural slow release nitrogen, and i figure most of these plants are used to get bone from dead animals in the wild) and
mycorhizal supplements in their planting hole. this usually does the does the trick. Neat tip: while native plants generally want fungal dominated soil (think mycorhizal fungi -- easy enough to create a hospitable environment for that by adding wood and bark chips and dry brown leaves on top of the soil) and not bacterial dominated soils (instead veggie / annuals/biennials like bacteria dominated soil you find in tilled veggie gardens regularly fed compost). Btw to learn about all that good soil ecology stuff, a good book you can get a the library or bookstore is still "Teaming with Microbes". However, like french grammar, there are always exception to the rule. I'm thinking that red trillium, jack-in-pulpit (and other plants i've seen in the wild have several habitat types including low mucky / periodic slow or standing water, with an overload of slow decaying plants) might actually want a bit more more bacteria / compost. so... while i never apply compost to the roots of those plants (has the potential to burn the roots), i've been top dressing my red trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits and red lobelia with aged veggie/kitchen compost each spring and fall for a few years now. seem to be something to that. Especially the red lobelia: i had a lot of losses (i'm a sucker for hummingbirds) before i started to faithfully top-dress them compost, now, they grow dead-easy for me!

Yes, i know that here in Toronto we see a lot of our red trilliums in sandy soils, especially those red & white pine/sugar maple/beech/hemlock low lands south of the old Lake Iroquois shoreline, but, out of town, I see them in sunnier low-land swamp muck a few feet up from of skunk cabbage along stream beds that dry in summer. So, if i can propagate them, i'll be recommending red trilliums for gardens that approximate either of those situations. In my garden, it's translated well in the mesic mostly clay fill that came with the place that I remediated w/ some sharp sand and woodchips and annual doses of lots of basswood leaf litter.


Phillip M said...

I don't have any nearby native plant nurseries, but I've had great luck buying plants online. It's a great way to get really obscure species. The plants I've gotten have always been high quality.

native plant girl said...

Hi Phillip :)

i'm not doubting that these plants might be "high quality" in terms of survival. The problem is local eco-types: I can buy plant online that are the same species as here, but who knows what subspecies or eco-type they are. also can’t get a feel for their practices: can’t see if they’re accountable to guidelines I trust (SER--O or FGCA for example: see their links in the right side bar if you don’t know what I mean). What concerns me are nurseries who gladly sell the exact same native plant to Toronto, the Yukon and Texas by mail. Why? because each other regions should (if folks them are buying these species as “natives”) have those same plants in their area. However their local eco-types have evolved in concert with their local climate, and thus have different bloom times, in tune with when their insects/birds etc are looking for nectar or seeds or shelter or mating sites from that plant in that area. Bringing in far flung sourced plants can genetically alter those regional native plants population. In worse cases scenarios, they can genetically “swamp” plants to the point of making them sterile). But, my more general common concern is those plants are blooming two weeks off, you can really ding migrational species that depend on them at a very specific time of year.

native plant girl said...

Ps - i used to think that "indigenous" (local) native plant gardeners were tightly wound purists or snobs who wanted to feel they were a little bit more special than the rest of us. but once i learned to factor in the wildlife dependencies (and started to see those relationships as good reasons to grow and conserve native plants in the first place), it changed my mind. And I'm especially concerned when it comes to trees.

native plant girl said...

ok - some if it selfish too. i'll explain: like most folks, when 1st started gardening with natives i was looking for anything that would grow. later after a few things came in, well, i want to move them around / design their placement to make them "look" good too. then... i got into my local bio-regional natural heritage and those plant inventories: those contexts changed my perspective. I was also starting to understand my/our plants relationships with birds and insects... and then soil biota (in fact lately i feel like i'm using plants to grow good bugs and soils more than plants). later, i wanted to use my native plant garden (and some stewardship sites i was into by then) to grow habitat in a way that was appropriate in the context of my watershed's ecological systems and their conservation management strategy.

I still love the plants on their own, still find them pretty. they still excite me. but.... all those other factors added depth and wonder to the whole experience of growing them. that's what kept my interest (and taught me a lot too, i loving the education along the way), so in that way... it's selfish. :)

Amanda said...

Red Trilliums are said to give off an odour similar to rotting meat because their main pollinators are flies. While I haven't noticed this smell myself while walking through woodlands covered with them, perhaps this is a stigma attached to them that keeps them out of gardens? Just a thought.

native plant girl said...

Amanda - thanks fro writing. neat observation. i've read that too but hadn't considered they might have the PR problem. funny thing is, mine don't really smell like much of anything. and agreed, i never smell them when i'm walking woods or photographing them either. what to make of that, eh?

SylviaB said...

People keep talking about buying Trillium but does anyone know a place within driving distance of Toronto that sells them ... ethically? I'm not successful enough with gardening to try to grow them from seed.

native plant girl said...

well, no BS about you SB. :) i hear you. in most folks' gardens i hear "we brought them from our cottage up north."

for a few nurseries to try, see this post: http://nativeplantgirl.blogspot.com/2010/04/when-and-where-to-find-native-plant.html

of the closest nurseries mentioned in that post?

Evergreen Gardens could have them on opening weekend (Trilliums were on their requisition list and their native stuff is sourced from ethical growers). also, Native Plants in Claremont is just north of Pickering - just call ahead to check if they still have them before you go. Try Grow-Wild too.

NANPS sale might have some (it varies from year to year). they might even be from rescues, you have to ask the people behind the tables where the plants are from.

good luck!!! and yeah, those seeds take awhile. i mean, it gob-smacks me that I could produce 7 fully formed human babies in the same time it takes for those seeds complete to bloom. :D

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