It's the Plants, Darling

A Grower of Regionally Appropriate Plants is Hard to Find

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On a recent drive through California, I stopped at the locally famous Sierra Azul Nursery, where I wandered through their 2-acre demonstration garden and met some Australians.

“Nothing will grow here if you don’t water it.” That sentence, which I hear everywhere and not just here in the desert, points out a person who has not yet met the right grower(s).

Growers are a bottleneck in this business of changing the way Americans landscape. If a person wants to make an ecologically sound garden — by which I mean a fairly self-sustaining plant community that will also sustain local wildlife — it will require regionally appropriate plants (native or from a similar climate). And such plants will ideally be grown locally, or in conditions similar to their destination.

Of course such growers are scarce. It’s a tough business, especially growing native woody plants that take years to propagate and to develop into sizes that a not-too-patient normal person might be inclined to plant in their yard.

Growers are not only sources of plants, but of information. Who do you trust when you want relevant and reliable plant-specific information? Is it a local gardening neighbor? Your local university extension service? A nearby botanical garden? A radio personality, author, or blogger? Or do you just randomly search the internet?

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After salivating over their catalog for years while gardening in Minnesota, I can now order with abandon from High Country Gardens. Their offerings, including this scarlet monardella (M. macrantha ‘Marian Sampson’) and sea foam artemisia (A. versicolor ‘Seafoam’), tend to thrive in my Boise garden.

Certain catalogs (High Country Gardens and Prairie Moon Nursery come to mind) really shine in presenting details of plants’ growth habits and preferences. A couple of botanical gardens (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Missouri Botanical Garden) have developed excellent online regional databases for plants, and Dave’s Garden is interesting for its anecdotes about growing specific plants from regular gardeners across the continent.

Still, I prefer to learn about plants from people who are growing them in conditions similar to those in my own garden. That is why I am seeking new plant sources now that I’ve moved across the country. I’m asking local gardeners where they get their plants. I’m especially interested when I hear of anyone local who is selling plants they have grown, whether they are selling by mail or at a Farmer’s Market or merely from their own garden.

I am also checking the tags at garden centers. When I see a source that is selling interesting regionally appropriate plants, or species rather than named varieties, I track down that source to see if there’s a retail catalog or a location I can visit. Occasionally a wholesale grower will sell to me directly; it never hurts to ask.

If you too are bent on creating an ecologically sound garden, where do you find your plants?

Posted by on April 15, 2015 at 1:41 pm, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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32 responses to “A Grower of Regionally Appropriate Plants is Hard to Find”

  1. Nebraska Statewide Arboretum has plant sales. Many of their offerings, especially woodies, are collected from wild seed in the field in Nebraska.

    • Hi, Benjamin. What a wonderful resource! I remember ordering inexpensive bundles of bareroot (mostly native) trees and shrubs from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here in Idaho, from what I have gathered so far, there are similar sources but the plants are meant only for restoration landscapes, not individual yards.

  2. Robyn R. says:

    Here in north Seattle I ordered about $100 worth of plants this spring from the local county Conservation District. All plants were stakes, plugs, or bareroot, so small, but very cheap. Like $8 for 5 purple coneflower. The local Native Plant Society always has a spring plant sale, too.

  3. Blair Durant says:

    Garden Rant used to post a list of good plant sources, but obviously not anymore. Try Niche Gardens, we grow most of our plants from seeds or cuttings. We don’t use pesticides. We specialize in straight species native perennials. Check out our Dave’s Gardens reviews and our website.

  4. Mary Gray says:

    In Northern Virginia, Earth Sangha and Green Spring Gardens have twice yearly plant sales that I never miss. The National Arboretum has one, too, but I haven’t been.

    • Mary, I was just at Green Spring and heard about their amazing plant sale. You are so lucky! Actually, I feel lucky that Idaho Botanical Garden stocks a very interesting selection of plants at their annual sale. I wonder if most botanical gardens and arboretums (arboreta?) host such a sale.

      • Joe Schmitt says:

        Here’s the link to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum’s “Friends of the Arboretum Native Plant Sale” coming up in a few weeks. To the best of my knowledge, it’s been an annual event for at least the over 30 years I’ve been in the area.

        http://uwarboretum.org/foa/native_plant_sale.php

        On their web page they also reference the regional plant growers supplying their sale, so one apparently isn’t limited to the sale date.

        Another gem I discovered in my hunt for native plants suitable as cut flowers is Native Haunts in Maine. http://nativehaunts.com/

  5. Susan says:

    I buy most of my plants now from Wild Type Native Plant Nursery in Mason, Michigan, which is not too far from my home near Chelsea, MI. All of their plants are from local genotypes and grown by them. I also buy some plants from my local Conservation District that has a sale every year. I am pleased that they are offering more Michigan natives now. Matthaei Botanical Garden, where I also volunteer, also has a yearly plant sale, now mostly of native plants.

  6. Heather says:

    Sometimes your local chapter of Wild Ones will have lists of native growers in your area. In Illinois, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info is an excellent resource for species information, especially faunal associates.

    For anyone in the Chicago area, try Pizzo Native Plant Nursery. We grow exclusively straight species natives of local genotype and although we’re wholesale, we’ll sell retail too.

  7. tara dillard says:

    Nurseries/growers still growing/selling invasives, because they sell. That is the thinking you are up against.

    More, growers more concerned with commercial sales, especially since 2008, than homeowner sales. It’s all about the money.

    Worse, since 2008, independent growers & garden centers have been decimated.

    Disgustingly, plant materials bought now are grown/sold unethically. What does this mean? Our commercial projects use mostly 3 gallon plants and larger. Majority of the time those 3 gallon plants have just been potted from 1 gallon. Not rooted, wobbly, over fertilized, loose soil, not a thriving plant. Yet we are on contract for the work and must buy those disasters. And guarantee them.

    How many homeowners know which ‘good’ plants to resource, purchase, plant for their zone, and micro-climate within their zone? You ask too much. Which growers can possibly cater to such a minuscule section of the market? Dreadfully, I do know what plants are best, and they are not available in the quantities/sizes needed for our commercial projects. So we use what is available, thus the cycle continues. And will keep cycling because clients expect that ‘guarantee’. And, zero wait time for the ‘best’ plants to grow/perform.

    Commercial projects we install, over $500,000 are often drawn by landscape architects with zero knowledge of plants. Yet we bid to install, and must stay true to the plan, and guarantee those wrong plants. Knowing they are not the right plants. Dealing with the owner of the project is not possible, the owners are national/international and a chain of command several states long.

    My residential clients, blessedly, finding me via blog, are of like mind, and we are able to design/install appropriate gardens for plants, deer proof, no irrigation-chemicals-fertilizers, once established. Better, my designs require much less maintenance, hence less use of labor hours, and gas powered machinery. I also site plantings to shade in summer, allow the sun in winter, block winter winds, thus reducing HVAC.

    Who knew ‘social media’ could be a force for good in this realm?

    Pie in the sky, is what you ask for. Nor do you include the full scope of the problem. This does not address the patented/marketed plants, quite expensive, unproven, cultivated merely for their sales value not hardiness against drought/flood, insects/fungus, subsoils left after construction not soils plants want to grow in, same plants sold across the country and several zones. Yes, the problem/s is/are stinkers.

    Sadly, your post, though excellent, is the canary in the coal mine, with no one listening, but those already knowing/hearing that canary. Keep your canary singing. I will too.

    We canaries, are one reader, one garden at a time.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

  8. Brenda Lynn says:

    Luckily, local nurseries are beginning to carry more native plants. With greater attention, the value of wildflowers that were once considered weeds will appear in more residential and public gardens. At a recent master gardener conference, we were provided with a list of mid-Atlantic native plant resources. I’ve posted the list on my blog (www.beehappygarden.com) Plant NovaNatives is also an excellent resource for northern Virginia native plant enthusiasts. Hopefully, the enthusiasm an grass-roots movement around native plants will catch on in other areas of the country.

  9. skr says:

    Most of the wholesale nurseries around here (SoCal) have plenty of plants that will grow without supplemental water at least once established. You just need to know what you are looking for. Most of what they sell is just the usual suspects and that is how they pay the bills.

    Tara’s right though about 2008. It decimated the industry. They are still crawling out of that hole and their offerings are much more limited than they were. She’s also right about quantities. I can order 1000 ficus without a problem but Fremontodendron not so much. Now if you start getting into Agave or Aloe you’ll be able to get greater quantity but even still it’s not like ordering the usual suspects.

  10. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. That is a sad state of affairs for the landscape pros who do have the knowledge to choose plants well.

    I have been wondering if cities (though they are concerned about money as well, some of them also have a mandate to landscape more sustainably) can become part of the solution, paying for the appropriate plants to be contract grown for large municipal installations. That will get the plants out there in the public eye so more people are aware of them, and then maybe that would generate demand. Also, on the grower end, maybe growing a larger quantity for contract would provide a buffer or subsidy, making it more economically attractive to grow some extras for sale to the general public.

    • Heather says:

      I can only speak for the Chicago area, but it is getting better regarding municipalities, forest preserves and park districts mandating native plantings on public lands. Homeowners associations are also getting on board as the cost savings of using natives is significant, not to mention the ecological benefit.

      The challenges are many. Having proper specs from the outset of the project so that the right plants are required and maintenance needs are realistic. I agree with Tara’s frustration of having to work with specs that are flat out wrong or completely out of line. Managing expectations and the fears of the organization and the residents. Native plants invite wildlife, which can be a good and a bad thing, depending on the person. Budgeting appropriately so that maintenance actually happens and is done the right way. For example, there are more and more companies offering controlled burns on sites. Which is great, until inexperienced staff melts the siding off a bunch of houses.

      Yes, contract grows pay a lot of the bills of a wholesale nursery.

  11. anne says:

    Here in Hood River OR, our local Soil and Water Conservation District has an annual sale of bare-root native trees and shrubs, with planting and maintenance info. They take pre-oders for a couple of months, and you pick up your orders on the sale day; any leftovers are sold at a reduced price. They are truly cheap–a couple of bucks per plant. But you have to be ready to plant them quickly, or at least heel them in until you can plant.

  12. Pam/Digging says:

    Austin has several terrific independent nurseries that specialize in native plants at reasonable prices. We also benefit from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s influence and twice-annual native plant sales. There are several native-plant wholesale growers in the area, which is good for designers who specialize in sustainable gardens. And as you say, just getting to know other local gardeners is a great way of learning about plants that grow well, and you’ll often get cuttings and divisions to boot.

  13. Cynthia Bee says:

    I work for a 7 acre botanical garden in Utah that’s entire mission is to teach locals how to landscape sustainably for our climate. We purposely don’t sell plants and instead promote our local nurseries who are the front lines for water conserving plants. We also have a great regional plant database with more than 900 Utah-Happy plants!

    Keep fighting the good fight! Waterwise landscapes are not only beautiful but also convey such a strong sense of place- they just feel “right” because (done well) they are the idealized version of nature for whatever region they’re located in.

  14. Bill Walters says:

    Just about every state has a native plant society that you should be able to find on the internet.

  15. Laura Bell says:

    My favorite IGC (is it still “IGC” if it’s now a local chain?) does a good job with plants that grow well in local soils. Sure, they also have the camellias and roses and what-not that some people insist on, but they have a wide selection of natives & near-natives, xeric & drought-tolerant plants. And they do a lot toward educating the public about using drip irrigation & mulch to lower water use on what does get put in the ground.

    There’s a local grower of Northern California natives also – Cornflower Farms – who mainly sells to retailers. But twice a year they open up their yard for sales to the public. It’s very popular. And there used to be a grower at some of the local farmer’s markets, but I lost track of her when she stopped coming to the market near my office. I need to search her out again.

  16. VJ says:

    It’s heartening to see the replies from growers & educators in many parts of the U.S., though we’re up against box stores and nurseries selling for the eye, not the ecosystem.
    Here in NW Washington state we have several wonderful resources. Plantas Nativas is a wonderful source of healthy native plants. Azusa Nursery is run by a Master Gardener, and features several lovely demonstration gardens, including a xeriscape. The Salal Chapter of the Native Plant Society has a sale coming up next month, and as others have mentioned, Conservation Districts are great sources for healthy plantings that don’t need excessive care to fit into an environment foreign to their genetics.

  17. Heather says:

    I just remembered this excellent resource: http://findnativeplants.com/
    An unbiased and rich collection of resources!

  18. Ivette Soler says:

    I’m lucky in that I have relationships with several local growers and use their plants almost exclusively in my gardens. I feel for those who do commercial installs – it is something I would struggle with. It’s important for me to trust my plants. I need them not only to be regionally appropriate, but grown in a way that will ease them into a successful life in my gardens. I think it would be difficult for the average homeowner to pull together these resources, which is why working with a designer with experience in the region is such an advantage. If that isn’t possible, arboretums and botanical gardens can be great starting points. Many local growers offer their plants at these sales- it’s a good place to meet a small, dedicated vendor!

    • Those small, dedicated local growers are gems, Ivette. I miss Nancy and Jim at The Vagary; they sold (maybe still do) all kinds of interesting, inexpensive pots of this and that at farmer’s markets in Minneapolis/St. Paul. They would grow things I wanted to try, and they had all kinds of native plants and herbs and unusual biennials and such. Over the years, that one business (a labor of love for sure) has made a huge difference to landscapes across an entire metro area.

  19. Susan J. says:

    Here in northwestern Nevada we have the Nevadada state nursery in Washoe Valley with many natives and all regionally appropriate plants, and the native plant society has a sale every year at San Rafael Park in Reno.

  20. Kristi Twichell says:

    Here in the Northeast we have Garden in the Woods run by the New England Wildflower Society (NEWFS) in Framingham, MA. There is a retail nursery at Garden in the Woods and the plants are grown responsibly either in their propagation beds or at Nasami Farms in Whately, MA. I have been a docent there for years and view educating the public about natives as an important role.

  21. Thanks to all of you for sharing your favorite regional/local resources.

  22. […] Ideally, landscape designs should have regionally appropriate plants but it is actually hard to find regional plants at your local growers. Read more about it here. […]

  23. Jordan says:

    Very informative post. I’ve heard of the importance of planting region-appropriate plants, most in the context of saving the bees. Good to see some other reasons why it would be an interesting challenge!

  24. A. Marina Fournier says:

    I visited Sierra Azul, when I lived in Santa Cruz county. Nice walk-around nursery–and a lot of the time, a nice place with good scenery (plantings!) to walk around was what I needed. I happened to be there on a day that a local mystery author, Laurie King, was there.

    They had demonstration patches of the plants they sold, too.