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Nurseries are busy operations with lots of moving parts and varying levels of knowledge across different positions. It is important to note that a nursery may be too busy to answer your questions or may not have all of the information you are looking for.
Don’t discount a nursery entirely if they cannot answer all of your questions, be mindful of how busy they are and other environmental conditions like the time of year.
Additionally, larger, seed-grown native plants take a long time to establish, so you can expect them to be hard to find or may cost more.
Native plants support wildlife, so they may look a bit imperfect- and that’s ok! It is not uncommon for native plants to have holes from bugs who feast on leaves, or to be altered by wildlife that lives among them! Lots of native wildlife has coevolved with native plants and prefer to associate with these plants. Generally this does not cause harm for the plant and is just one of the many ecological services that native plants provide.
At a nursery it is not always clear how plants are sourced or what growing practices are used, making it difficult for native plant enthusiasts to find responsibly-grown native-type plants. Use this guide to help direct your nursery research and consider looking out for these things, and asking these questions when you go to buy native plants:
Are plants nursery-propagated plants and/or are seeds collected responsibly?
Many slow-growing native plants found in nurseries are wild-collected, meaning that they were removed from nature which can harm the local native plant populations. Similarly, collecting seeds from the wild in excess can deplete local native plant populations and potentially destroy them altogether. Selling wild-collected plants and seeds that are not responsibly collected is unsustainable at a commercial scale. Opt for nurseries that specify how their plants are propagated to avoid purchasing wild-dug plants. If a nursery manager cannot tell you how their plants were propagated or how seeds were collected, consider looking for other vendors. Also consider who you’re talking to at the nursery. It’s important to be considerate of people’s time and their varying level of expertise or knowledge.
What are the nursery’s pest management practices?
A common, but often detrimental pest management strategy is the application of pesticides. Pesticides include a wide range of chemicals that are applied to control pest populations, including animals and insects. In particular, systemic pesticides are often used in nurseries and persist in plant tissues long after their initial application. The broad use of pesticides can potentially cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem as well as human health concerns. There are many pesticides in use today with varying degrees of toxicity, so determining whether or not a nursery uses them, and which ones they use can be difficult. It can be helpful to start by asking specific questions. A good first step is to ask if they use neonicotinoids in their growing practices to manage insect pests. Neonicotinoids are a type of systemic pesticide used in agriculture to protect seeds, soil, and plants, as well as in household settings on lawns and in gardens. This pesticide affects the nervous system of pollinators and can alter their ability to find food, ultimately damaging pollinator populations. This is of special concern when planting natives because of their unique relationships with specialized native pollinators.
Are plants grown from seed?
Seed-grown native plants contain genetic diversity that results in variation between individual plants. This variation allows plants to maintain different capacities to cope with environmental stressors such as heat, drought, flooding, and other disturbances associated with a changing climate. Genetic variation is a species’ best strategy for adapting to the unknown environmental conditions of the future. Though native plants grown from cuttings or divisions do not have the same genetic diversity of seed-grown plants, they still support wildlife and are a good second option when seed grown plants are unavailable. Seed-grown native plants are a great option when looking for smaller plants. If larger, especially woody plants are desired, vegetatively grown cuttings are a good second option that allow plants an advantage and produce larger plants, but include less genetic diversity.
Are plants labeled to clearly distinguish cultivars from naturally occurring species?
Many of the plant species available in nurseries are cultivars that have been bred based on traits that are deemed desirable by humans and do not consider the needs of wildlife. Cultivars are often identical clones that lack genetic diversity, making them potentially less equipped to thrive in a dynamic climate with added environmental stressors. Cultivated varieties of native plants may still provide benefits and are a good second option when straight species of native plants are unavailable.
Does the nursery label and track the origin of plants and seeds?
This allows consumers to know the origin of the plants they buy and allows them to be more informed shoppers.
Are plants grown in peat-free potting soil?
Peat is a finite, non-renewable resource that stores carbon and is often used in potting mixes to increase water and nutrient absorption. When peat is harvested for use in agricultural settings, we consume the resource at rates faster than it can be replenished, and large quantities of carbon are released which contributes negatively to climate change. If possible, ask your growers what their potting mix is made from and opt for a peat-free soil mix when available. If you can’t find a peat-free alternative, don’t be discouraged! This is a developing concern in the early stages of being researched so peat free alternatives may not be readily available.
Does the nursery highlight and label the selection of native plants?
This can make it easy for consumers to identify the native plants.