March 1, 2014

Local genetics present business opportunity


Times are changing. It wasn’t that long ago that there wasn’t enough demand for plant stock grown from local seed to make it more than a boutique business. Nowadays, nurseries are being established that cater, successfully, to demand for conservation initiatives and, at long last, residential installations.

If you are faced with a difficult site, native plants may be your best option, especially if grown from local seed. Why? Native plants are adapted to our local soils, climates and even pests. Each region has its specific challenges, such as Calgary’s chinook winds and southern Ontario’s wet winters and humid summers. How local is local? At VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver, a planting of Mexican white pine had random dieback one winter — a tree here and there. When the botanical garden in Mexico, the source of the seed, was contacted, it came to light that some seed was collected from the top of a mountain and some seed from a lower altitude on the mountain. The genetic differentiation was that specific; different adaptations from the same mountain.

Growers of natives run a complex business, drawing seed from many sources and employing a variety of growing techniques. I recently had a chance to tour St. Williams Nursery and Ecological Centre in St. Williams, Ont., and asked my tour guide Dave Turnbull about the challenges and benefits of running a specialty nursery, growing plants from local seed stock.

According to Dave, “Collecting, storing and maintaining seed and plants across a range of seed zones within a large territory is a logistical challenge. Locating seed source (donor) plants and monitoring for health and being assured of trueness to the species,” is also an important factor since some different species in a genus can be very similar. Other species cross naturally in the wild making it an even bigger challenge.

Turnbull adds, “The number of seed donor sites will vary by species to ensure adequate genetic variation to support the biodiversity of each community/location and the broader the genetic diversity of the seed collected, the more stable the genetic foundation for the ecosystem into which it is going. Multiple visits to seed donors help ensure one doesn’t select from only the early- or late-maturing species, thus missing important genetics contributing to adaptability to withstand changing climates, environmental conditions and invasive species.” It’s a very complex business if you’re going to do it right and, since this is the UN Decade of Biodiversity, doing it right is important!

He points out, “Weather is another challenge. Some seeds, such as sugar maple, can dry out on the tree, whereas a wet year can adversely affect pollinators, causing poor seed set. Even “other” collectors competing for the seed — squirrels, chipmunks, etc. – can be very effective and timely too.” Many species don’t even set seed every year, with some being on a five- to seven-year cycle.

Storing and cataloguing the seed is important, and each species has its own recipe for storage/germination. Some plants are rare in the trade since they’re notoriously difficult to propagate, such as maple-leafed viburnum. Others, such as white oak, must be collected and planted immediately after they fall lest they lose their viability.

At St. Williams, field rows of seed stock have been planted as a solution to ease the seed collection of many species. “These stock rows are generally replaced after a few years to ensure genetic variability.” Dave explains. St. Williams has been creating stock areas with great success — an idea which was not viable before the demand was there. The company is also having great results direct-seeding and letting nature determine and aid in germination.

The vision at St. Williams is “Biodiversity Conservation - it’s at our core!” It believes strongly in the need to protect, enhance and restore the natural beauty and biodiversity of landscapes. Belief in the interdependence of ecological, cultural and economic health is the inspiration for creating a business based on the value of biodiversity.
Natives like this Solidago patula, rough-leaved goldenrod, are grown for restoration projects but can make great garden plants as well. Awareness of issues such as pollinator protection are increasing demand for many local varieties.
Established native plants grow well and require little care when grown on proper soil and under the right environmental conditions; they also provide food and shelter for wildlife. St. Williams Nursery even offers outreach to schools and plant-related groups and promotes biodiversity through its ecology centre.

Opportunities exist to move beyond the traditional customer base. Turnbull explains, “Nature Conservancy of Canada has contracted with SWNEC for many years, to seed thousands of acres of farmland in Norfolk County in a very broad array of native wildflowers, grasses, trees and conifers. Visiting these fields at any time during the growing season is truly a delight to all one’s senses – a myriad of colours of plants inhabited by a diverse variety of common and rare fauna.”

In our world where staying in business and making a profit is sometimes a challenge, it’s great to realize there are new, non-traditional customers out there. Demand is growing for naturalization along highways, in conservation projects, wetland creation and there’s a newly emerging demand for plants that tolerate temporary submersion, for use in bioretention cells and rain gardens. If we continue being creative and look to the future, making a profit is possible, even while doing the right thing for the planet.

If you’re interested in learning more, consider reading Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy, and think about getting involved in local biodiversity and wildflower groups. Believe me, the exposure is also good for your business!
Sean James is owner of an Ontario-based environmentally-conscious landscape design/build/maintenance company. In addition, he is an eco-consultant and a popular speaker.