Our local gardening and native plant network
By Monica Schultz
The day native plants arrived was the day my garden buzzed to life. Insects had found the butterfly weed, prairie clover, lupine, maidenhair fern, and other assorted tagged sprouts and seedlings that stood potted, ready to be planted. Standing on our hillside property, within an invisible sound field of countless pollinators, I heard their wings hum and actually felt their vibrations. Our hillside garden had never been so alive.
I now understand why it is easy to get hooked on gardening with native plants.
Residents and visitors alike know that conservation and beauty run deep in Benzie County. Efforts by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy have saved—and continue to save—large tracts of land, such as Arcadia Dunes (along Lake Michigan) and Railroad Point (adjacent to Crystal Lake). Even national organizations such as The Nature Conservancy have a presence here (think Zetterberg Preserve, near Point Betsie Lighthouse).
But just as important are a multitude of smaller, less visible efforts to save and reclaim wildlife habitat on patches of land that consist of fractions of an acre. These are the native plant gardens—patchworks of vital habitat— scattered amongst our homes, cottages, and cabins.
Creating A Network
Over the past 15 years, a dedicated group of individuals have created a regional network of native plant education and restoration efforts that now crosses counties and forms a bridge between private and public entities. This network allows owners of small plots of land to play a part in habitat restoration and preservation, too.
Some say local interest and passion for native plants—and their landscape possibilities—began with Suz McLaughlin, a caterer specializing in organic and local foods via her business Still Grinning Kitchens, whom The Betsie Current profiled back in a 2015 Q&A. (Read here: bit.ly/2qGoQLi) McLaughlin, a longtime Frankfort resident, humbly denies this, however.
“I learned a lot from a group of women on Leelanau Peninsula who worked with developers,” McLaughlin says. “The women harvested native plants on properties prior to new construction, then they sold the plants. When I worked for the Benzie Conservation District, I thought native plant sales were a good way to raise money, and so did Mary Pitcher, the Conservation District’s executive director at the time.
“To promote our fundraising and conservation efforts,” McLaughlin continues, “I gave talks about native plants and invited folks who were interested in native species gardening to a local Benzie Audubon meeting. It took off from there.”
Did it ever.
Carolyn Thayer, a landscape designer and owner of Designs in Bloom in Frankfort, was one of the people who showed up to the meetings. Soon, an informal native plant gardening group had formed under the umbrella of the Benzie Conservation District.
“Eventually, we decided we wanted something more formal,” Thayer says, laughing. “We thought of joining a national organization, but—well—there were all these rules. Where’s the fun in that?”
Hence the group formed its own board, and Plant It Wild was born in 2000.
Growing The Network
Plant It Wild is an independent, nonprofit, native plant group, based in Benzie and Manistee counties in Northern Michigan. The mission of Plant It Wild is to foster greater awareness and appreciation of the fragile natural environment of our region. Through direct efforts, Plant It Wild works to preserve, protect, and promote the natural beauty of the area and its plant communities.
Whereas there were few (if any) online resources when McLaughlin got started, Plant It Wild’s website now offers a multitude of links to specialists who assist those who are interested in preserving and restoring habitat. The list includes local native plant nurseries and organizations, such as the Invasive Species Network, Master Gardeners, the Benzie Conservation District, the Grand Traverse Conservation District, and many others.
But back then, the network was less established. Especially when it came to growers.
“We didn’t have a huge inventory of harvested plants,” McLaughlin says. “We needed a native plant nursery to supply us. Mary Pitcher was able to develop a relationship with Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota—it was the only nursery that would ship to us! But we both wanted a more local supplier, so I approached Paul and Jody Zemsta of Misty Ridge Greenhouse in Mesick.”
Paul Zemsta confirms this.
“We have been growing natives for about 15 years,” says Paul Zemsta, who sells native plants at both the Elberta and Traverse City farmers’ markets. “It started when Suz McLaughlin visited us at the Elberta Farmers’ Market—she kept telling us that the community needed a local place to source native plants. With her encouragement, we started collecting native plant seeds within a 50-mile radius of our greenhouse. Now, we have our own plants that we collect seed off of. Since then, we’ve sold thousands of native plants, and we would’ve never done that if it wasn’t for Suz McLaughlin.”
Several other local nurseries have begun to grow native plants to meet the demand, including Greystone Gardens, outside of Honor, a nursery run by Tom Brodhagen, a third-generation grower.
“My grandparents ran West Winds Greenhouse on M-22,” Brodhagen says. “Their property is now part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I started working in their greenhouses. I’ve always been outdoorsy. Always loved native plants. Five years ago, I decided to grow natives and offer them to customers. They’re more in demand, as people realize how hardy they are and how valuable to the ecosystem.”
Recently, Four Seasons Nursery out of Traverse City began carrying native trees and shrubs.
“It was a really big deal to have such a large nursery come on board and carry larger native plants in our region,” Thayer says. “They’ve dedicated themselves to growing and selling trees, shrubs, and perennials at landscape sizes.”
Using The Network
Thayer uses several plant suppliers in her landscape design work, and she advocates for the beauty of native plants, as well as ecosystem restoration.
“We know plants are very specialized, and the relationship between native insects and specific plants is specialized, as well,” Thayer says. “Take away one specific plant, and you take away what could be the only food source for a specific pollinator. For example, take away the milkweed family, and we lose the monarchs: no milkweed, no monarchs.”
Where does “local” fit in, then? Various types of milkweed grow throughout the United States, for instance.
“I wouldn’t suggest that people take milkweed from Florida and replant it in Michigan—I get asked that a lot,” Thayer says. “Climate varies throughout the U.S., and different milkweed genotypes bloom at different times and are adapted to different climates. So plant local milkweed; it’s adapted to our climate and our growing season.”
It is easy to catch the native plant landscape “bug.” If it seems overwhelming or if you are uneasy about starting, don’t be. Because of the work of McLaughlin, Pitcher, Zemstra, Brodhagen, Thayer, and others, there are now many resources. (Just look at those listed in the sidebar.)
“You can go as big or as small as you want. Even a small patch helps; don’t underestimate the power of a small patch of native garden,” Thayer advises. “The important thing is to design a garden you’ll enjoy and that—happily—supports the local ecosystem, too. Any garden can be tackled in stages.”
In writing this article, as one interview led to another, I realized that the roots of our local native plant trend are difficult to dig up (pun intended). I mentioned this to McLaughlin.
“But that’s the thing,” she laughs. “They’re not roots, are they? They’re seeds. They float around and spread all over.”
Monica Schultz lives just outside of Frankfort, where she enjoys her garden while spending as little time as possible actually working in it.