When ecologist Stefan Weber describes his work collecting native plant seeds, it brings to mind a rescue mission of sorts.
“We see these tiny wonderful remnant populations that you know are destined to be killed because you’re in the site of a future highway,” Weber says. “Chainsaws are buzzing in the background as you hurry to gather seeds to save before it’s too late.”
Weber works for St. Williams Nursery and Ecology Centre, the biggest for-profit nursery in Ontario, so in spite of the ‘do-good’ thrust, Weber reminds me it’s a business that sells bulk seeds: “We make money doing this.”
With his team, Weber goes into the wild, collects a small amount of seed to be scaled up for agricultural practices on the farm and greenhouses, and then propagates the plants.
Source identifying all of their seeds, the nursery grows over 500 different species ranging from native wildflowers, trees and shrubs to grasses, and even aquatics.
As a seed specialist, Weber is in charge of “everything seed.”
This includes timing when a crop is ready to be harvested, collection of that crop, the drying, the processing, the cleaning.
This large-scale restoration work involves growing every single seed into a plant.
It takes one or two generations to get a room full of plants –like a substantial field of plants. In years, that’s like two years to scale up from ‘wild’ to ‘field restoration status.’
It’s a rewarding occupation. Weber, who’s been with the nursery for two years, describes how they get to go everywhere: “We find things that conservation authorities don’t know are there. We see territory that they don’t get a chance to see.”
Securing the future of seeds.
The government runs a seed nursery in Angus, Ont. that mostly grows trees and around twenty different plant species.
“We are doing a more intensive, thorough job at plant restoration then they are, but everyone is playing a part, we are not the only ones.”
Indeed. We all have a part to play. But the challenge is getting more people involved in planting native species: people don’t find them appealing to the eye.
“Everybody needs to work on how to sell native plants,” Weber recommends. “These are beautiful when they are mature. They have to be in a large enough format at the time of sale.”
There are other problems. Most people have a narrow idea of what constitutes native plants, Weber points out. “When you say native plants, people think “finicky” as in trillium or “messy” as in golden rod.”
(For the record, I have trilliums growing at the front of my house, with no thanks to me. They just popped up there, one fine morning in summer).
“There are so many other choices. We need to market them.”
Not only do we need to do a better job of marketing native plants, Weber suggests we need more bio-literacy: “We take plants for granted—like a backdrop, the stage of which drama unfolds. We rely on plants, yet the average people couldn’t identify a walnut or coffee plant but they can enjoy consuming them. I think we really need to be aware of our surroundings.”
Why seed diversity?
Diversity it like an insurance policy: we don't know what is going to happen in the future. Bio-diversity is like hedging your bet. In Southwestern Ontario, we have the highest bio-diversity of anywhere else in the country.
As well, with most of Canada’s population living in this region, there is pressure to develop further, “but we are displacing a lot of species in doing so,” Weber comments.
He’s thinking about the missed opportunities for restoration that happen when highways are built, as native species grow well in disruptive situations. “Invasive species get in instead,” Weber says. “We are taking these places away and we are not being smart with our land use. There are a lot of abandoned fields, empty corridors, along railways that are being left to harbour weeds and pests.”
Diversity in plants offer ecological services: clean water, food for pollinators (which are pollinating our cherry crops), pest control such as for herbivores that would otherwise damage crops, and it’s great for halting garlic mustards--an invasive species. “You build these ecosystems, these chains, and the services start coming back.”
We need show cases. People need exposure to these types of gardens. Enter the Pollinator Paradise Project. With its ‘Adopt a park’ strategy, its work with schools and community gardens, Hamilton will have no shortage of examples to offer anyone who is keen to get planting. Please continue to check our updates and events listing to learn how you can get involved.
Weber suggests the following to make the potential gardener’s foray into gardening for pollinators a success:
If you want to go native in an urban setting, less is more. Have one focal plant and build everything around that with repetition (such as a hedge fence): “That’s how you win over your neighbours.”
Plants are instant gratification but seeds are great because you get hundreds of thousands of plants and they are so cheap. Plant in groups; research your groups.
What makes for good seed?
Look for as local as possible, collect your own seed in your own backyard.
“You want to see more rare butterflies or plants, plant more rare plants.” Stefan Weber.
There you have it. Go out and pollinate!