Recently, I drove over an hour in traffic each way to visit North Georgia Native Plant Nursery to buy two one-gallon native mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia). It was worth it. Mountain laurel is a much sought-after evergreen shrub with gorgeous delicate white
to multiple shades of pink flowers that attract hummingbirds and pollinators. It is also the host plant for the laurel sphinx moth. Mountain laurel is related to the blueberry and cranberry, but every part of the plant is poisonous. Mountain laurel grows best in dappled shade in moist, acidic soil with plenty of drainage. It grows about foot a year but becomes a large shrub at maturity depending on where it is situated. I hope my new laurels will thrive in a slightly moist, slightly woodsy area of my backyard that gets dappled sun.
Mountain laurel has been on my wish list for a few years, but I haven’t seen the straight species for sale anywhere locally until March when I visited North Georgia Native Plant Nursery to fill up my car with native plants for my birthday. The laurels there weren’t ready for sale yet so I e-mailed the owner Katy in April and again last week so I wouldn’t miss getting them when they were ready. Even though the 1-gallon laurels are being offered for sale now, the 3-gallon ones are not quite ready. I learned to appreciate the time and thought taken to ensure the plants sold are in the best condition to succeed in my landscape. This experience has also helped me better understand the time and care independent native plant retail nurseries need to spend to sell plants. These are not cultivars that have been shipped in bulk from a wholesale nursery in a neighboring state ready to sell. They are grown in Georgia.
Knowing if native plants are locally sourced and locally grown makes a difference. Kim Eierman at EcoBenficial makes some good points about asking the same questions when you buy plants as you do when you buy food at the farmer’s market about where and how they were grown. When you buy from local native plant retail nurseries you are getting plants that have acclimated to your local ecosystem, will be healthier and more disease resistant, and are often local genotypes grown from seed that offer higher habitat value and support biodiversity. You will often speak to the owner or passionate staff who know about native plants and can help you pick the right plants for the right place and offer follow-up advice. When you buy local ecotypes there is little worry about that you will be adding an invasive to your yard like you might find at a plant sale that also has popular non-native plants for sale. There are also too many times diseases have been spread from plants grown in far away places or even other parts of the country.
For all the buzz native plants are getting right now, I was the only customer on a sunny, midweek spring day at the North Georgia Native Plant Nursery. I passed a big box store, a local nursery chain, and a traditional independent nursery on my way to the nursery and their parking lots were busy with folks filling their car with non-native, exotic ornamental plants that will offer little habitat value where they are planted. This is the obvious competition small, independent native plant retail nurseries face. Changing this scenario will be a long process of education and raising awareness about the value of native plants. The culture around landscaping is already changing, but slowly. One approach to advocating for native plants is to encourage traditional nurseries and big box stores to set aside an area for native plants. This may or may not ultimately succeed and there’s a worry it will create more problems for nature. There’s already an unfortunate trend for the traditional nursery trade to latch onto the popularity of native plants by offering a range of cultivars of native plants (“nativars”) that are not grown locally and may even be treated with pesticides. This kinda misses the point of planting natives in the first place.
The parking lot is also always full at the seasonal plant sales run by various non-profit organizations. People wait in line before these sales even start to snatch up all the native plants they can get. A friend told me a funny story about a plant sale she went to where a large group of mainly older folks lined up next to each other and when the sale opened there was a geriatric sprint towards the plants! The organizations hosting the sales often buy the plants from growers who are rarely local and may or may not use pesticides. Often non-native plants or edibles are sold to bulk up the profits. Sometimes plugs are uppotted to sell for more money which is a practice you won’t find done at a native plant retail nursery. I know from experience how easy it is to make a lot of money in a short amount of time selling native plants. Years ago, I had a native plant sale in my driveway to supplement my growing gardening addiction and made $300 in less than an hour!
Yet there is no way around the reality that these sales are fundamentally competing with the stability of small, independent nurseries. Yearly native plant sales may support the general use of native plants, but they do not support the local retail nurseries already invested in offering native plants year ‘round. Come Monday the volunteers or paid staff at a non-profit will be doing the work of their organization or going about their regular lives (which is not selling native plants), and the native plant nursery owner will show up to a quiet nursery filled with locally sourced and grown native plants ready for customers who already bought their plants from a plant sale where the plants may have come from an out of state wholesale grower who supplied the organization selling them with cheaper plants to resell. When I was buying my mountain laurels, I spoke with Katy who own the North Georgia Native Plant Nursery about the many challenges facing anyone who is brave enough to open a native plant retail nursery. She confirmed that during the busiest time of the year she finds herself competing with the growing number of seasonal plant sales. Kari Ruder owner of Naturewise Nursery in Cocoa, FL echoed the uphill battle when she wrote in the Florida Native Plant Society blog “Do you support native nurseries by actually buying plants, or just like the idea”. The struggle is real.
The continued existence and growth of native plant retail nurseries is dependent on how many plants they sell, but they do not have people lining up at their gates when they open every weekend, particularly if their target customer is at a local organization’s annual native plant sale. As I become more aware about the challenges facing native plant nurseries, I’m reconsidering my advice to encourage buying native plants anywhere you can find them and will instead strongly urge anyone buying native plants to prioritize buying them from local native plant nurseries or from plant sales with plants sourced from local nurseries. The native plant nursery owners are working 7 days a week, 365 days a year to stay in business. It’s not a fundraiser or a hobby for them, but their livelihood. To encourage the growth of native plant nurseries we need to support them, not pick away at them. They need us to be the first place they shop at every season, not the last.
I have equally strong opinions about finding ways to get native plants into the hands of as many people as possible. The issue about how expensive plants are for young people just starting out or people who don’t have the means to fill their yards with native plants is a tricky one. The more I think about this, the more I realize I don’t hear complaints about people balking at the price of spending $10 at a big box store or a local non-native nursery for a large, bushy, flowering, pesticide and chemically altered plant to plunk in the ground. The main challenge might be one of educating consumers about the habitat value of smaller, more homely looking and often slower growing native plants. If money is a concern, buying fewer native plants and doing research to find plants that grow quickly, or self-seed might be the answer. Native plants can still fill out a space over time through runners, rhizomes or by self-seeding. For example, instead of buying non-native annuals that need to be replaced every year, a one-quart jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) or partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) planted this year will self-seed so prolifically that there may never be a need to buy another one in the future. Buy a one-quart perennial mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) or native strawberry (fragaria virginiana) and it will ramble over an increasingly larger area of the yard for years to come!
I would still encourage buying native plants over non-natives at every turn. I am also still a fan of responsibly sharing plants with fellow native plant friends to create the same community around native plant gardening that already exists around traditional gardening. It’s the organizations that are fundraising by selling native plants that might need to reflect on their own general mission and how it aligns with selling native plants. If it’s related to conservation, the environmental, or encouraging the use of normalization of landscapes using native plants, then helping to make native plants more common and available all year by actively supporting local native plant retail nurseries is obvious. The core native plant buyers are already all in and the ones being targeted by organizations hosting native plant sales. The big box non-native plant buyers are being encouraged to switch to native plants are not the ones who show up at niche native plant sales. They need an easy native plant alternative nursery option when we raise awareness and extoll the virtues of native plants. The native plant retail nurseries need both kinds of buyers to stay alive.
I’ve noticed some organization work with the local retail native plant nurseries as partners who supply them with native plants for resale. I don’t know about the business model of this approach, but from the outside it appears to be more of a partnership than offering the same product for sale. Inviting the nurseries as vendors to non-plant sale events seems to be a better way to show support for small, independent nurseries doing the right thing for the environment. The big picture is we’re all in agreement that we need to change the culture of landscaping to include using native plants. These nurseries are the frontline offering a service that we need more, not less of. They need our support.
If you live in the Atlanta area, the following are the three main native plant retail nurseries I would encourage you to buy from. If you don't live in Atlanta, seek out the local native plant retails nursery and buy visit them to see what they have! North Georgia Native Plant Nursery (previously known as Nightsong Native Plant Nursery) is a small independent nursery north of Atlanta offering only native plants. They are open on Friday from 10:00am through 5:00pm and Saturdays from 10:00am through 3:00pm. Contact by text 770.401.8896 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment Monday through Thursday. The address is 1095 Epperson Road, Canton. The owner is super helpful and knowledgeable - I always seem to leave with a carload of plants! Beech Hollow Wildflower Farms has an expanded retail outdoor area where they’ve added a Reading Room and Reference Room in Scottdale (near Your Dekalb Farmers Market). The hours are Thursday-Sunday from 10:00am through 4:00pm. The address is 393 North Clarendon Ave, Scottsdale. I’m thrilled that we now have a closer and more consistent native plant resource intown near where I live. Their original location is also worth a drive. It’s at 575 Elberton Road, Lexington (706.623.2020)
Nearly Native Plant Nursery is a fun, independent nursery to visit south of Atlanta. They are open Wednesday-Saturday from 9:00am through 6:00pm. They are closed Sunday-Tuesday. The address is 776 McBride Road, Fayetteville. Call 770-460-6284 for questions. As the name states, they Nearly Native Nursery has both native and non-native plants. They also do mail order. Small, local, native plant nurseries are doing the hard and often unappreciated work of nursery pioneering by selling native plants to the public. They are more likely to be sowing the seeds, propagating locally, sourcing their plants responsibly, and having a deeper understanding of the plants they sell than larger traditional nurseries. They are educating the public about how landscapes can be filled with genetically diverse native plants that nurtures nature. These kind of nurseries have plenty of challenges staying afloat. We all need to visit them often instead of loading up on native plants from other sources. Take a field trip this week and see what one near you has to offer!
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