Native plants become popular in Pennsylvania

Both horticulturists, Sue Tantsits and Louise Schaefer were working at the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy in Emmaus, Pa., when a native plant sale fundraiser there suggested a demand. “People really wanted the natives,” Schaefer says.

In 2006, they purchased 10 roadside, rural acres in Orefield, Pa., and opened the Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery on 3 acres a year later. “Now, we’re a real nursery,” Schaefer says. “Each year we’ve had increased interest. There’s more awareness that there are differences between natives and non-natives, and of the need to differentiate.”

Photos Courtesy of Fringetree Design Studios, LLC.
Butterfly Weed
Joe-Pye Weed
New England Aster
Photo Courtesy of Edge of the Woods.
Edge of the Woods maintains several demonstration gardens to show homeowners howto use native plants in their landscape. Left, MaryEllen Snyder, Edge of the Woodsemployee, and Louise Schaefer, co-founder.

“Monoculture planting, one species in one large area, isn’t the way nature works,” says David Hughes, a landscape architect with Fringetree Design Studios in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., which emphasizes native plants and diversity and dynamics, not homogony. “If one (species of) insect gets in, it can work its way down the line, but if there’s more natural diversity, there’s less chance of widespread disturbance.”

In some ways, Pennsylvania is leading the way in the native plant specialty industry. Edge of the Woods is a retail native plant center, and also a small grower. Others like it in Pennsylvania include Sugarbush Nursery in Plowville, which recently turned all native, and Redbud Native Plant Nursery in Glen Mills. Millersville University hosted a Native Plants in the Landscape Conference at the beginning of June.

“Pennsylvania is doing its fair share now,” says Jim MacKenzie, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of the wholesale Octoraro Native Plant Nursery in Kirkwood, Pa. “Pennsylvania is our primary market, and we like to service own state and projects, but the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania is also a hotbed of horticultural activity with a savvy, knowledgeable clientele. It allows small native nurseries to become profitable because there’s more of an interest at the local level to buy and plant what’s regionally important.”

In the Northeast, some common native perennials are black-eyed Susan, cardinal flower, butterfly weed and swamp milkweed. Many trees (white oaks, sugar maple and red cedar), shrubs (red chokeberry and common witch hazel), ferns (hay-scented, sensitive, Christmas ferns) and grasses (broomsedge, little bluestem, bottlebrush grass) are native. Edge of the Woods carries over 300 native species.

Wholesale native plant growers like Octoraro have been popular since then-President Clinton signed federal legislation mandating the use of natives in federal projects.

Octoraro actively grows about 9 of its 14 acres, all in containers. “We sell out of everything we grow,” MacKenzie says. “We have for years, and now there continues to be more demand than supply. There’s definitely more opportunity for others to get involved.”

Groundbreaking research in Doug Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home,” may also be increasing the demand for natives, and the need to meet it. He speaks “to ordinary folk in a way that finally clicks,” Schaefer says. The University of Delaware entomologist has proven that insects cannot sustain themselves on most alien plants, and without native plants, insect populations decline. Though they’re at the bottom of the food chain, everything—songbirds, butterflies and wildlife—relies on them for habitat and food. Native plants are the basis for diverse communities, ecosystems and sustainable landscaping.

Edge of the Woods publishes a seasonal newsletter and hosts an educational festival each season. They also maintain demonstration beds. “It gives us a chance to show people what natives look like [in a designed setting],” Schaefer says.

From a practical business standpoint, native plants are so adapted to local conditions that they require less fertilizer, pesticides, maintenance and watering. Planted properly, they require minimal maintenance and are more hardy.

Edge of the Woods starts some by seed in the fall in screened-over flats, then lets it all winter over. Tantsits and Schaefer also winter over all overstock. To combat freeze-thaw cycles, they push all the pots as close together as they can, then pile mounds of leaves on top to mulch them in, Schaefer says.

They also use cuttings, and buy wholesale, usually perennials, as plugs, and larger shrubs and trees they haven’t yet grown to that size.

Summer’s challenge is irrigation. “They all get the same water, but the problem is they don’t all need the same water,” Schaefer says.

Edge of the Woods is also experimenting with soil mixes of compost, pine bark and perlite, and with replacing perlite with rice hulls for better drainage.

While the main goal remains making the plants available, the nursery also offers plant-oriented design services. As for planting with natives, while many design ideas come from nature itself, they also advocate their “right plant, right place” philosophy. Plant densely, but don’t “just plop anything anywhere,” Schaefer explains. “Natives are specialists, so they need to be in the right spot and you need to know how to care for them. We let people use our books. They read and make decisions.”

Still, changing unknowing customers’ philosophies is the greatest challenge. “People are so used to saying, ‘We have a white house, so we want pink flowers that will bloom to 6 feet in June because it’s our anniversary,’” Schaefer says. “We’re slowly getting people to flip their thinking, but they still have that spot to fill. We tell them to study the conditions of that spot. What’s the soil is like? How much sun does the spot get? What will grow there? Then, pick from that pallet. The plant has to do more than look pretty. It has a higher purpose.

“It can take a lot of time to educate people. We have lots of informational signs [some stock isn’t ready for purchase], and we post posters of native plants,” Schaefer says.

Admittedly, price can reflect the education offered to each client. “We spend time with our customers,” Schaefer says. “Very few buzz in and buzz out. And, we have live products, so the offerings are always changing. We can’t hand you a list that says we have this or that. We say, ‘We always have what we have, and it’s what we have today.’”

The author is a widely-published writer and English teacher at Emmaus (Pa.) High School. For over 25 years, he’s written in nearly every journalistic genre and been published in 75-plus national and regional magazines, as well as dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers.