Attending Carolinian Canada and WWF-Canada’s native plant forum in Toronto on March 7 was an eye-opening experience. Admittedly, I’ve never thought of native plants as stars of a garden or landscape – they seem more utilitarian, fulfilling a purpose and role for pollinators and the wider ecosystem, but not necessarily doing much aesthetically for my garden.
But the forum conference has me feeling inspired – why not prioritize native plants for my new back garden? There are plenty of “practical” native plants that are also simply lovely to look at (my usual number one priority when choosing plants). So why not stretch my boundaries a bit, and do my part to preserve native plants in our natural environments?
As a native plant-newbie and a (small) backyard gardener, I learned a few things at “Shifting the Paradigm – Growing the Native Plant Industry through Innovation and Collaboration” forum that got me thinking about native plants differently. It was a full house with some trade booths and compelling speakers, with the day focused on answering the question, “How do we work together to build a thriving native plant industry?”
Here are a few things that stuck with me.
1. We’ve lost our knowledge of native plants and the reciprocal relationship between us and plants. Several speakers brought up the knowledge gap that exists with native plants. Most people can’t identify native plants or invasive plants, or wouldn’t even recognize invasive plants as a problem (they are). But how can people take action to preserve native plants and the role they play in our ecosystems if they don’t know what they’re protecting? Bringing more awareness, champions or trendsetters to the cause of native plants can help, and this includes the educational role that municipalities and retailers play.
2. Many people and communities, especially Indigenous communities, have been passionate and appreciative of native plants for a long time. Some municipalities, utility companies, nurseries and landscapers have been pushing for more native plants in their own respective worlds, but it’s important to recognize that every market is different. For example, home gardeners are drawn to aesthetics, familiarity, ease of planting and trends. Municipalities and utility companies are looking at cost and volume. One speaker from Hydro One drew a cost comparison between turfgrass (estimated $70/hectare) and native plant mix (estimated $1500/hectare). That can be a tough sell for a city or company thinking about landscaping choices on the land they own.
3. There is a misconception that native plants can’t tolerate tough urban conditions, and that exotic plants are just unavoidable in some gardens. However, native plants are resilient, adaptable and – quite literally – designed for many of the conditions we live in. They evolved, grew and flourished in our landscape and supported the surrounding wildlife and environment.
4. Building stock takes time. Volume of supply and demand came up repeatedly. How can nurseries feel confident growing native plants for a market that may not be there in three years’ time, when the plant is ready to be sold? Growers take on the risk of growing plants based on an expected market, and a reliable foundation must be there before the market for native plants can expand confidently. That foundation could be conservation authorities, for example, which value the role native plants have in preserved natural areas.
5. Plants start with seeds, and seed conservation can be our biological safety net. Conservation of seeds needs to be a priority for growing the native plant industry. Traceability of native plants with proper seed tracking and verification is necessary to uphold standards and ensure that native plants are grown sustainably and locally. One speaker mentioned that a good place to start with standards like these could be in municipal procurement policies.
6. You’ve got to get home gardeners on board, and to do this, native plants have to be trendy, accessible and credible. This is part of the rationale behind Carolinian Canada and WWF-Canada’s new “In the Zone” initiative, which helps home gardeners, landscapers and retailers make informed choices about the native plants they buy through information sharing and identification (how to choose the right native plant) and standards (how to ensure that plant is what its label says, and that it was grown sustainably and locally). This new initiative is a response to the challenges and opportunities that were discussed at the forum.
At the end of the day, we must talk about why native plants, pollinators and biodiversity are important. By maintaining a place for native plants in our home gardens, city parks, public landscapes and conservation areas, we support the surrounding wildlife and biodiversity — part of the ecosystem we live in. They are part of our natural heritage. This includes backyard gardens like mine, which likely won’t be home to a hundred monarchs or help sustain the health of our watershed. Instead, including native plants will help me grow a garden that’s right for this climate and supports living creatures around it. And it will be beautiful, too.
About the forum organizers
The Carolinian Canada Coalition, based in southwestern Ontario, brings together thousands of people and groups who care for the unique habitat network called the Carolinian life zone in eastern North America characterized primarily by a predominance of deciduous trees.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada is the country’s largest international conservation organization, with the active support of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.