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Ask the Experts: Where Do the Pros Go to Source Native Plants?

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Ask the Experts: Where Do the Pros Go to Source Native Plants?

March 27, 2024

This is part of a series with Perfect Earth Project, a nonprofit dedicated to toxic-free, nature-based gardening, on how you can be more sustainable in your landscapes at home.  

Ever since I spotted the heart-shaped leaves of a violet in my backyard as a child, I’ve been smitten with native plants. Decades later the excitement has not abated: spring beauties, lady slipper orchids, gentians, bloodroot—“heaven in a wildflower.” It was only much later that I learned about how important these native plants are to our ecosystem. They support insects, birds, and other wildlife, help prevent runoff and erosion, sequester carbon, and just make people happier. Thankfully, more and more people are tuning into the beauty and benefits of native plants. But knowing where to find them and what to grow can be overwhelming. With that in mind, we’ve asked some of our favorite horticulture experts to share their favorite sources.   

 Above: Coastal plain Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium) and New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) grow in seed increase plots at The Hickories, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a hub of the Eco59 Farmer-Led Seed Collective. Photograph by Sefra Alexandra | Seed Huntress.
Above: Coastal plain Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium) and New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) grow in seed increase plots at The Hickories, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a hub of the Eco59 Farmer-Led Seed Collective. Photograph by Sefra Alexandra | Seed Huntress.

As Sefra Alexandra, aka The Seed Huntress and Directress of The Ecotype Project, says, “We all have a role to play in stewarding and caretaking our local environment. When you implement these species on your landscape, you can embark on your own seed hunting adventure and save some seeds to share with friends, your garden club, or local schools so that together we can spread these seeds of resilience!” 

How can one learn more about native plants? 

Above: At Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, woodland phlox, foamflower, and eastern columbine mingle along a path. Photograph by Toshi Yano.

“Let me begin by saying that the choice to include native plants into your garden is one that should be celebrated!” says Uli Lorimer, director of horticulture at Native Plant Trust. “Gardening feels good, lowers stress, and connects you with nature. This journey is one of fulfillment and satisfaction, a path of empowerment and compassion. There are many great resources online to learn more about the native plants of your region.” Here are some of his favorites:

And here are some great websites Alexandra recommends for general information on native plants:

“Also check out your state’s native plant society, or local botanical society. The best way to spread the word is to share your passion and knowledge with your friends and neighbors!” says Lorimer.

What do you need to know before buying native plants? 

Pollinators zip to bee balm, like this swallowtail butterfly, which sips nectar from wild bee balm in a garden designed by Refugia. Photograph courtesy of Refugia, from Garden Visit: Refugia’s Quiet Revolution in Philadelphia’s Suburbs.
Above: Pollinators zip to bee balm, like this swallowtail butterfly, which sips nectar from wild bee balm in a garden designed by Refugia. Photograph courtesy of Refugia, from Garden Visit: Refugia’s Quiet Revolution in Philadelphia’s Suburbs.

Lorimer suggests asking the right questions when you arrive at the nursery: 

  • Were these plants grown with any types of pesticides? This is crucially important, as no one wants to unwittingly poison the very insects you are looking to attract. 
  • Can you tell me a bit more about what wildlife interacts with this plant? Just because you saw a bee on it does not necessarily mean it’s good for all pollinators. About a quarter of our native bees in the Northeast are specialists, meaning they require the nectar and pollen of specific plants in order to survive. Wouldn’t you want to know what those plants are? The ability for native plants to support insect life is tremendous, orders of magnitude more than nonnative plants. Who eats all those insects? Hungry baby songbirds do, one of the best reasons to use native plants. 
  • Where was the plant sourced? Locally sourced plants are better adapted to the timing and emergence of flowers and insects. This exquisite choreography between plant and insect has evolved over countless generations and is tightly synced. Using locally sourced plants helps keep both sides in step together.

Should you buy seeds, plugs, or pots?

Seeds are the least expensive option, followed by plugs, and then larger pots. If you have the time and interest, go with seeds. “Seeding is best for those who are patient and enjoy getting into the ‘weeds’ of plant biology and the growing process. Preparation is key, growing is slow, and weeding is ongoing—especially in the first couple of years,” says Abby Lawless, principal of Farm Landscape Design. “Each species of plant has specific germination requirements. For example, some may require periods of cold, moisture, exposure to light, oscillating temperatures, and so on.” (Read: The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Cold Stratification?’)

Her recommendation? “Work with native plugs, which are small, young plants that can range from 2- to 2.5-inch-wide and 2- to 5-inch-deep. Growing plugs requires far fewer resources than larger potted plants, and because they are being planted at such a young age, they adapt quickly to environmental conditions and grow to be strong, vigorous plants.”

What are some trusted nurseries for native plants? 

Above: Producing yellow flowers in early spring, golden ragwort attracts small native bees. Jacob’s ladder is a pale blue bloomer that reaches a foot in height, is deer resistant, and is loved by native bumble bees. Both are sold at Prairie Moon. Photographs courtesy of Prairie Moon.

Jeff Lorenz, founder of Refugia Design: “For retail, I look for the American Beauties line, which is available at many retail nurseries. For mail order, there’s also Ernst Seed, Roundstone Native Seed Company, Pinelands Nursery & Supply, Prairie Moon Nursery, and the Wild Seed Project.” (Read: Refugia’s Quiet Revolution in Philadelphia’s Suburbs.)

Jeff Lynch, director of horticulture at Wethersfield Estate & Garden: “A very good and mail order retail plant nursery is Wood Thrush Native Plant Nursery. Based in Virginia, they grow rare and unusual varieties. My best wholesale sources for native plants are Kind Earth Growers, New Moon Nursery, and North Creek Nurseries. Even though most homeowners can’t buy from them, they’re great resources with an incredible wealth of information on native plants.”

Toshi Yano, director of Perfect Earth Project: “For gardeners around the Hudson Valley, these nurseries are worth the trip: Earth Tones Native Plant Nursery, Tiny Meadow Farm, and Barkaboom Native Plants.

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