Why Survey Native Plant Growers?

Although there is high potential for growing the native plant nursery industry, supply often fails to meet consumer demand.

The demand for native plants is driven by diverse user-groups and supportive entities. Supply is largely determined by native plant seed producers and wholesale native plant nurseries, who are themselves constrained by the availability of permits.

There are many reasons that complicate the ‘scaling up’ of native plant nurseries to meet the growing needs of ornamental markets. Specifically, there are a wide range of research questions related to the sustainable collection, propagation, and use of native seed and plants in ornamental landscapes that need to be addressed, in order to best serve the needs of native plant producers and sustainably grow the native plant market for ornamental landscapes. We believe that the answers to many of these questions would be best developed and shared among growers, themselves, through a growers’ network.

In January 2023, we will survey the native plant nursery industry, as a starting point to facilitate the formation of national native plant growers’ network, with regional hubs. Specifically, the survey will help determine the organizational structure and level of engagement that participants want in a native plant growers’ network, as well as identify teaching, research, and extension priorities.

What are some of the teaching, research, and extension priorities that native plant growers must grapple with? Just a few are listed below.

Ornamental Markets Have High Aesthetic Standards

Many native plant growers focus on the restoration market, and aren’t necessarily growing plants to meet the aesthetic standards that are of utmost importance in the ornamental market that provides plants for home gardens, hotel/resort landscapes, public parks, and retail districts. However, the ornamental market might provide a more stable source of sales, compared to the often unpredictable needs of habitat restoration efforts post-wildfire or other natural disaster.

In addition, native plant starts are often sold in a vegetative state, without eye-catching blooms and color. Helping consumers better understand that the beauty of a plant extends beyond aesthetics, to also include the ecological beauty that plants can bring to a site, directly ties the plant back to customers’ motivations for seeking out native plants for purchase.

Sustainable Sourcing and Propagation Protocols are Lacking for Many Plants

Many growers are seeking guidance on ecologically sound and sustainable methods of native plant propagation (including seed sources), production, and better and more transparent access to sustainably sourced seed. Whether or not, or the extent to which guidelines for restoration projects should apply to the use of native plants in ornamental landscapes, and how to communicate the high standards for collection and production to consumers is likely to be a contentious discussion.

Should methods be in place for matching seeds’ source material to the location of an ornamental planting? Should there be a standard seal of approval or certification that customers can look for, to know that they are buying sustainably source, appropriate seed and plant materials? The answers to these questions are currently unknown. What is clear is that discussion and debate about these types of questions should be led by native plant producers, who have a strong vested interest in protecting the integrity of their product as the market for native plants expands.

In terms of native plant production, production manuals provide important information on practices such as plant propagation and the timing of planting to maximize establishment. However, available information is often insufficient to meet the needs of wholesale and retail nurseries, who are often compelled to meet production and delivery deadlines. For example, production guidelines for ornamental plants typically include detailed guidelines and timing for each step of the production process, such as the time it will take for a cutting to root into a 50-cell tray, or the time it takes for a transplant to fill out and finish a 4-gallon container. This level is detail is currently unavailable for most native plants. Developing more detailed production guidelines for native plant growers serving the ornamental landscape industry will help growers to better plan and estimate their inventory, which will in turn make native plants more accessible and predictable to high volume end-users.

End Users Need Guidance for Selection and Use of More Native Plants in Ornamental Landscapes

Architects, landscape architects (LAs), designers (LDs), and other end-users of native plants need better and reliable access to native plant materials, and better guidance for selecting, specifying, and using native plants; moves that would help grow stable demand and a premium for native plants. These groups are enthusiastic about native plants. However, beyond a general lack of availability, LAs and LDs are limited by the need to know a priori how a plant will perform in an ornamental landscape. For example, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and Douglas spirea (Spiraea douglassi) are beautiful native plants for Pacific Northwest landscapes. However, many LAs/LDs won’t include these plants in smaller-scale designs, because these plants are known to grow too big, too fast, for most yard-scale gardens. If a designer doesn’t know how a promising and beautiful native plant will perform in a particular landscape, they will not include that plant in a design.

Questions of Cultivars, Genetic Diversity, and Ecotypes Need to Be Addressed

Many of the plants marketed and sold as natives may in fact be cultivars derived from native plants (i.e. native genotypes bred or selected for ornamental characteristics or resistance traits).

Restoration projects define native plants as those that naturally occur in a specific ecoregion and habitat (e.g. an ecotype), where over the course of evolutionary time, they have adapted to physical conditions and co-evolved with other species in the system. Ecotypes inherently offer a suite of ecosystem services compared to introduced species.

Many consumers are driven to purchase native plants to support environmental goals, yet don’t know the difference between an ecotype and cultivar derived from native plants, or the difference between source-identified and mass propagated plants. Furthermore, mass propagated plants are often propagated clonally, which reduces genetic diversity of plant populations and increases vulnerability to disturbances. Differences between clonally-propagated native plants, cultivars derived from native plants, and ecotypes that are genetically matched to local conditions result in both growers and users of native plants grappling with the questions ‘is it native?’ and ‘does it matter?’

The impact of these nuanced definitions and plant choices on environmental outcomes has yet to be resolved, and requires attention from the scientific community, as well as discussion, debate, and leadership from native plant growers.

Who Will We Survey?

This survey is specifically targeted to native plant nursery growers. We developed a list of more than 800 native plant nursery growers in October and November 2022. To do this, we started with a list of 339 native plant nursery operations that was developed by Dr. Rick Martinson, of the Worthy Garden Club as part of his Ph.D. dissertation project at Oregon State University. Next, team members (and particularly Mallory Mead and Cammie Donaldson) vetted every nursery on the list via calls and emails. Mallory and Cammie also added several more native plant nurseries to the list by drawing upon professional networks (such as FANN), cross referencing the USDA National Native Plant Nursery and Seed Directory, and building upon a list developed and generously shared with us by Don Norman of Go Natives. In the end, we ended up with a list of 815 native plant nursery professionals, who will be invited to participate in the survey.

Survey Results

We compiled and shared the results of the survey as part of our webinar series. Make sure to register for the August 16th webinar, to be the first to hear the findings, as well as next steps to growing a Native Plant Nursery Network.

The survey report is also posted here, for all who are interested in the full results.

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3 Replies to “Why Survey Native Plant Growers?”

  1. I participated in the Survey today, just a few minutes ago. We are a retail only native plant nursery, and at the end of the survey realized I was not your target group.

    One point other than that above was the people like myself who are trying to organically grow this movement have a great deal of time and money invested in the required education to differentiate ourselves in this market, so hope that your efforts are sensitive to those of us who have become experts in the field. I am concerned that the very competitive nature of the landscape field would lead to others stating their ecological intentions and in the end designing/planting material that is best suited to their profit driven goals.

    We struggle to stay afloat in a market dominated by non-native, carbon and pesticide heavy operations, our operations are very sensitive to cultural and economic changes.

    1. It is our sincere intention to respect and support native plant growers ~ who are indeed the true experts in the field. At this point in time . . . as native plants become ever more popular among gardeners . . . I hope that our project and survey might represent a good opportunity for native plant growers to define the future of the field in a way that makes these differences clear to the average consumer.

      Thank you for participating in the survey!

    2. Chris, we are intentionally reaching out to both native plant growers and resellers — hopefully the latter will be mostly entities like yours, concerned with doing the very best for the environment. Your input is definitely needed!

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