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Carolinian Canada’s paradigm shift unites industry to take native plants mainstream


Monday, March 19th, 2018

Alvar habitats provide model for highway restoration planting

It was a pretty average gray day that did nothing to hint at the wonders to come. Expectations were high for Shifting the Paradigm Forum 2018: Growing the native plant industry through innovation and collaboration.

Right off the bat Allan Arthur was blasting about how tough native plants can be used in the most difficult conditions with positive results. Arthur offered examples like the Red Hill Valley Project “it’s cliff alvar habitat… we grow in that (we had a wonderful conversation later about the use of ecological references but more on that later).”

Arthur outlines the challenges of growing native plants

Originally St. Williams Nursery was government owned and run until it was sold off during the Harris years. With a capacity to produce 40 million conifer seedlings and 400 acres of field production this nursery still is the go to place for source identified seed and plants in southern Ontario.


St. Williams Nursery greenhouse production Photo Jonas Spring

According to Arthur the biggest challenge is forecasting what buyers will want as it can take years to produce a specific species. Arthur sited a great example of the million trees New York city project. Where “contracts were  tendered out on a 10 yr program so nurseries could plan.”

For St. Williams source identified seed is absolutely critical as it is often required for restoration projects. “90 percent of the seed we grow is collected by us and the closing of the Ontario Tree Seed Plant (OTSP) will impact us too (I wrote about the closure here).”

Arthur explains”We also produce seed in house (seed orchards). We go out and collect from remnant populations. Knowing where they are and monitoring their health is critical going forward. Tracking and creating conservation datasets holds high value for future conservation projects. The problem is that nobody pays for that part of the work (more on this later). This work is a public good!”

Public-private partnerships help native plants go mainstream

Allan provided examples from the Iowa where state funds have gone into researching and developing native plant projects along highways. This is also being done here too through the Ministry of Transporation.

The big takeaway was Arthur’s desire for native plants to go mainstream, the huge potential for native plants in green infrastructure (especially green roofs) and need for collaboration to get the ball rolling.

Carolinian Canada open to collaboration with industry

After a short break where attendees mingled and networked. Jarma Jalava brought us back to our seats with an introduction to Carolinian Canada and the great programs they have in place. Jalava told us “we look at nature as infrastructure” and ended with a quick plug for the Grow Wild Green Expo in London April 7th 2018 (I won two tickets to this event later in the day!)

carolinian canada photoJarma Jalava from Carolinian Canada second from right. Photo by mtphelm

Panel discusses need for collaboration and challenges ahead

The rest of the day was divided into three panels. The first panel was Tony Digiovanni, Mike Farrel, Patricia Landry, Melissa Spearing and Andre Vashist. There was definitely consensus on:

  1. the need and desire among all parties to collaborate (great news and perhaps the beginning of a new chapter?).
  2. everyone agreed it is really difficult to forecast the market and respond to demand that can be fickle.

The following is a selection of quotes from the discussion to give you a sense of it. For the complete story check out my live tweets from march 7th.

Tony Digiovanni “we did a report in the 90’s showing there was a market but it dried up and one grower went out of business.”

Patricia Landry “we are currently developing a pollinator protection strategy to be introduced and adopted at council.”

Landry also agreed with Digiovanni that “people are concerned about the problem and want to help”

Melissa Spearing “The critical importance of source identified seed, and the closure of Ontario Tree Seed Plant (OTSP), I might have been a squirrel in a former life (chuckles).”

Spearing outlines plans to keep critical functions of Ontario Tree Seed Plant after planned closure

Spearing outlined the importance of at least preserving the essential functions that OTSP have provided for almost 100 years. Given the commitments already made to restore 30 thousand hectares of grassland (pg 18), it is clear that increased source identified seed requirements also include herbaceous plants. Melissa Spearing gives good quote dropping gems on the topic of seed banking saying “they can all fit in the same fridge.”

Andre Vashist bangs the conservation finance drum

It was a bit strange to jump into conservation finance but Andre Vashin from Verge Capital provided a smooth transition saying “all investment is impact investment” and “this is an opportunity to grow the tent”. Vashin went on “I want to build bridges between business and ecology, we need to be able to speak the same language so we can collaborate.”

Panel outlines barriers to increasing native plant production

The first question to the panel posed by Jarama was “what are the barriers to increasing native plants in the supply chain?” The following are some notes and quotes from the panelists.

Tony Digiovanni “its not just one market, on the retail side customers are attracted to colour and familiarity. Plants selected for marketing go through extensive trials first. Native plants would likely have to follow that model.”

Digiovanni continued “on the municipal side its more about educating a small sector of professionals, and listening when things aren’t working.”

Had I been on the panel I would have added that conventional nurseries will react positively to increased demand. Therefore a reasonable strategy for conservationists would be to engage landscape contractors, landscape architects and horticulturalists to specify more native plants on the jobs they are working on.

Using ecological references are a useful tool for plant selection and have great potential for use in forecasting (this was part of the “meeting after the meeting” with Stefan Weber who also agrees).

Growers face increased risk from fickle market

Mike Farrel reiterated how difficult and expensive it can be to procure source identified seed for large projects along hydro lines. Melissa Spearing added “increasing supply is a big risk for growers, some growers went too far with Ash and paid the price for it.”

emerald ash borer photoEmerald Ash Borer Photo by USDAgov

Landry compares emerging native plant market to organic food sector

Perhaps one of my favourite comments came from Patricia Landry when she observed “we have to do the same thing that stores did for organic food.” According to Landry “People want to be able to go into a nursery and know where the pro pollinator plants are.”

The lessons of the Organic food market should be looked at seriously as there are many parallels to be considered. Consumer concern for what they consume has translated to what they wear and what is in the home. Anticipating similar concerns regarding plants around the house seems reasonable. Take a look at the middle cluster in the table below (doesn’t show it here but education and disposable income both increase likelihood of making an ethical choice)


Carolinian Canada unveils local plant tags for retail marketing campaign

The labeling discussion has been going on for years and will need to be resolved one way or another. Carolinian Canada unveiled there “in the zone” tag.


In the Zone Picture Jonas Spring

Meanwhile the panel agreed that 3rd party verification would be helpful. Melissa Spearling reminded us that 3rd party verification that recognized the importance of provenance was attempted in 1998 with “Ontario Natural Selections” but did not gain popularity because small nurseries couldn’t assume the cost and time consuming documentation.

Panelist Patricia Landry mentioned that 3rd party certification would be helpful when volunteers are ready to plant and contractors often attempt to substitute plants last minute.

Will increased demand for native plants only expose short supply?

During lunch break Steve Smith from Urban Forest Associates and Melissa Spearing from Forest Gene Conservation Association and I were talking about the challenges sourcing native plants in quantity for projects (by the way in her other life Spearing has figured out how to grow native ginger in quantity, but that is another story).

My take home here is the contradiction between the goal of increasing demand but also recognizing the limited supply (kind of reminds me of our current public transit debate).

Dr. Longboat insists on the need for engagement with first nations

Dr. Longboat brought us back after lunch and told us about the importance of consulting with first nations and that he personally looks forward a beneficial relationship that would have first nation children collecting seed rather than selling cigarettes. It really struck me how integrated first nations were on this day. First nations were represented on the panels, opening and closing remarks and frankly this was refreshing as I have been to many horticulture/ecology related events and noticed the absence of first nations and the general “whiteness” of the participants. Credit to the organizers for taking this approach, having first nations added so much to the day!

Small native plant grower panel offers real talk on status quo

The second panel of the day was made up of small independent native plant growers:

Ian Payne from Not So Hollow Farm

Kyle Williams from Maajiigan Gumig Nursery

Vic Bernyk from Native Tree and Plants

Shawn Mcknight from Return the Landscape

Paul Laporte from Ephemeral Ark Nursery

Suba Sivakumar from Van Luyks Nursery

This turned out to be a wonderful panel with a great cast of colourful characters, however, I did notice the absence of more conventional growers/large scale wholesalers (maybe next time?) The following are quotes and notes from the panelists.

There was general consensus that growing native plants has its challenges. Ian Payne “not to be a nutrient disturber but it all comes down to cost (chuckles).” Kyle Williams added “we have to spend so much time educating the customers”. Vik Bernyk commented that “payments almost never line up with plant growth cycles.” Paul Laport pointed out that “Just prepping seed can be difficult with many perennials having double dormancy, it can take several years before you have a salable product.”

Grower panel express optimism for the future of native plant production

There was also agreement that growing native plants present opportunities or as Vic Bernyk puts it “skys the limit. we are riding a green wave right now. the work that we have put in to this point will help.” Bernyk went on “if government really wants to meet standards for health and carbon, there is nothing more healthy than walking through a woodlot. Its a living lung! Government should be dancing with this.”

On funding Suba Sivakumar said “we can’t just rely on grants to be sustainable.” To which Paul Laport chimed in with “we can’t just rely on government.” and then Vik Bernyk finished with “it hasn’t been easy but I am hopeful that other types of funding might become available. we need to find a way to start a fire from the spark.”

First Nations elders regard plants as family members

On collaboration Ian Payne added “there are no strangers in the room just friends we haven’t met yet this is a great chance for you to meet the person next to you.” I did just that and heard an interesting story.

The person next to me was a big man and a young woman both from the Meesingw organization, who told me that they had plans to start a nursery on the reserve but that the elders disapproved of “selling members of the family (more on Meesingw a little further down).”

There was some disagreement about whether focusing on pollinators was enough. The final word came from Ian Payne who suggested everyone “read sex in the garden its a pretty interesting book.”

Grower panel gets bogged down in native plant definition debate

The panel got a little bogged down with the what is native question. Ian Payne grows anything native to Ontario. Kyle Williams observed that “cultivars have lots of butterflies on them too.” While Paul Williams was more “if you are a purist we would focus on woodland plants and wetland plants maybe a little bit of grasslands.” Earlier Paul also talked about “don’t be a vector (for the bad plants?).”

This somewhat misses the point. I don’t want to waste much time on it here but humans are the biggest vectors of plants all time. full stop. While it is useful for conservation purposes to make distinctions it is highly problematic in an urban setting. It is much more useful to make use of an ecological reference to inform a palette of appropriate plants and even then it still doesn’t account for salt, garbage, people and cars.

Carolinian Canada reveals reason for big picture strategy

Our next panel focused how to scale up. Michele Kanter commented on a crucial point “we are only halfway to the goal of 30% native habitat to reach minimum federal standard for healthy ecosystems. since we are 97% private land that means we need to crowd source habitat.” The key point here is how important it will be to engage with private landowners.

Michele Kanter provided a pretty good overview of Carolinian Canada’s action plan to increase native habitat in Ontario. Kanter introduced the big picture collaborative, where conservation efforts include matching different partners together and reaching out to gardeners and the horticultural sector (this is a big change and I was very excited about this development).

Stonefish breaks down natural law and puts humans in their place

Bruce Stonefish from the Meesingw environmental group started out telling us the story how the creator made man. I can’t do it justice here, but what I took from it was that we are entirely dependent on the world around us to survive in exchange for which we are bound by natural laws (Fantastic!). Stonefish went on to tell us that the word management should be replaced with relationship and “nobody here would ever manage their wife.” The idea being that plants are part of the family (wow!)

Stonefish spoke deliberately and powerfully in his own language and again in English “I am not a scientist but I can tell you stories about the land.” To Stonefish, developing a native plant industry is more about health and rekindling the old ways, or has he put it “health is more important than purple flowers.”

Kanter asks panel how to scale up native plant production

It seemed really important to give Bruce Stonefish his own section. The following are some notes and quotes from the rest of the panelists. Phil Davies from lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (SRCA) is a manager in the Forestry and Stewarship division. According to Davies “SRCA have always focused on native plants for improving biodiversity, since we often plant on those sites and walk away (the old plant it and forget it)”.

Cara Webster spoke next saying “I oversee our street tree planting program. I work in the urban forest renewal section. Our goal is to increase to 40% cover to do this we plant 120,000 trees and shrubs per year, this puts a lot of pressure on the trades to supply our needs. We do have a small nursery that supplies plants for High Park Black Oak Savannah. It seems that the trade is getting smaller especially herbaceous plants. its an eyeopener to see how much work goes into seed forecasting, storage and production. We are running out of space and going to subsidize Leaf with their back yard tree planting program.

quercus velutina photoQuercus velutina Black Oak leaves Photo by Jay Sturner

When a comment from the audience criticized using pollinators alone to advocate for green space Kathleen Law from pollinator partnership responded “pollinator’s are often the hook to get people interested in native plants.”

Panel reaches consensus on marketing local plants

What does the panel think about the In The Zone tag?

Kathleen Law said “I think its a great idea! what needs to happen behind the scenes to make it happen?”

Phil Davies added “This a very valuable idea, the ability for us to compare apples to apples. knowing the provenance is important.”

Cara Webster was more cautious “I like the idea. I am worried about too much pressure on our existing native plant communities. We have this problem where we have trouble sourcing plants for our restoration projects.”

Bruce Stonefish offered this gem “I would explain it like this. we are taking these families of plants and putting them back with their parents and grandparents.”

I have to jump in here to say:

  1. The most useful tool for selling native plant communities in urban areas is the use of ecological references (see a little more on this below).
  2. Take a page from the local/organic food movement strategy.
  3. Meet with (very) smart people who understand the mind of consumers who buy local/organic to come up with the right copy/art for this campaign.

Panel provides practical considerations for growing native plant production

Cara Webster suggested “a native plant council modeled after the invasive plant council would work. Having dedicated staff and having board members from government too is helpful.”

Kathleen Law provided an example “of a farm cooperative in quebec that grows 3500 acres of milkweed in partnership with a textile company. Many farmers have marginal land, maybe some of that could be used to produce more seed.”

asclepias syriaca photoAsclepias syriaca Photo by peganum

Michele Kanter pointed out that “It seems like the missing link is the Landscape Architects here (actually the president of the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects was in the audience her name is Doris Chee, but point taken we did not have big representation from either landscape contractors or landscape architects). Our approach right now is to work with the leaders. We are trying to find leaders who are keen and green.”

Pete Ewins lead specialist for species conservation with World Wildlife Fund Canada brought us all back to earth with “If you are going to live here, live here like you are going to stay”

Dr. Longboat blesses audience with down to earth advice

Dr. Dan Longboat led us in the closing ceremony, “There is a lot of work to do. Lets not lose this momentum. A lot of people are coming together that aren’t used to being in the same room and we need to  engage with first nations communities.”

Dr. Longboat continued on to tell us about a child he met a who told him “teach me so I will get to know it, for if I can’t love it how can I care for it?” (wow!!! this is crazy good!) Closing ceremony included a blessing. I won’t tweet it but it was very special.

Webber preaches the importance of a regional seed strategy

It wasn’t actually over at this point, the evening session was a separate event and began with a presentation from Stefan Webber  “Plants are a critical asset. Scaling up is a tremendous opportunity (seed orchards).”


St. Williams Nursary Penstemon hirsutus field production Photo Jonas Spring

Webber continued “Most of the seed we collect we get from remnant populations.Who will steward these fragment populations? We have done some of this with slippery elm and rock elm at St Williams Nursery. The challenge is habitat loss and invasive species, how many patches of phragmites did you pass on the way here?”

phragmites photo
Phragmitis australis Photo by Michele Dorsey Walfred

According to Stefan the other main challenges are forecasting, monitoring, restorations failures, availability of bulk seed, introductions of nativars adjacent to native populations such as with Sycamore.

conservation is stuck in “museum of local adaptation” mentality

According to Stefan ” the standard approach to conservation is not good enough. Keeping plants that are regionally rare isolated and not allowing seed to go anywhere for the fear of losing local adaptation is like curating a museum. Thats not appropriate given climate change and the decade of biodiversity , where need to consider gene flow and assisted migration (this was further clarified in a subsequent phone conversation).”

Webber points out that “we are promoting a regional source identified seed strategy where lots of plants don’t have regional adaptations and occur all across the east coast. Therefore, if you are collecting from a small populations then you might be encouraging inbreeding. We are advocating mixing source 50% local and remainder a mix of adjacent source and source from the edge of habitat.”

Webber continued “Rare plants are becoming more rare. This is a conservation grey area. plants that are not rare enough to be protected but are still regional rare. there are too many restrictions in some areas and not enough in others.”

According to Webber “Some regionally rare plants are great for urban areas as they thrive in poor soils.” Quercus muehlenbergii for example grows in limestone soils in southern Ontario (in a follow up phone call with Cara Webster I was able to confirm that 200 Quercus muehlenbergii have been planted in Toronto since 2013 and that another 50 are scheduled to be planted this year).

chinkapin oak photoQuercus Muehlenbergii Chinquapin Oak Photo by aecole2010

Webber envisions massive pollinator gardens in every region of Ontario

Moving onto solutions Webber outlined a future where horticulture can and should be used grow plants for seeds in a large plantations (seed orchards). St Williams Nursery has over 100 acres of seed orchards to provide bulk seed for restoration projects. According to Webber, St. Williams is currently growing 300 species including Spotted bee balm, bee blossom and sundial lupine.

monarda punctata photoMonarda punctata Spotted bee balm Photo by FritzFlohrReynolds

Webber revealed that “some forward thinking staffers collected some seed from sundial lupine. A population roughly the size of this room was used to increase the population 100 fold.”

sundial lupine photoLupinus perennis Sundial lupine Photo by USFWS Headquarters

Webber goes on “The seed conservation strategy is actually a giant pollinator garden. Imagine if every region in Ontario had 100 acres of pollinator gardens that were managed!”

Webber launches Hamilton region seed conservation strategy

Webber launched the hamilton seed conservation strategy through the Ontario Plant Restoration Alliance (OPRA). OPRA was endorsed by North American Native Plants Society (NANPS) and modelled after the Plant Conservation Alliance in the U.S. In 2017 OPRA joined the Ontario Biodiversity Council. Webber anticipates OPRA will focus on forecasting seed requirements, identify source populations, partner with growers to grow plants, allocate seed. Webber explains that “The seed strategy model takes some of the burden off of the grower by taking the forecasting monitoring and collecting out of the equation.”

Impact investor panel explores potential synergy with conservation efforts

Due to the length of this blog post and density of this portion of the program I will leave it you to look up my tweets from March 7th 2018. My take home from the final panel was:

  1. there is lots of capital that can be allocated for conservation projects.
  2. projects need to find innovative ways to create returns for investors (Great Bear Rainforest).
  3. finding a good match means partnering with patient money for the long term.

Carolinian Canada and WWF hold day long strategy session with key players

In the “meeting after the meeting” I discovered that additional meetings were planned for the following day. A follow up phone call indicated that the meetings went well. This bodes well for efforts to establish a strong vibrant market for native plants in Ontario (here’s hoping).






















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