Questions for Your Nursery

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When shopping for native plants there are a few very important questions to ask your local nursery before buying anything.

Are neonicotinoids used by grower of these native plants?

Most wildlife gardeners are choosing plants that will support native pollinators: bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. But some nurseries pre-treat their nursery plants with chemicals that will kill these pollinators:

Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that will kill the very pollinators you’re trying to attract to your wildlife garden.

A systemic pesticide is absorbed into all parts of the plant: leaves, flowers, pollen, and nectar which means that any caterpillar feeding on that plant, any butterfly sipping some nectar, or any native bee collecting pollen are often killed simply by visiting plants treated with neonicontinoids.

If your nursery uses neonicontinoids in the growing process, or if they obtain plant starts or seeds from another supplier, it won’t do your pollinators any good at all if the very plants that you’re planting to attract pollinators are going to kill them! Find another local native plant nursery.

Are native plants organically grown?

I was chatting with a nearby wholesale native plant grower last week and was pleased to learn that no neonicotinoids are used in the growing of their plant stock, but imagine my surprise to learn that “growing methods are definitely NOT organic.”

Many nurseries and native plant suppliers may be using chemical fertilizers and other toxic chemical treatments on their plants. As native plant wildlife gardeners we want to avoid nurseries that use chemicals like Scotts Miracle Gro and other detrimental environmental chemicals.

Since we don’t want to participate in the spread of these chemicals through our natural areas, we will want to find a local native plant nursery that uses organic methods in the production of their plants.

See Nursery Plants Without Chemical Poisons, by Jared Rosenbaum for more discussion about this topic.

And here’s some resources for keeping your own wildlife garden organic:

  • Green Healthy Lawns and Gardens Without Chemicals
  • Fertilize Your Garden Organically

Are your plants locally sourced from local seed?

Local provenance means that plants are sourced from within your region and grown from local seed:

Locally sourced planted are better adapted to local soils, climate and weather. Insects, birds, fauna and other plants have adapted to these plant ecotypes. Obviously using local native species also reduces the chance of invasiveness since plants have evolved over time within the ecosystem and are part of a balanced habitat.

As I was creating the Find Native Plants website, a comprehensive resource for locating nearby native plant nurseries and regional native plant resources, I discovered many nurseries attempting to be all things to all people–or all plants for all gardens. Some nurseries mail order plants all over the country.

This is not the best way to purchase native plants for your wildlife garden. If you live in Arizona, ordering plants grown in Pennsylvania is not going to work for your garden. You want to get your plants  from a nursery that grows locally sourced native plants because these will be best adapted to the growing conditions in your own garden.

Avoid unethically collected wildflowers

Sadly, some nurseries illegally and unethically collect wildflowers and other native plants from nearby natural areas:

Many species of Lady Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium) are endangered in the wild. We’ve done a really good job of destroying their habitat.

If you find these orchids growing in a natural area near you, PLEASE do not dig them up to put them in your garden.

First, it is unlikely the plants will survive the move as they have very specific habitat requirements and critical associations with certain fungi.

Second, in most states many of these orchids are endangered, and it is illegal to remove them from natural areas.

Ask your local native plant nursery to guarantee that none of their plants for sale have been illegally collected from the wild.

Support your local native plant nursery, but ask questions first!

There are many native plant nurseries around the country that grow organically, don’t use neonicotinoids, and provide locally sourced plants that will work best in your wildlife garden.

So Shop Local! These nurseries will become an incredible resource for you:

…the devoted and passionate owners of the native plant nurseries in my area. These folks are your best resource for finding those plants that will be most appropriate for your wildlife garden, those plants that will attract the birds, butterflies, pollinators, and other wildlife you are trying to create welcoming habitat for.

You will receive far more useful information from these avid native plant growers than you could ever hope to get from the surly teenager at the big box store.

If you are not yet aware of a local native plant nursery in your area, check out this exhaustive list and resource page. Find the page for your state to discover native plant nurseries, your local native plant society, and many other comprehensive resources for learning about the native plants of your area.

Visit your local native plant nursery and ask each of the above questions before buying any plants. Doing a bit of homework first will ensure endless amounts of pleasure and a garden full of abundant wildlife.

Carole Sevilla Brown gardens for wildlife in Philadelphia, PA and travels around the country teaching audiences large and small about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. 

© 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Ginny Stibolt says

    This is an important message Carole. Thanks for the reminder.
    Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Spaghetti squash recipes & planting

  2. Rich Hawksworth says

    Really good points–thanks for making them. I think you’re being a little hard on the issue of chemical fertilizers. Some are better than others, but they aren’t “toxic” in the sense that pesticides and herbicides can be. These are naturally occurring mineral compounds (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.) that have, in some cases, been refined. Also, it’s really, really hard to maintain a commercial container program using organic ferts. By their nature, organic fertilizers must be broken down by soil microorganisms in order to be “plant available.” That’s almost impossible to achieve in a pot. If a nursery is field-growing plants, that’s one thing, but if they are producing natives in relatively small containers, chemical fertilizers, prudently applied, provide better, more consistent, results than organic ferts.

    I’m a strong advocate for organic gardening, and don’t want to minimize the fine points you make regarding local genotypes, neonicotinoids and the such. Nor do I wish to excuse fertilizer users who indescriminately over-apply to the detriment of our natural areas. However, insisting on strictly organic fertilizers from your native plant suppliers is going to rule out providers who are otherwise running very good operations.

    • Erin says

      I feel like different gardeners will have different priorities. The neonicotinoids scare me a lot and I’m kind of freaking out about it. Unethical seed collection is an obvious deal breaker for me, living in a fragile mountain-desert environment. But being too rigid about provenance isn’t practical for me here in Utah. There are only a couple of retail native plant nurseries within an hour of Salt Lake City, an area with two million people and a pretty dramatic variety of growing conditions. I feel OK supplementing my options by using native plants grown farther away. Standards that guide selection back east might be prohibitive in an area like this, where needs are really diverse and underserved. I also don’t worry enough about organic to eliminate suppliers from my already-scant list of choices. But that, too, may be more realistic elsewhere.

      • Carole Sevilla Brown says

        Erin, here’s a resource page for native plant nurseries in Utah: Hopefully many more nurseries will recognize the value of native plants and carry a wider selection soon. In the meantime, we just have to do the best we can :)
        Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Water Taxi Ecotour

    • Carole Sevilla Brown says

      There is a huge difference between chemical fertilizers made by companies like Scotts Miracle Gro, Bayer and others and natural fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers are often by-products of the petroleum industry and not at all conducive to healthy environments. I know many dedicated native plant nurseries who are successful without supporting these companies or applying chemicals that can cause so many problems to natural areas.
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Mount Cuba Center Native Plants of the Piedmont

  3. Kathy Settevendemie says

    Carole, Thanks for this post! As a native plant nursery owner/grower I heartily agree with what you’ve said. It’s so important for people to ask nurseries about their practices! It helps educate nursery owners as well as ensures that plants you purchase are grown ethically and appropriately for wildlife consumption.

    • Carole Sevilla Brown says

      Kathy, I think it’s a good thing for us to hold nursery owners accountable and also help to educate them on healthier choices. Thanks for the work you are doing to educate more folks about the value of native plants!
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Late Summer Birds At An Urban Oasis

  4. Michael Pollock says

    The pre-treatment with neonicintinoids, especially in the absence of any labeling requirements, may be the most important issue in our environment today. Thanks for putting it on here–more needs to be said and done.


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