The Micro-Nursery Project
Or: Justifying buying all the seeds by making locally native plants more accessible to more gardeners with a minimal ecological footprint.
~~~- I hosted a live Q &A related to this blog on January 22, 2021. The recording can be found at the end of this post.~~~
Beyond the excuse of growing all the plants, there really is a bigger issue that I’m picking away at with this project.
As a lot of people who decide to plant a pollinator garden find out, sourcing native plants often feels more like a scavenger hunt than a typical shopping trip. Leads about where different species can be found are often shared in social media groups. Directions include things like ‘You can find the [as in just one] rack of native plants in the corner with the vegetable starts’ or, ‘These three species of native shrubs can be found at this garden center and this other one got a tray of trilliums today but they are selling out fast!’ and then there is the whole ‘cultivar’ and ‘native to where’ rabbit hole.
Given how many plants are sold every year in this city, it shouldn’t be this hard to find species native to this province.
And, if you dig even deeper, questions about how were they grown (heated greenhouse? pesticides? concentrated fertilizers?) where were they grown (shipping?), where the seeds came from, where the plastic pots and tags will end up etc. start to come up.
All of which makes trying to take care of pollinators a considerably more fraught undertaking than it seemed at the start.
All this, along with conversations with others working on the issue of local native plant availability, led me to ask: How much can I reduce the ecological footprint of growing plants while also making native plants accessible to as many people as possible?
I’m also fairly strongly of the opinion that saving the world should be a feasible day job so part of this is about whether a micro-nursery can be financially sustainable as a part time or add-on activity.
I don’t have the answers to everything, but this is what I did in the first year
- I stratified seeds in damp coffee filters in a glass dish with a tight-fitting lid, rather than the plastic snack baggies with perlite I had used in previous years. (Some of the fluffier seeds that required light to germinate were difficult to scrape off of the filters and spread easily over the soil surface, I switched to outdoor stratification for surface sown species for this year. The other fluffy and sticky seeds can be scraped off the filters and mixed with a bit of sand or soil for even seeding.)
- Planted seeds quite densely in re-used, plastic pots. -The potting soil I used was a peat-based bale of Pro-mix. I haven’t found anything that is comparable or any less fraught with environmental issues in this ecosystem and hemisphere. The Canadian Wildlife Federation has a good article on the topic here.
- As seeds germinated, I transferred them to plug trays. (Some were re-used, some second hand and some newly purchased. I also purchased ½ height flats to hold the plug trays. All of these will be re-used for this year and a few years to come. I do find that they eventually begin to crack no matter how carefully I handle them. I’m going to start experimenting with soil blocks this year to see if I can find an option that reduces the need for the plug trays.)
- I mixed a small amount of Gaia Green 4-4-4 organic fertilizer into the potting soil that I filled the plug trays with since I found that they didn’t always thrive without a bit of supplemental nutrition.
- Most took about 6 to 8 weeks to mature enough to be included in the spring plug sale. They spent this time either under grow lights in my dining room (The rack holds 12 flats. As things get crowded, I swap out trays in 12-hour stints so I can grow out up to 24 flats.), in my unheated 6’x8’ backyard greenhouse or under a wood frame with netting stretched over it (to keep the squirrels out) on my patio.
I made the website that I use for the online store using a plugin that is part of the site builder tool included with my basic hosting package from Ethical Hosting. I did the inventory and invoicing manually (Word, Excel and email) but I’ll be working on getting it converted over to the website this winter since that was the part that felt the most inefficient last spring.
Promo was strictly through Facebook and pickups were at my home, by appointment.
To prepare the seedlings for pickup:
- I wrote labels on slices of milk carton, along with the quantity of plugs of that species for each order (this is another thing I’m still mulling over a better option for. I don’t like that there is plastic on the carton strips but I also don’t want to buy popsicle sticks or other new materials for labels).
- I bundled all of the labels for each order together (strip of paper with the buyer’s name, held on with a paper clip).
- I laid out the seedlings with their labels on a strip of paper (mostly salvaged packing paper and potato bags last year. This year will include leaf bag strips from my neighbourhood leaf collecting last fall).
- I rolled the strips of paper up with the seedlings and labels inside and folded the bottom over. Larger orders, with several rolls of seedlings went into clementine crates, small cardboard boxes and other salvaged containers.
Plugs were $1 each, with a minimum of a $10 order.
I sold 1800 plugs to 65 people spread out over about 4 weeks.
I also donated roughly 1000 plugs to various community projects and 250 seedlings for the giveaway at the Land Care Day hosted at Just Food in September
I planted about 800 out in the Perth gardens, meadow and nursery beds. Roughly 320 of those went to new homes in the fall sale in September at $4 each. Most of the rest will end up in various meadow and woodland areas once I have a chance to prep spots for them and they are mature enough to get by on their own after an initial week or two of watering.
Between these and the seedlings I grew for my vegetable gardens, I grew roughly 5000 seedlings at my home last spring. By sending plants off to their new homes as plugs, I managed to get by with just over 1 bale of pro-mix and very little in the way of packaging, all of which was salvaged from the garbage or recycling bin. Since last year’s seeds were gathered or gifted to me and I already had the grow lights, input costs were mostly just the soil and the extra plug trays and ½ height flats.
In addition to the notes above, a few other things that I’ll be changing this year:
- I’m being a bit more careful with quantities so I don’t end up with a guilt-inducing number of seedlings still clustered together in their pots even after filling a 200-plug tray with a species (sending some of the seedy abundance off to the Wildflower Seed Library has also helped with this).
- I decided to expand the species offerings beyond the 70 or so species I gathered, both so that I could introduce new species to the spaces I care for and to fill in some gaps that I can see would exist for people working to start an ecosystem type garden from the plants I’m offering. Grasses and sedges especially, but also nitrogen fixing species and quite a few species that I think will fit well into urban setting but that I don’t often see offered. Some of the new-to me species are from the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library, all of the rest are from Prairie Moon Nursery. All together the fall, winter and spring seeding will include 157 species native to Ontario. Not all will be on offer this year, some because I’ll be working on nurturing some clusters of harder to source species in the hopes of building up more local seed supply, others because germination isn’t always as successful as we would hope. And there are a few that I don’t expect to germinate for at least a year. Patience is a virtue that is, eventually, rewarded in the native plant garden.
- Last year I seeded the Milkweed directly into the plug trays after stratifying them and put them straight out into the unheated greenhouse in late March. They did perfectly well and I’m going to try the same thing with more species this year (just the ones with seeds that I can reasonably handle while damp though, some are just too tiny for me to work with before they sprout into seedlings).
- One other change is that I don’t plan to have a fall sale this year, just the spring plug sale.
If you’ve read through all this and said, “Wait, I could do that!”, please do! We need more local plant growers and fewer plastic pots and tags making the one-way trip from growers to gardeners to recycling bin (where they may very well be sorted into the landfill pile). If you are local, I’m open to coordinating for the spring sale. If you are somewhere else but have questions, feel free to contact me.
If you read through and said, “Well, if she isn’t going to sell garden ready plants in the fall, I wonder if she is interested in selling me seedlings so that I could grow them out and have a fall plant sale / offer them to my clients?” If you are in the Ottawa area, yes, I am, please contact me before the start of March because I can adjust (somewhat, there are limits) some of the seeding quantities if there are specific species that you would like to work with.