Eco Logic Native Plant Nursery: Growing a Seed Bank for Southern Indiana Gardens and Landscapes
Early autumn at Eco Logic’s native plant nursery brings with it--not pots of symmetrical domed mums, but a riot of pink-purple blazing stars, purplish-blue lobelias, yellow-orange sunflowers, and those fall classics, goldenrods and asters.
Vibrant false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides),
backed by Eco Logic’s green-built headquarters.
Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera); Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
A few cardinal flowers and red royal catchflies—both hummingbird-pollinated—lingered on when I visited the nursery earlier this month. The milkweed blooms had faded, but everywhere I looked in the swamp milkweed and butterfly-weed was a monarch caterpillar, assiduously masticating milkweed leaves. The previous week Nursery Manager Natalie Marinova had pointed out a celadon-green chrysalis, where a caterpillar had moved over to the neighboring flat of mistflowers and set itself up to pupate. This morning Office Manager Mary Hallinan showed me another chrysalis in an adjacent flat of prairie clover. We both marveled at the dew that clung to it, reflecting in each drop the countryside of western Monroe County.
A monarch chrysalis, adorned with metallic gold,
hangs from purple prairie clover. Reflected in the morning dew is the western
Monroe County countryside surrounding Eco Logic.
Eco Logic, started in 1999 by Executive Director Spencer Goehl, is an ecological restoration company that works with a multitude of organizations and municipalities in invasive plant control, storm water management, prairie and wetland restoration, and reforestation. The relatively new retail nursery has been long in the planning, realized in judicious increments. Currently there are on-site sales on weekends in May and for a shorter period in fall, and visits by appointment. Deep Roots Garden Center at Bloomingfoods Coop Grocery on the east side of Bloomington also carries Eco Logic bedding plants. Plans for future expansion to a full-time nursery include a dedicated building at the Vernal Pike site, with gardens and additional propagation areas.
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
At the heart of the retail nursery is the building-up of a seed bank. Not content to source plants from simply anywhere, Eco Logic has sought to collect seed from local wild plant populations, with the goal of establishing a nursery of southern Indiana ecotypes.
What does this mean, and why should gardeners who wish to plant for the benefit of pollinators and other wildlife care about it?
Great Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica).
Native plants sold in conventional garden centers or used in the landscape industry are often cultivars or hybrids, bred for traits that appeal to humans, but that may not be optimal for wildlife. Selecting for unusual flower colors or double blooms, for instance, may have an effect on whether a flower is attractive to pollinators, whether pollinators can access pollen and nectar, and the quantity and quality of that pollen and nectar. Breeding for purple or variegated leaves on a normally green-leaved plant may alter the way in which it functions as a host plant for caterpillars. And cultivating woody plants for more compact growth habits make them less useful as nesting sites for birds.
Moreover, native cultivars are replicated by asexual means—they are virtual clones, sometimes of one individual plant. Eco Logic’s Assistant Director Phillip Oser emphasizes this as a major impetus for growing native plants from seeds gathered in the wild: wild plant populations that reproduce sexually, cross-pollinated by insects, have a greater genetic diversity. They are thus more resilient—and better able to cope with stresses such as drought, disease or climate change. Furthermore, plants brought in from other parts of the country—even other parts of the Midwest—can have different genetic make-ups, or genotypes, and may not perform as well as those adapted to local conditions.
Framed by the greenery of forbes and sedges, nursery worker Maggie Sullivan assembles a customer’s plant order. The propagation greenhouse is in the background.
Natalie Marinova walked me through the Eco Logic greenhouse and the propagation process: as the growing season comes to an end, Eco Logic employees collect seed from southern Indiana roadside right-of-ways and private property where landowners have given them permission. Supplementing these are surplus seeds from Indiana’s Spence Restoration Nursery.
Seeds are scarified in the nursery refrigerator, as most wild seeds require a cold period in order to break dormancy in spring. To get a jump on the spring growing season, they are then winter-sown in the greenhouse, where night temperatures are kept at 40 degrees. Seedlings are later transplanted into pots and eventually moved to the outdoor growing pads, where visitors to the nursery can wander through.
A unicorn caterpillar, mimicking both living and dead leaf tissue, eats a black cherry leaf. In all but a few cases, native caterpillars can only eat leaves of the native plants, such as this Prunus, with which they've co-evolved. In turn, caterpillars are a vital food source for migrating songbirds and nestlings.
Bees hummed in the flowers as I further explored the plants on these pads. Amongst the native trees (which are not yet propagated by the nursery itself), I discovered another butterfly chrysalis, a red-spotted purple’s. This one had been breached by tiny wasps, which hung out by a miniscule hole in the chrysalis wall. On a black cherry I found two foraging unicorn caterpillars, less renowned than the monarchs, but remarkable for their intricate dead-leaf camouflage. If their subterfuge worked, they would morph into small gray moths—not as charismatic as the monarch butterfly, but just as essential to our native landscape.
From here these locally wild-sourced native plants find their way into southern Indiana gardens and landscapes, for the benefit of pollinators, caterpillars, birds and other wildlife—and people, happily working to restore their own small part of our natural ecosystem.
For more information on ordering plants from Eco Logic, or the spring and fall plant sales, visit their website: ecologicindiana.com/nursery