Portland nonprofit promotes planting native seeds to encourage biodiversity

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PORTLAND — With the advent of spring, many people start dreaming about summertime blooms and fresh garden produce.

When they do, the Wild Seed Project, a Portland-based nonprofit, wants them to focus on increasing their use of native plants.

Native plants are important, according to Heather McCargo, executive director of the seed program, because they help conserve biodiversity, safeguard wildlife habitat and create critical pollination corridors for insects and birds.

Selling locally grown native seeds and educating the public on how to best sow those seeds are the main mission of the Wild Seed Project, McCargo said.

With rapid development, particularly in southern Maine, native plant populations are diminishing, McCargo said this week. And that’s a cause for concern, she said, because “natives are the foundation for a healthy (and) ecologically diverse environment.”

The Wild Seed Project website says that “loss of wild plant species has a ripple effect on biodiversity and ecosystem health. … Native plants have an evolutionary history with insects and other fauna and … when native plants are absent from a landscape, so are many other creatures.”

But the good news, the website adds, is that when “native plants are reintroduced into a landscape, many of the other creatures with whom they co-evolved also return,” from butterflies to birds.

Because most nurseries don’t stock or carry non-cloned native plants, McCargo said there’s “a need for locally sourced seeds that are collected from genetically diverse wild populations or from uncultivated forms growing in gardens.”

That’s where the Wild Seed Project comes in.

McCargo said she, along with groups of volunteers, spend the warmer months each year working to both collect native plant seeds and grow native plants in stock beds that they then share through the seed program’s website.

And after several years of seed culling, this spring the Wild Seed Project is able to offer seeds from 60 different native species of wildflowers, ferns, grasses and shrubs that promise to do well in a variety of habitats from hot and sunny to wet or shady.

Some of McCargo’s own favorite natives include asters, milkweed, coneflowers and wild strawberries or blueberry bushes. “There are so many beautiful native plants that grow well in any growing condition you can think of,” she said.

Those new to sowing native plants should start with aster, milkweed, coneflower, beebalm, lobelia or wild strawberry plants, which McCargo said are all easy for beginners to grow.

“Try a variety of different seeds and be rewarded with an abundance of native plants for your garden or to share with others,” the Wild Seed Project website says.

McCargo, who has been an advocate of native plan preservation for the past 30 years, said they make “excellent garden plants.” If planted in the right spot, they can thrive with very little intervention.

There are a “limitless” number of native plants that will grow in all types of conditions, she said, so there’s no need to “manipulate” the planting site with fertilizers or pesticides.

And, McCargo said, you don’t have to be a gardener with a big site to make a difference. McCargo said anyone can plant a native tree or shrub in a pot, along with herbs, grasses and wildflowers or fruits.

“One of my favorite topics to discuss is bringing nature back to the city” through balcony gardening and tree planting, McCargo said. “Even if you don’t have a garden or are not a gardener, don’t say, ‘I can’t do anything,’” she added.

Those wanting to know more about native plants and how to sow them can take part in an upcoming workshop in Scarborough, scheduled for April 10, called “Intro to Re-wilding.”

The session is being offered through the Scarborough Adult Learning Center and the cost is $30 per person. Register online at www.scarborough.maineadulted.org.

While fall is the best time to sow seeds, McCargo said, it is possible to plant some in the spring, as well. In addition, she said, native seeds can be started in pots and then transplanted into the ground.

McCargo writes a native plant blog, which is available on the Wild Seed Project website, and the organization also publishes an annual magazine that will be available in May.

“Our whole mission is to inform people about the beauty and importance of native plants and raise the level of awareness about natives and provide how to’s,” McCargo said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Heather McCargo, executive director at the Wild Seed Project, lives in Portland’s West End. Her goal is to encourage gardeners in Maine to plant only native species.

Some of the seeds from native plants that volunteers with the Wild Seed Project, based in Portland, have collected.

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