Going Native: How To Start A Native Plant Nursery


Growing your native plant nursery is a unique combination of science and art. It can be a challenge, but it is also an immensely satisfying occupation.

A good grower also understands that you acquire some skills through experience and innate ability, otherwise referred to as a "green thumb."

Collect Items That Will Be Helpful When Starting A Native Plant Nursery

Before you acquire seeds or even seedlings, you need to have your area for growing set up and ready to accept those seeds and plants.

There are items like this Micro Drip Irrigation Kit that will help set up a watering system essential for growing plants. 

Once you decide what type of nursery you will have, either bareroot or container (more on this later). In that case, it will be helpful to have either Planting Cups or to have Nonwoven Fabric Nursery Pots Seedling-Raising Bags or even a combination of both to start your plants off in the correct type of receptacle.

Once those plants are growing, you will need to trim and prune the plants, and these Pruning Shears Scissors will come in handy for that.

The main thing that you will need when starting a native plant nursery is going to be knowledge. Research before you begin so that you will limit missteps and increase chances for a successful outcome.

Having your own native plant nursery will be rewarding, and we will discuss a few of the factors that you need to consider before you begin.

Consider Limiting Factors When Starting A Native Plant Nursery

When deciding to grow a nursery of native plants, it is essential to know what limits the growth of plants. Ecologists will refer to this as the concept of limiting factors. 

This concept states that although a biological process such as growth is affected by Limiting Factors in the Ecosystem, The rate of that process is controlled by the factor that is the most limiting.

If you apply the concept of limiting factors to a native plant nursery, you would be able to identify the environmental factors that could potentially limit plant growth. This would allow you to design your native plant nursery to overcome those limiting factors.

An example of this can be seen in plants in a nursery that receive fertilizer and don't. Plants that get fertilizer will tend to have an increased plant growth than those that don't receive fertilizer.

The most dramatic example would be water given to plants in a nursery. Water is a limiting factor, and so you will want to limit the effect that a lack of water would have on your plant production by having a quality irrigation system.

Starting Your Own Native Plant Nursery

If you decide to start a native plant nursery, you will need to determine if you will have a bare root or container nursery. Again, consider the limiting factors of both types of nurseries. Is there enough suitable soil for your nursery? The climate in your area will also be a critical limiting factor.

Bare-root Native Plant Nurseries

Bare-root native plant nurseries have plants that are grown in open fields in native soil. Bare-root seedlings are stored and shipped for planting without soil around the root system. 

They are grown in outdoor nursery beds, in native soil, and exposed to the local weather conditions. In this case, both the quality of the soil and the availability of water are critical.

Native plants will be grown from seeds or rooted cuttings. In bare-root native plant nurseries, the growth of plants is controlled by the climate, as this will determine the length of the growing season.

Container Native Plant Nurseries

Plants grown in containers in native plant nurseries are grown in medium rather than soil. In regions that have colder climates, native plants are grown in controlled environments, such as greenhouses. 

In a greenhouse, growth-limiting factors can be much better controlled. When grown in containers, the volume of the growing medium is usually small. The roots of the plants bind the medium into a "plug" by the time of harvest. 

One advantage of growing native plants in a container nursery is that a nursery can be on land without much agricultural value. 

Container seedlings are grown at high densities, and so less land is needed than you would need with bare-root seedlings. These seedlings also have high growth rates when raised in a greenhouse, and so a nursery will get many crops in a season. 

The downside is that greenhouse nurseries are expensive to construct, and there are also many environmental controls, like water and light needed for the plants.

Native Plant Seeds And Other Propagules

A propagule is any plant part that can be used to produce another plant. They can be seeds or cuttings. 

This will require a knowledge of the life cycle of native plants and how the plant reproduces. A nursery grower will need to consider these two factors. 

Some native plants might have small seeds that do not germinate on a reliable basis. Those plants may need to use stem cutting. Some native plants give viable seeds one season but not another. Because of this, some growers will prefer to use cuttings.

When you are collecting or purchasing propagules, the sex and genetics of the resulting plant need to be taken into consideration. About 15% of native plants are either male or female. This is important to know when selecting native plants propagated by cuttings. 

Taking cuttings from a single plant will mean that all new plants will be the same sex and have the same genetics as the original plant. 

If you want genetic diversity in your native plant nursery, it is important to collect a few propagules from a large population of original plants.

Quality Water Is Essential To Growing Native Plants In A Nursery

The quantity and the quality of water are critical to growing native plants. It is one of the most important biological factors that control plant growth. When irrigating your plants, there are two factors of water quality to consider. 

The first is the concentration and composition of dissolved minerals in the water. This is often referred to as "soluble salts" or "dissolved salts." The second factor is whether or not there are harmful fungi, the seeds from weeds, algae, or pesticides in the water.

Groundwater or surface water is often used for irrigation. Surface water from streams or lakes is likely to contain fungal pathogens or the seeds of weeds. 

You must have your water source tested by a laboratory. This is relatively inexpensive to do and will save you money in the long run by identifying problems before you start using the water to irrigate your native plants.

In Conclusion

Starting a native plant nursery can be a fun and profitable enterprise. There is, however, a lot to know to have success.

This article has just touched on a few things to take into consideration before you begin your venture. Listed below are sources for further reading on the subject of growing native plants in a nursery.

Additional Reading:

It is to gather all the information you can before you start your native plant nursery. Here are some suggestions for additional reading on the subject.  

Luna, T. 2008. Vegetative propagation. In: Dumroese, R.K.; Luna, T.; Landis, T.D., eds. Nursery manual for native plants: a guide for tribal nurseries. Volume 1, Nursery management. Agric. Handb. 730. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 152-175.

Landis, T.D.; Dumroese, R.K.; Haase, D.L. 2010. The container tree nursery manual. Volume 7, Seedling processing, storage, and outplanting. Agric. Handb. 674. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 200 p.

Bonner, F.T.; Karrfalt, R.P. 2008. The woody plant seed manual. Agric. Handb. 727. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 1223 p.

Cullina, W. 2000. The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to growing and propagating wildflowers of the United States and Canada. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 322 p.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. URL: http://www.wildflower. org/plants/ (accessed Jan 2012). Native Plant Network. URL: http://www.nativeplantnetwork.org (accessed Jun 2011).

Schopmeyer, C.S. 1974. Seeds of woody plants in the United States. Agric. Handb. 450. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 883 p.

Landis, T.D.; Wilkinson, K.M. 2008. Water quality and irrigation. In: Dumroese, R.K.; Luna, T.; Landis, T.D., eds. Nursery manual for native plants: a guide for tribal nurseries. Volume 1, Nursery management. Agric. Handb. 730. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 176-199.

Luna, T.; Wilkinson, K.M.; Dumroese, R.K. 2008. Seed germination and sowing options. In: Dumroese, R.K.; Luna, T.; Landis, T.D., eds. Nursery manual for native plants: a guide for tribal nurseries. Volume 1, Nursery management. Agric. Handb. 730. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 132-151.