Micro-nursery fuels growth in native plants

By Wes Smiderle

A cropped portion of a photo of seedlings available at micronursery A Cultivated Art

Sundaura Alford-Purvis became passionate about native plants after adding a few to their small Vanier backyard and watching the dramatic change in pollinator populations. This revolutionised their career path as a landscape designer and small business owner of A Cultivated Art. It also led them to establish a micro-nursery. Micro-nurseries fuel native plant growth.

A micro-nursery is a plant nursery on a small scale. Yet Sundaura’s nursery doubled in size last year, and their base of operations expanded to the Just Food Community Farm in Blackburn Hamlet. Sundaura has even more planned this spring for A Cultivated Art.

How did you become interested in native plants?

I’ve always loved plants and made a career in horticulture, mostly working as a landscape designer. Over the years, I learned that most popular garden plants were from Europe and Asia. I also learned about the importance of native species to ecosystem health. The catch was that native species were hard to source. Most nurseries, even the large commercial growers, offered very few native species.

I started out ordering seeds, learning how to cold-stratify them in the fridge (I winter sow outdoors now, which is much simpler), and planted the seedlings into my own gardens.

The change in the pollinator populations in my little urban yard was dramatic. The conventional garden species that had filled the space before hadn’t supported anywhere near the diversity or numbers of pollinators that the native species now do.

Why did you start your micro-nursery?

I had winter sown far more seeds than I had space for. It was the spring of 2021 when lots of us were still adjusting to life closer to home, and I was ready to make some changes to my work.

I also wanted to see if I could figure out how to make a wide range of native species available in ways that didn’t rely on a lot of single-use plastics, long distance shipping, or large quantities of peat moss-based potting soils.

How many seedlings would you recommend getting started with native plants? Is it worth it to start with only a dozen?

When it comes to native plants, any is better than none.

I recommend dense planting, with a seedling every 30 cm, so that the plants can grow together like they do in an ecosystem. This is also a great way to minimize the need for weeding after the first year; the plants fill all the spaces, so there isn’t room for volunteers. You can plant them even more densely if you are growing in containers.

Manor Park has many condos and apartments. Would any native plants in your nursery grow in a container on a balcony?

Yes, lots of them! Pretty much all the nursery’s asters and goldenrods, as well as wild columbine, slender blazing star, hairy beardtongue, swamp milkweed, wild bergamot, hairy mountain mint, black-eyed Susan, any grasses, and many more.

Match the plants to the sun or shade conditions and put them into the largest size containers that can fit into your space.

I overwinter plants in containers by waiting until the soil freezes and then flipping the entire pot upside down. This helps insulate the crowns of the plants and keeps them from drying out.

Some parts of Manor Park have very mature trees, creating dense shade. Would any of your plants grow in those conditions?

Yes, this area used to be a closed canopy ecosystem. You can find lots of species in Manor Park that are perfectly adapted to growing under large trees on the ‘Forest Species’ list in the plant library section on my website.

What plans do you have for the nursery?

I’ve been able to solve a lot of the sustainability challenges around starting plants and getting them to their new homes. This year I’m scaling it up to be a full-time job, offering a few more species, in more sizes, and growing more of the plants that kept selling out last year.

I’m pretty sure I can make the equivalent of a full-time, year-round living wage doing this. I’ll be documenting how things go and posting that to my website in the hopes it will encourage more people to start native plant nurseries in their communities.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Chronicle gardening columnist Christina Keys and has been edited and shortened for clarity.

Micro-nurseries fuel ative plant growth. A Cultivated Art offers hundreds of species of native plants and sells seedling and larger plugs through its website. The online shop offers local Vanier pick up and opens in early May. Photo: Sundaura Alford-Purvis