The Rewording + Rewilding of Our Farms & Yards

In the past decade The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut has worked toward building a regional food system built on knowing where your food comes, supporting your local farms and knowing your farmers. CT NOFA is now championing the same principle in a new arena: knowing where your landscape plants come from and supporting your local seed savers and nursery growers. The rise of enthusiasm for native plants and pollinators has swept our state in the last few years, thanks to the hard work of organizations like The Pollinator Pathway Northeast and Aspetuck Land Trust. Rewilding our landscapes with native plants enhances our regional biodiversity in ways that make it possible for us all to thrive. What we have learned, however, is that to do this properly – to put the right plants in the right place – we collectively need to understand the language of provenance: where native seed is sourced and where it is being grown. In an effort to renew our commitment to the principles of regenerative conservation agriculture, a few concepts around seed need to be clarified and defined.

We collectively need to understand the language of provenance: where native seed is sourced and where it is being grown.

Ecoregions: When we plant native plants, it is important for us to put our bug eyes on and view the landscape the way our local pollinators see it. They do not see the man-made delineations of where one backyard, town or state ends, but rather interact within the boundaries of different types of habitats. In an effort to create a shared framework by scientists, farmers, conservationists and homeowners addressing the various facets of ecosystem health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created Ecoregions of the Continental United States maps (Figure 1). For our purposes in this article we will look at the Level III map that illustrates a broad-strokes mosaic of habitats and communities comprising Ecoregion 59, which covers most of Connecticut.

What Ecoregion 59 illustrates to us in terms of the native plant populations is, the genetics of the seed collected anywhere within Ecoregion 59 can be distributed throughout this area, with the confidence of knowing we are indeed putting the right plants in the right place. We do this in an effort to imbue our living seed banks, a.k.a our soils, with locally adapted species to fortify our wildlife corridors with the food sources and habitats our pollinators need to be successful.

Ecoregions of the Northeast

Figure 1: U.S. Environ- mental Protection Agency,
2013, Level III ecoregions of the continental United States: Corvallis, Oregon, U.S. EPA – National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, map scale 1:7,500,000, https:// www.epa.gov/eco-research/ level-iii-and-iv-ecoregions- continental-united-states..

Ochory: Seeds are dispersed in a number of ways known as “ochories”. The wind does it – anemochory; water does it – hydrochory, the birds assist with it – ornithochory; and even ants help do it – myrmecochory. When native plants are present on the landscape, nature is able to play its role by proliferating them and effectively rewilding the lands around us.

Wild Types: The regionally specific native plants that occur naturally on the landscape which are also known as straight species or ecotypes.
Ecotypes: Ecotypic plant material is genetically specific and co-evolved in the region in which it was grown. The collection of these truly local wild seeds or ecotypes is done by trained botanists who adhere to strict protocols to ensure that we are sustainably stewarding the natural populations. When we gather these placed-based genetics, we are aiding in the proliferation of these arcs of regionally adapted biodiversity. These entomological heirlooms are locally adapted to our climate, soils, and pollinators preferences and are also best adapted to deal with local pests and microclimate variances. As the author Doug Tallamy aptly titled his book, these are “Nature’s Best Hope”!

Most native seed utilized in the Connecticut (and other NOFA states) nursery trade today is sourced from seed growers in the Midwest. The challenge is that the plants grown from this stock may exhibit phenological variation such as bloom times that are maladapted to our pollinators migration, feeding and nesting timelines here in the Northeast. Another consideration is that a great number of native plants sold here are, in fact, native plant cultivars or nativars. Nativars are clonally propagated native

Seed collection of an Asclepias (milkweed)

Seed collection of an Asclepias (milkweed) ecotype with the fluffy “pappus” that aides in wind dispersal (anemochory). Image provided by author. plants selected for uniformity of various aspects of their visual appeal. These plants are often propagated from cuttings, which in essence, creates a monoculture on the landscape. The genetic diversity inherent to wild and truly native species can be lost as a result of native plant cultivars – a loss which lead them to be susceptible to changes in climate and new pest pressures.

When planting a native habitat, it is important to include species that have successional bloom times to ensure we are providing food throughout the sea- sons. For example, the inclusion of different trophic layers of an ecosystem guild (ground covers, shrubs, canopy trees, etc.) is a vital design element to pro- vide habitat for diverse fauna when biomimicking the pattern language of a forest. You will marvel at the entomological diversity you will observe on your landscape when incorporating an array of ecotypic species. Together we can help to safeguard and steward the wild genetics that have been adapting to our shared landscapes since time immemorial.

The Ecotype Project: This program at CT NOFA aims to increase the availability of ecotypic plant material for habitat restoration in the Northeast.

The Project is the table at which botanists, farmers, nursery growers, land trusts, landscapers, and gardeners come together to provide mutual support and education around the provenance and production of native plants for rewilding our landscapes. We work with organic farmers to amplify the production of local native seeds as the demand for this spe cialty crop far outweighs the supply. After we grow, collect, and clean the seeds, we distribute them to local nurseries who then make these plugs available to landscapers, municipalities and homeowners through local plant sales. With the help of all our stakeholders – and you – these plants can make their way back into the landscape where they belong.

Founders Plots
In an effort to amplify the amount of truly local native seed in our region in CT, we are working with organic farmers (as differentiated from “pollinator habitats,” on the home garden or homestead scale) to plant rows of 200 plants of at least three species to harvest the speciality crop – the seeds. As farmers, we only create a reciprocal relationship with our local pollinators when we, as caretakers of the land, provide the food and habitat they need. These actions contribute to ensuring local food security and ecosystem health for the landscapes we cultivate. The Ecotype Project has created a “Getting Started Toolkit,” to help educate and mentor founder plot farmers through the nuance of working with these perennials.

In Conclusion: The provenance of place in regards to seed becomes more and more important as natural wild landscapes are rapidly decreasing and becoming depauperate due to anthropocentric development. We are not just homeowners but also land stewards and as such, we must protect these place-based natural resources. When we collectively reword, reseed and rewild our shared living seed banks on an ecoregional scale with ecotypes, we are supporting regenerative restoration of living landscapes in the Northeast.

When you buy native plants, ask the questions: Where did the seeds of these plants originate from? What ecoregion are they best suited to grow in? Were they grown out locally?

Whichever ecoregion you find yourself in and whatever site you select to plant, implementing just a few of these ecotypic native plants will bring these landscapes back into symphonic resonance with the great ecologies that are humming all around us!

Sefra Alexandra is the Ecotype Project Coordinator + Seed Gatherer for CT NOFA. She can be reached at sefra@ctnofa.org.

This article first appeared in Connecticut Gardener Magazine May/June 2021 and was reprinted with permission.

Links & Resources:

The BOATanical Expedition
Join Sefra on a canoe journey to plant hundreds of native plants from the top of the Mass. border to the mouth of the Long Island Sound, September 2021: www.boatanical.org

The Ecotype Project: ctnofa.org/ecotypeproject/ The Wild Seed Project wildseedproject.net
The Native Plant Trust nativeplanttrust.org Planters’ Choice Nursery Gilbertie’s Organics Nursery