Natives in Harmony
Gale Martin loves native plants. And as pollinators depend on plants and we depend on pollinators, it is safe to also say Gale loves bugs. Standing amidst her greenhouses and garden beds she makes the case for why Ohio genotype plants are so important for, say, the bees that are native to Ohio. On a sunny day filled with birdsong, she describes with a sweet seriousness how mason bees cut little circles in leaves to then stuff in their babies’ nest as an antibiotic. “Being eaten by a bug is a good thing,” she says. It’s for her love of bugs and plants that Gale doesn’t relent. She’s on a mission to “keep these plants from disappearing.”
As a little girl, Gale spent time on her family farm tromping through the woods studying the plants. She always kept a plant pocket guide by her side. Her career, however, led her to a position as the director of the historical society in Marion. Gale’s work sometimes took her out to study remnants in prairies throughout Ohio. As she traversed these distant flower and grass fields, she noticed unique plants and collected seeds to bring back to her hobby farm to germinate and later grow in her garden. “I always had a love for plants.”
It’s when Dan Grau, her husband and co-owner of Natives in Harmony in Marengo, noticed Gale’s seed trays stacked up and overflowing that he decided to build her a potting shed, which now stands at the center of Gale’s nursery when you visit the farm.
Potting shed led to a hobby greenhouse, which led to another hoop house and a third. With a full year of retirement under her wings, Gale anticipates investing in a larger greenhouse to expand her operation this year. Natives in Harmony started in 2009 yet it’s really in the last few years that Gale has found her stride.
In the beginning she tried farmers markets. On her first day she stood and talked about why native plants are so important as people walked by. They didn’t get it. Gale left planning to give up. Then Dan advised: “You just have to educate them.”
And he was right. If you visit Natives in Harmony, or find Gale at a plant sale near you, you’ll find the plants along with an information sheet for each one that details its habitat, history and how best to grow it. Gale says it was this addition to her business plan that “changed everything.” Today, returning customers keep the sheets, creating their own garden pocket guide.
Gale makes her plants accessible to all. Her price point on one plug starts at $3. You can buy a whole tray of plants for under $100. For Gale, having more people with native plants that provide the right pollen and nectar for the right bugs across Ohio is crucial. “Every state should worry about the plants in their state,” she says.
At Natives in Harmony, Gale has the capability of raising over 400 species of native plants. Prairie thimbleweed. Plantain-leaved pussytoes. Wild columbine. Green dragon. The list is a plant lover’s dream. This year, she also plans to introduce another 30 to 40. One plant she shows me—American columbo (Frasera caroliniensis)—with its little green sprouts coming up in a seed tray, is a herbaceous plant and a monocarpic perennial, which means it “spends more than a year in a vegetative state before flowering once and then dying.
“The length of the vegetative period can be highly variable between plant species,” says Gale, “from strictly biennial to long-lived monocarpic perennials.”
Similar to unpacking and restoring the past, Gale has to restore the knowledge lost on these plants. Even though she may have a seed, she may have no idea what it is or what it will do. It takes patience, research and dedication on her end to make a true home for the plant. Once Gale knows she can raise it and propagate it for sale, she’ll put it on the market. She has beds, though, that are simply for trial runs. As I look out over her operation, I tell her she’s running a seed bank and she nods her head in agreement. Her stewardship goes beyond the present into the future of native plants in Ohio.
All Gale’s hard work storing seeds in her pocket is paying off. She works with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, which helps manage grassland fields from overgrowth, which leads to a decline in wildlife species. Members of the program plant natives on their property to “enhance the wildlife habitat” and bring pollinators back to the land. CRP now partners directly with Gale, among other nurseries around the state, to provide 23 different species, like purple coneflower and wild bergamot, to land owners throughout Ohio. More and more cities and townships are requesting her native plants, too. “We’ve got to do something,” she says, “and I’ll move heaven and earth to get there.”
Visit Gale’s nursery at 4652 Township Road 179 in Marengo and shop for plants on Sundays and Mondays from noon to 6pm.