Native seed project helps WMU get back to its roots

Contact: Jeanne Baron

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The verdant and beautifully flowered campus environment the Western Michigan University community returned to this fall came courtesy of Landscape Services. They readied campus for the academic year by planting as well as planning for the future.

In August, Landscape Services employees gathered in the Department of Biological Sciences' Finch Greenhouse to transplant hundreds of native plants started in the greenhouse from seeds that were hand collected as part of WMU's Native Plant Propagation Project.

The project began in 2008 as a collaboration between the greenhouse and the natural areas program in Landscape Services. Since then, more than 40,000 perennial plants native to southwest Michigan, including some of the most unusual and sought-after species, have been nurtured there.

Native seeds collected by University landscape staff and area volunteers are sprouted in Finch and planted on campus as well as distributed to nonprofits and other organizations in the local area. For WMU, growing the fledgling plants fits seamlessly into the ecological restoration landscape management technique it has been gradually introducing.

The technique allows native plants and nature to revitalize land parcels, eliminating the need for costly chemicals, mowing and other traditional methods for maintaining manicured landscapes—methods that can negatively impact the environment.

During the greenhouse gathering, WMU staffers transplanted many of the Native Plant Propagation Project's seedlings into waiting containers that they care for until the seedlings can be planted at various ecological restoration sites around campus.

Greenhouse greenery

Christopher Jackson, greenhouse specialist in the biological sciences department, says Finch has long served as an incubator for plants WMU needs for educational purposes and for the University's campus beautification and sustainability efforts.

"Since I've been here, I've opened up the greenhouse to members of the Landscape Services staff and students who work with the Office for Sustainability," Jackson says. "If all of the research space isn't being used by our faculty, there's no sense in having empty rooms when we can fill them with things that can help beautify campus or help our community in other ways."

Jackson using a hose to water rows of seedling-filled plastic flats.

Jackson waters some of the flats of plants he grows and nurtures at Finch.

Finch, which is attached to Wood Hall, provides quality plants needed for academic classes as well as state-of-the-art space for students and faculty to conduct research and for the biological sciences department to maintain a permanent conservatory collection.

Flower bed by Waldo Library.

A mix of native and non-native vegetation adds beauty to the campus.

Jackson says the facility also assists Landscape Services by growing many of the petunias, coleus, chrysanthemums and fall kale seen around campus. Overall, he says, it supplies hundreds of these non-native plants for campus beautification each year.

But whenever possible, Jackson notes that Finch assists with the University's sustainability efforts.

It provides space and services early in the year to grow hundreds of vegetable and other seedlings for the Office for Sustainability's Gibbs House farm and Community Garden. These seedlings are used for the office's student research projects as well as to supplement WMU's student food pantry.

In addition, the greenhouse stores and starts the native seeds collected for the Native Plant Propagation Project.

"It's a really sustainable project. I've not had to purchase native seeds," Jackson says. "But we couldn't do it without the volunteers. We have people out collecting seeds because it's a labor-intensive thing to collect, clean, cold-store and transplant them."

Going native

Among the staffers at the Finch Greenhouse gathering was Stephen Root, a Landscape Services supervisor. Root now serves as his unit's liaison with the greenhouse on the Native Plant Propagation Project. He says WMU has been doing native plantings for years, including in stormwater collection and filtration areas as well as steep slopes that can't be mowed effectively, or in many cases, safely.

Stephan Keto, who retired in Aug. 9, spent part of his last days as WMU's manager of natural areas and preserves helping out at the Finch Greenhouse gathering. On hand to give a transplanting tutorial , he spoke about the Native Plant Propagation project, which he was instrumental in building as well as overseeing Landscape Services.

"It's all about diversity. It's diversity of plants, diversity of soil organisms, diversity of birds, diversity of animals. It builds on itself," Keto says. "Native plants are standard material for commercial stormwater features, residential rain gardens, buffer strips, bio-swales, permaculture gardens, wildlife habitat and pollinator gardens."

For more information, contact Christopher Jackson at c.d.jackson@wmich.edu or (269) 387-5618 or Stephen Root at steve.root@wmich.edu or (269) 387-8557.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.