KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Landscape Services crews are hard at work preparing the Western Michigan University campus for the return to in-person instruction on Wednesday, Sept. 2. Among the lush landscape and blossoming buds awaiting the arrival of students, faculty and staff are hundreds, if not thousands, of plants saved by Christopher Jackson—a greenhouse specialist who could easily add seedling savior to his title.
“About 10 days before this pandemic hit and the University shut down, I pulled all of the seed flats out of the cooler. The embryos ‘woke up’ and there was no turning back,” says Jackson, who has spent 10 years leading the day to day care of seedlings—watering, fertilizing and monitoring the environment. The safety measures that abruptly cleared out campus in March had left offices frozen in time and hundreds of flats of seeds hanging in the balance in Finch Greenhouse.
"Normally we'd come in with a group of people and once those seedlings come up, we would gently take them out and transplant them into what's called plug flats," says Steve Root, a Landscape Services supervisor. "We weren't there, so we were expecting it would be a total loss."
Jackson rose to the challenge. He spent about two hours every day working on the project, eventually filling two large greenhouse rooms with transplanted seedlings.
"He did it all. He transplanted them, put them into the plug flats and had them ready to go," says Root, adding that Jackson cared for the seedlings and kept them alive until mid-May when it was safe for Landscape Services to bring some employees back to campus to begin planting.
Nurturing native species is part of a larger passion in Landscape Services to expand natural areas across the campus, increasing sustainability and land stewardship.
"This is the forefront. This is the future. It's been thrust upon us, but it's what is happening. We're very blessed to have the programs we do," says Root. "To be able to have the expertise and the ability to grow natives and put them back into the landscape is quite amazing."
Launched in 2008, WMU's Native Plant Propagation Project has led to the cultivation of tens of thousands of perennial plants native to southwest Michigan across the University's campuses. Landscaping crews are able to collect seeds from those plants and use them to grow more.
"It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say there were 10,000 baby plants generated this year alone," says Dr. Todd Barkman, who uses the campus landscape as a living learning laboratory for his biological science classes. He estimates tens of thousands of native plant seedlings have been produced through the program and planted throughout Kalamazoo County. That includes some species on campus that are endangered and among the last viable plants of their kind in the county.
"I'm not going to let a species go extinct on my watch in our county," says Barkman. "I've found great partners with Landscape Services. We've all worked together along with student groups to propagate these plants, clean up the sites and hope that it will result in self-sustaining populations that are no longer threatened in our state."
The shift to more natural landscapes offers a number of benefits, both operational and environmental. For instance, more areas on campus—particularly those with challenging topography that would require specialized equipment—are being naturalized. It's a strategy that saves money and ecosystems.
"Using the native plant species, letting the grass grow a little taller and adding trees in there, you're going to have a lot deeper root system" which will better absorb and filter rainwater and ease the strain on the University's storm water system, says Root. "These landscapes have many uses, way beyond just the aesthetic. These are highly functional landscapes and we'd like to see more."
Landscape Services sees strategically crafting naturalized spaces in concert with more traditional landscaping as the future of the industry.
"For the longest time we had landscape and we had natural areas, and they were separate," says WMU horticulturalist Nick Gooch. "I wanted to find out, can we integrate those? Can you be in an urban corridor like a neighborhood, a manicured area like campus, and have native elements in there that are both attractive from a design element but also have a good ecological component?"
Gooch’s longterm goal is to use a forestry management approach, filling areas with a diverse group of plant and tree species and letting nature take its course.
"We're trying to find a new groove and something that works," adds Root. "This is the future. It really is. This is what we hope the students that are moving through Western will have the opportunity to learn and get incredible value from.”
In addition to expanding learning opportunities for students, the shift to a more natural approach is providing opportunities for staff as well.
"We're actually teaching them a whole new level of expertise that's a much higher level. So they have skills that are really not that common in the landscape industry," says Root. "We do a lot of observation and learning from these landscapes. That's how we see the future moving forward—trying to get more and more people out and learning the natural systems."
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Native seed project helps WMU get back to its roots | Sept. 25, 2019