Why native plants?
Native plants have existed in Michigan since before European settlement. Over thousands of years they have adapted to Michigan soils and variable climate. Once they are established (a full growing season), they need no water and require no fertilizer. Above ground, these plants offer a breadth of habitat and food for birds and insects. Below ground, their deep roots allow them to survive cold winters and hot summers, and last through dry seasons, too. These roots systems absorb stormwater and filter nutrients, pollutants, and sediments while also creating avenues for water to seep into the soil which aides in recharging ground water. Via gravity this water slowly reaches the creek through the ground. When it arrives, the water is cooler and cleaner compared to the warm, polluted storm surges that come from the storm sewers.
Native plants are essential for healthy creeks as well as feeding and sheltering resilient ecosystems.
Propagating native plants
Each season our Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) gathers seeds from over 400 species (474 is the record) of plants native to Michigan. Michigan seeds are smart and will not germinate until they have sat through a time of cold, a winter season. Some seeds, especially berries, need to be digested to germinate. We mimic the natural processes of dormancy via putting seeds in the fridge, through a blender or washed in acid. When spring arrives, the seeds are laid out for germination and transplanted into larger pots and flats as they grow. This propagation is all done here on Calvin’s campus. Here the plants grow and stay until they are ready to be planted in watershed restoration projects like rain gardens, bioswales, floodplain restoration projects, or other sustainable landscapes. Our greenhouse facility includes an outdoor nursery covered in shade cloth, one heated greenhouse, and two cold frame greenhouses. The second cold frame greenhouse was built in the summer of 2018 due to a pressing need for more space for young plants and the generosity of many donors and supporters of Plaster Creek Stewards. These greenhouses become the hub of student and volunteer activity throughout the growing season as materials, tools, and plants are staged here for restoration work. Students meet for lunch, for work, and overall for growing in their understanding of watershed stewardship.
Interested in propagating native plants in your classroom? We have a reference to get you started.
Education and research
The native plants used in PCS restoration projects provide educational and service-learning opportunities for students and community members. We work with students in various courses at Calvin, at various schools in the watershed, and with volunteers. At each of our educational events, we also provide an opportunity for people to take action to restore the watershed. We find education and action are synergistic. Each group learns about native plants and watersheds, then works in the greenhouse, or installs a rain garden, or another restoration project.
Our propagation techniques and projects are part of ongoing research covering ecological restoration. We are especially interested in which native species survive and thrive best in urban rain gardens. We are amassing a dataset of how various native species preform over time, and what site conditions are important for determining species' survival.