Every organization that calls the Waltham Field Station home began in the same way: identifying a need in the communities of Waltham, the Greater Boston Area, or Massachusetts, and developing some kind of response. Grow Native Massachusetts is no exception. Since 2010, Grow Native Massachusetts has taken a grassroots approach to native plant awareness, in response to a lack of native gardening practices, the disconnect between ecology and landscaping, and most importantly, environmental degradation. From its beginnings as “Grow Native Cambridge,” Grow Native Massachusetts has organized countless projects and programs through exchanges between neighbors, dedicated volunteers, and individual gardeners. They have made essential connections that will have a long-lasting impact on Massachusetts’ green spaces.
Grow Native Massachusetts began in 2010 with a single garden. Claudia Thompson, founder of Grow Native, naturalist, and gardener, began revitalizing her garden with species native to the Northeast, plant by plant. Her mission expanded as fellow gardeners asked questions, wanting to learn more. Hosting workshops and speakers, her neighborly conversations “snowballed” into a full non-profit organization. Thompson’s grassroots actions responded to an alarming statistic: 95% of land in the United States has been altered for human use.
Even green spaces full of healthy plants are counted in that 95%, because they may not be native to the soil in which they grow. Non-native flora do not have the same evolutionary relationship with local fauna as native species. This problem is especially harmful to insects and birds. Heavily modified plants, often sold by garden suppliers, are not able to interact with ecosystems in a productive way. For example, this disconnect has been observed in native bumblebees. While bumblebees collect nectar from any type of flower, the best nutrition can only come from native varieties. Meanwhile, non-native nectar is like “bee candy:” very tasty, but not healthy or sustainable. As Thompson’s garden was transformed into a friendly, native space, she saw the same phenomena in local bird species. They began to seek refuge in her yard as the native plants they depended on returned. Since her project started, she has recorded 83 total bird species in her own backyard — each one enjoying a rare and precious habitat of native plants.
To learn more about Grow Native myself, I was able to speak with Grow Native Program Manager Meredith Gallogly, and Member Engagement and Operations Manager Karen Gibson. They told me that their favorite part of working at Grow Native is observing the empowerment that individuals feel when they learn about the urgency of growing native plants. According to Meredith, Grow Native’s mission gives people answers. It explains to concerned gardeners “here is what you can do when the environment is crumbling around you.” Karen expanded: “there is a hunger for information” about native plants among volunteers and gardeners who are learning from Grow Native. With a general lack of interest in the scientific study the relationships between native flora and fauna, the Grow Native motto “every garden matters, every landscape counts” rings especially true. Because of this lack of readily available resources, the most surprising thing about working at Grow Native, Karen told me, is how much there still is to learn. “The more you learn, the more you know that you don’t know.”
You can find evidence of Grow Native’s work in countless backyard gardens, and more publicly, right here at the Waltham Field Station. If you drive down Beaver Street and look to the field station fence line, you can see some of the native plants they have worked so hard to cultivate—trumpet honeysuckle, Black-eyed Susans, and butterflyweed, to name a few. Before Grow Native, the fence line was smothered by invasive species like bittersweet and buckthorn, forming an impenetrable bramble, and choking the native sumac. Now, native flowers bloom, and invite bees, butterflies, and other insects to explore the station further. Other projects include a meadow circle at the station’s farthest entrance, which features New York ironweed, vervain, and goldenrod, that serves as a demonstration garden for workshops and trainings.
Meredith explained how perfect the field station was for Grow Native as a young non-profit. Located in the Greater Boston Area, the Waltham Field Station sits at an intersection between urban and suburban, where land is most threatened by development. This was an ideal place to enact the Grow Native mission. Now, Grow Native has ambitions to expand their demonstration capacity at the field station, as well as offer more formal and detailed consultation for gardeners and businesses seeking advice on native species. Unfortunately, Meredith and Karen worry that investing in too much expansion would not be wise at the moment. With the future of the station uncertain, some of their projects have been put on hold. If the station shuts down, so will the on-site native gardening projects.
In addition to organizing volunteer restoration efforts for spaces at the field station, Grow Native has regular programming with many opportunities. Their biggest event, an annual native plant sale, sold more than 4,000 plants this past June, with the support of 50 dedicated volunteers. The sale benefits local gardeners, who come to choose from over 120 species, and also local plant nurseries who serve as sources for the sale. Some species this year were even custom grown, just for the event! Popular plants this year included spotted bee balm and blue stem goldenrod. Grow Native also hosts workshops, guided walks, and a free speaker’s series, providing a platform for the voices of native plant and ecological experts to be more accessible to the public.
In their 2018 Annual Report, Grow Native identifies their three key strategies: expanding knowledge, building community, and inspiring action. These grassroots approaches have a structural vision. For example, Meredith explained the detachment between landscaping and ecology, where landscapers seek to build beautiful spaces without consideration for their relationship to local ecosystems. Many Grow Native education initiatives seek to repair this disconnection, teaching interested gardeners how to grow their very own meadows, or informing public audiences about urban restoration. Through all of their work, Grow Native poses a simple question about many barriers we traditionally accept: why can’t there be both? asked this question, we are invited to make new connections, and repair old ones, between flora and fauna, ecologist and landscaper, land and inhabitants, and most importantly, each other.
If you are interested in supporting Grow Native, consider becoming a member, volunteering, and checking out their website for upcoming events. Also, check out their video collection from previous Grow Native speaker’s series, all available online! Finally, don’t forget to contact your local and state legislators, so that Grow Native can continue to make connections and ask questions at the Waltham Field Station and beyond.
By Anneke Craig, Boston Area Gleaners Intern