By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
He is a retired doctor. She is a retired teacher. Now they grow native plants, “preaching” the good news of restoration when they sell them at the Kincardine Farmers’ Market in conjunction with “choosing life” on what was once a heavily grazed farm.
Art Wiebe and Janice McKean and I sat in their Tiverton-area farmhouse, warmed by the woodstove and sipping coffee while birds feasted on the many feeders outside the window. Two trays of seedlings had sprouted under grow lights by the east window. This window faces into a large, covered verandah where trays of native plant seeds are resting in the soil to be cold-stratified for 120 days in order to sprout in spring.
Cold-stratification is the process of simulating winter to spur seeds into action according to a gardener’s timetable. This pair had been doing it for many years when, after purchasing their farm in Tiverton, they realized most greenhouses and suppliers didn’t know a lot about native plants…much less have them.
“We wanted to restore our farm with native plants but 25 years ago, they were not really on the radar,” remembers Janice. “If we did find some labelled native, we couldn’t be sure they really were either.”
Both Art and Janice had farming roots without farming experience, but they both knew the outdoors would figure prominently in their retirement. So they started searching their property and learning about the existing vegetation. They expanded their exploratory jaunts into wider Bruce County, watching, learning and incorporating native plants onto their farm.
Janice says if you open their glove compartment, a stack of paper bags will spill out. They are always stopping on their travels to collect seed and, on a side note, the occasional roadkill. Moving carrion from the road to their pasture prevents bird kills on the road and attracts birds to their own property, allowing them to watch eagles and vultures at close range. It can be an odorous journey, at times.
The pair expanded their education by connecting with Martin Quinn, known for his ornamental grasses. He taught them the basics of propagation and allowed them to use a portion of his greenhouse to start seeding native plants.
“We had no idea if anything would come up but everything came up!” remembers Art. “That fuelled our enthusiasm for growing native plants.”
Many of those plants were used to populate grasslands and meadows on their farm. Moist areas on the farm are filled with the stunning cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), bergamot and native hibiscus, also known as swamp rose mallow. Drier areas are filled with prairie plants such as hoary vervain, coreopsis, goldenrods and asters. They grow compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) and cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) near the house so they can watch pollinators and hummingbirds feed and drink from these tall, bold natives. Other favourite natives include wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), wild leek and bloodroot for woodland areas.
For gardeners getting into natives who like a colourful show, they recommend native lupines and the milkweed family, which has the added benefit of feeding monarch butterfly caterpillars.”You can choose butterfly milkweed, common milkweed or swamp milkweed,” advised Art. Gay-headed coneflowers, obedient plants, purple coneflowers, native columbines, turtlehead and blue vervain are also excellent, attractive natives.
Janice says she’s particularly fond of Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), for its massive, architectural leaves. It is a unique towering plant with flowering stalks that arise from a large cluster of broad basal leaves. The sunflower-like blooms last for a month or longer in mid-to-late summer. Once they've become established the plants are drought tolerant and long-lived.
The pair grow many of the plants named above and sell them at the Kincardine Farmers’ market in spring, summer and fall. They also grow native grasses for use by the Lake Huron Coastal Centre which use the plants to naturalize areas along the coastline. Plants like big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) are excellent for naturalizing and improving the soil with their deep, expansive roots.
“Cordgrass has a dense rhizome system that makes it an excellent replacement in areas where invasive phragmites have been taken out,” says Art.
Growing native plants is a real passion, he adds. “We see where the world is headed and we want to save a little bit of it.” The couple has put a conservation easement onto their farm so the naturalized areas they have created will be protected in the future. “When we feel despair about the planet, we realize we are really only responsible for these 44 hectares and we get a great deal of comfort about what we are doing here. We are convinced in our hearts that everyone will someday realize how important it is to restore our native ecosystems.”
Janice agrees. “Doing this is our concrete way of showing hope,” she says.
Ultimately, they live by a message from Deuteronomy in the Bible that says, “Therefore, choose life.” Art says “this is us choosing life in a different way than the consumptive way.” Connecting with God as Creator via growing plants is an important part of their faith life as well,
Art and Janice prefer to sell their plants at the Kincardine Farmers’ Market versus on-farm sales. They are founders of the market and find it an excellent place to connect with people who are interested in native plants. “It’s where Art gets to do his preaching,” jokes Janice. Their farm is alive with plants, birds and their horses but could be considered disorderly by those who prefer close-cropped lawns, straight lines and no weeds in sight. “Things grow everywhere here and you have to look at it through the right eyes.” I visited their farm in the fall and it was so ALIVE. I think it’s absolutely gorgeous and indulged in some bird photography after the interview, photographing blue jays, woodpeckers, blackbirds, juncos, finches and a chatty red squirrel.
Their greenhouse is a lean-to on an old bank barn and they prefer to grow plants and share information, rather than busily market their hobby/business into a full-time enterprise. Retired from their professional careers , the pair have time and financial freedom to grow plants, re-establish native ecosystems and live the life they want to live. They make enough from the native plant passion to maintain their farm registration and that’s good enough for them.
Fascinating to talk to, with a palpable energy that fuels interest in native plant growing and gardening, you’ll want to say “hi” to Art and Janice when they return to the Kincardine Farmers’ Market and see what plants they brought along! ◊