Seeds make you think about the future. From this handful of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) seeds, we can imagine hundreds of seedlings growing in a nursery and then taking root in native pollinator gardens and prairie restoration projects. We can visualize these and other native perennials as part of the biodiverse, reimagined productive landscapes needed for climate change adaptation in this region. The evening primrose plants that formed these seeds spent the past summer growing alongside 1,000 other individuals from 28 species of native perennials at the Toronto Seed Strategy Pilot Orchard at NVK Nurseries in Dundas, Ontario.
The first harvest of evening primrose seeds. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Each week over the summer, Liam Doyle, University of Guelph Master of Landscape Architecture student, visited, watching the different species grow, bloom, receive pollinators, and slowly set seeds. With guidance from Stefan Weber of the Ontario Plant Restoration Alliance (OPRA), Liam learned species-specific seed collection and processing protocols and began to observe the fleeting and precise moments that seeds are ready for gathering. Sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus), for example, “shatters” many of its minuscule seeds shortly after ripening, a dramatic maturation. So, gathering those seeds involves attentive patience, being ready just as the shattering begins. Now, late in the year, the orchard is teeming with drying blooms, inflorescences heavy with developing seeds. Each plant is a lesson in reproduction: from the tiny spray of flowers on Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), the delicate “tongue” of the hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), to the articulated composite seeds of the smooth oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides).
A flowering Oenothera biennis. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
As the climate warms, native, locally adapted drought- and flood-tolerant plant species are in demand. While native perennial plantings have been a small part of the horticultural industry, today, more landscape architects are specifying them, and more clients are requesting them. Ongoing advocacy from non-profit environmental organizations like OPRA (advocating for growers and seed-based restoration) and Carolinian Canada (popularizing regionally specific wildlife gardening), as well as guidelines like the Toronto Green Standard and Toronto’s Biodiversity Strategy (which call for regionally appropriate native plants from source-identified seed), have all contributed to this change. But while demand surges, supply is not there. Many in the industry are concerned about a lack of appropriate and sufficient seed and plant sources; it can be difficult to find enough quantity and the right plants. If native perennial plantings are a key part of climate-adaptation strategies, will there be enough, and how will their growth benefit Indigenous land caretakers.
Heliopsis helianthoides entertains a guest. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
The challenges are many and complex, and any response requires the coordination of many sectors including landscape architects, landscape contractors, seed collectors, growers, and ecologists. We can see strategic leadership on seed-based restoration at all levels: the International Network for Seed-Based Restoration (INSR), national-level strategies by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the US National Native Seed Strategy, and critical initiatives at local scales such as by Kayanase and the St. Williams Nursery and Ecology Centre in Southern Ontario. The Southern Ontario Seed Strategy, led by Carolinian Canada, has been facilitating a broad-scale response to these challenges, gathering these sectors in crucial conversation. In turn, local initiatives such as OPRA, composed of people rooted in cultural and ecological communities, have launched pilot seed orchard projects in Southern Ontario. In 2020, the Toronto Seed Strategy Working Group, including designers, plant growers, landscape contractors, and environmental non-profits formed to support native plant seed capacity specifically in the Greater Toronto Area for residential to larger-scale ecological restoration work. In a series of meetings, recurring concerns emerged: the need for stronger connection between landscape architects and growers so that design specifications reflect availability; the need to build relationships so that designers can forecast species needs in time for growers to obtain seed and propagate them; the need for all parties to educate clients about the value of source-identified seed; the need for any native plant production to reflect the principles and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; the need to support Indigenous-led land initiatives; and the need for co-operation and communication above all. One outcome of the meetings was a collaborative effort to establish a pilot seed orchard.
Doellingeria umbellata. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
The Toronto Seed Strategy Pilot Orchard was planted in June of 2022, thanks to many individuals and organizations including Design Climate Action, Karen May, OALA, for species selection, the World Wildlife Foundation for plants, NVK Nurseries for facilities and maintenance, Carolinian Canada for consultation, and a Mitacs Business Strategy Internship grant (in partnership with Ecoman Landscaping and the University of Waterloo School of Architecture) to support orchard documentation and seed gathering. The orchard is a humble three rows of plants, but it represents collective action towards climate change adaptation, a local piece of a broader set of regional, provincial, and federal strategies. We envision the orchard and future seed exchanges as a space for sharing knowledge, for learning and practicing seed collection and cleaning, and for bringing together the different sectors. We are looking forward to gathering and processing a diverse assemblage of seeds in the coming weeks, but the project’s success will be measured equally in the relationships cultivated through the process.
Straining for seeds at the Seed Saving Workshop, Toronto Plant Market. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Rudbeckia hirta. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Desmodium canadense, being visited by a pollinator. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Desmodium canadense. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Heliopsis helianthoides. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Planting the Toronto Seed Strategy seed orchard. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle
Searching for seeds. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Liam Doyle