It Ain't Easy Being Green

Here at Wildtype we like to think of ourselves as ecologically oriented and worthy of the moniker "green business." Actually being green has proven to be an ambiguous and elusive goal –much more challenging than we could have ever thought. Although we grow native plants and focus on sustainable landscaping and ecological restoration, we confront the same challenges the entire economy encounters. Our resource demands are impressive even for our modest nursery operation. We house our plants in heated greenhouses to protect them from the cold Michigan weather in March, April and May. We grow the plants in plastic pots using peat-based soil, which like oil, is a non-renewable resource. To keep the plants growing requires large volumes of water and fertilizer. In addition, all the soil, plastic and fuel needed travels to the nursery from around the county and around the world.

In our search for "greener" production we are constantly tangling with questions like: Is using an alternative fuel really saving energy? Does sending plastic to a recycler that ships this material to China provide any net environmental benefit? We hear all the hype about using improved technology to minimize resource consumption but find that much of it is unsubstantiated. Technology, at best, leads to small incremental improvements and there are always tradeoffs. Detailed accounting is required to determine if there are more resources conserved than consumed when making production changes. Each new "green" innovation needs to be carefully scrutinized for hyperbole or claims of alchemy.

In addition to looking for technological innovation, we are also employing simpler, proven techniques to soften our footprint. For example, we reuse our plastic pots as opposed to recycling them after one use. We also grow our plants in small containers, which allow us to grow more plants in a given amount of heated space. Plants grown in small containers use less soil, plastic and water and are more efficient to transport than the industry standard. The horticultural industry's predilection for large container sizes is steeped in marketability and not in horticultural benefit. We have long held that there is no horticultural advantage to growing plants that are ready to sell before the threat of frost has passed (about May 20 in central lower MI). Doing so is a needless waste of energy. This is why our plants are not ready for sale in April or early May when garden centers are typically fully stocked. We also encourage the sale and installation of Wildtype plants only within our eco-region. In addition to the obvious reasons, reduced amounts of energy are needed to transport them.

Once planted and established our plants are truly off the energy grid – the energy they require to grow comes from the sun and they sequester carbon, which helps to offset the ecological costs of their production. While this can be said for nearly all plants, native or non-native, we grow Michigan natives, which have additional environmental advantages. Native plants provide "ecological services" such as minimizing soil erosion, enhancing water infiltration and providing wildlife habitat. Our plants are well adapted to local soils and climate and once established require minimal watering and fertilizing. Best of all, when properly sited they reproduce themselves, which further amplifies these benefits. We acknowledge there are substantial energy inputs in our production and we are working hard to reduce them. Regardless, we stand behind our end product - the humble native plant. Without hyperbole or alchemy, just through photosynthesis, this is one place where real ecological and economic dividends are reaped.