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Gardening: The Triumph of Project Native

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Project Native's Raina Weber Outstanding in Her Field

At 19, she was a high school drop out with a good idea.  At 27, Raina Weber is the founder and executive director of Project Native, a non-profit dedicated to the collection, propagation, and promotion of the flora that has grown in this region since before alien-seed-toting Europeans started gardening here in the 17th century.  Today, Project Native, headquartered for the last 4 years on its own 54-acre farm in Housatonic, is a full-service plant nursery, complete with a design-and-landscaping team.  It runs off-site educational programs—such as Project Sprout, in Great Barrington at Monument Mountain Regional High School and another in Pittsfield at Redfield House, a residence for young mothers 14 - 24 and their babies.  Project Native is also the recent recipient of a $600,000 grant (spread over the next three years) earmarked for the restoration of a 30-acre flood-plain forest in Sheffield and a 7-acre bog buffer in Stockbridge.

In Raina Webers story there are several heroes: she, herself, of course, and also the community that rallied to help her get on her feet.

Eight years ago, while working for a landscaper, Weber presciently saw the need in this region for a native plant nursery.  She appealed to the Railroad Street Youth Project, an organization that helps young people find funding, space, and assistance for their projects.  “They sent me to a 12-week business course with Berkshire Enterprises,” Raina says, referring to a training program for county entrepreneurs, “who taught me how to write a business plan.” Then RSYP set her up with an advisory team of adult professionals. Later the Nature Conservancy signed on as a sponsor, lending credibility to the science Weber espoused.  Thus fully armed for battle, she began collecting seed in the wild (never more than 10-15% of that in evidence) and propagating plants on a donated 1/8-acre plot at Root Orchard Farms in Housatonic.  She sold the plants on Saturdays from a greenhouse she had built there.  “That first year, we did 15 species in 2,000 pots and sold out before the end of July,” she recalls.  “This year, we’re doing 160 species in 20,000 pots.”

Why native plants?  Lots of reasons, perhaps the least of which is that, unlike a lot of stuff you see in gardens around here, they have a way of looking just right with each other and in this environment.  An even better reason: they support native insects and wildlife.  And the best reason by far: they don’t choke out their fellow flora.  Yet for all their virtues, Raina says, “We’re not Native Nazis.”  In a typical garden installation, they (she now has 7 employees in summer, 2 year ‘round, plus volunteers and interns) might use 75% natives, 25% non-invasive exotics, even though, she admits, many exotics make so little contribution to the eco-system, “they might as well be a piece of asphalt. But a backyard garden may need more color (say, spring bulbs) and texture than is possible using just natives.”

Naturally, she is extremely selective about which non-natives she uses.  “What you have to watch out for is any exotic that is touted as extremely hardy and pest-resistant,” she says.  “With those characteristics, it’s likely also to be invasive.” But at the garden center they sell only natives, plus 10 species that she calls “native neighbors,” plants from just outside the Berkshire, Taconic, Litchfield, and Columbia County area.

As a non-profit that survives partially off of contributions, as well as local, state and federal grants, Project Native is able to keep its prices competitive.  Most of their perennials sell for $10 a pot, with a 10% discount to members (starting at $50 per year).  They also sell compost and mulch formulated to their own exacting specifications.

As irony would have it, our roadsides and woods have been lost to the aliens; it’s only in our own backyards where we have control.  And there, unless we are part of the solution, we may be part of the problem.  It’s often the showy stuff we drool over at nurseries—with blooms the size of hubcaps—that migrate indiscriminately, choking out our natives.  So if we don’t go native at home, it may all get lost.

Project Native
342 North Plain Road (Route 41), Housatonic; 413.274.3433

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 07/03/08 at 10:41 AM • Permalink