by Sally Colby
Retired teacher Kathy Settevendemie didn’t plan to start a native plant nursery when she and her husband Michael moved from Alaska to Montana. Blackfoot Native Plants in Potomac, MT is the result of her desire to manage weeds on the 60-acre property.
“Being fairly new to the area, I didn’t realize I was actually killing some native species,” Kathy recalls. “I thought I’d grow some plants and revegetate. I started doing that and one thing led to another.”
In her quest to mitigate weeds, Kathy was growing native flowers and grasses and became interested in the importance of native plants. “I’ve worked up to about 300 species of native plants,” she said. “I’ve become very active in the use of native plants throughout Montana. It’s become a passion and a lifestyle for me.”
When Kathy was ready to revegetate the property, she started with fleabanes and some grasses. “I started with a few species and became enamored with all the different species,” she said. “I spent a lot of time hiking with people who were familiar with native plants, learning to identify plants and become familiar with botanical terminology.” Kathy says that once she started to seek native plants intentionally, she paid more attention to the ecology of various locations and started to discover important characteristics of natives and how they survive in various environments.
After her remedial work, Kathy started growing grasses, blue flax, blanket flower, asters, monarda and other plants she found on the property. “I was trying to cultivate plants I could remediate with,” she said. “Some of them I tried and failed because the protocol is so specific for the species. I’ve had hundreds in the refrigerator doing cold stratification. I’ve done scarification and tried different things with different plants.”
What Kathy found is that just because someone has done something one way doesn’t mean it can’t be done another way. She spends a lot of time looking at how plants behave in nature for cues on how to propagate those species. “Something that might be seeding in summer, like sticky wild geranium — what happens to those seeds?” she said. “They spend the rest of the summer curing on the hot dry ground. But with clarkia, as soon as there’s any moisture, the seeds germinate and plants come up in fall then proliferate in spring. I spend a lot of time watching how plants work in the wild, then I can work in that framework.” For pasque flower, Kathy used to do a cold stratification and plant in spring, but she has totally reversed that process. “I plant them immediately upon seed collection and let them sit out in seed flats in the nursery where it’s moist,” she said, “and I’ll often get germination faster than I would if I had done stratification. I just keep experimenting with different protocols.”
Now that Kathy is well-versed in natives, she continues to hone the craft of propagating various species. She uses GPS in the field to mark locations of plants she finds in the wild so she can return to the exact location weeks or months later to check for seeds. She also pays close attention to the soil and conditions that plants are growing in, including plants’ relationships with beneficial soil fungi. “Kinnikinnik and huckleberries need mycorrhizal fungi to do well,” said Kathy, noting two plants that have special soil requirements. “I have notebooks about when things are blooming — phenology is different every year. I also do a lot of photography, which helps me identify where plants are, and I make notes too.”
Kathy starts plants in seed flats then transplants seedlings to four-inch-deep pots. “I want as much root mass as possible,” she said. “Then those are transplanted to one-gallon pots.” Some plants are started in raised beds if that’s the most appropriate method for raising them. Kathy has a hoop house, but it’s used primarily to protect against wind, moderate moisture and provide winter storage. Seed flats and small pots remain outside through winter to ensure hardiness. Plants are usually one to two years old at the time of sale, so they’ve overwintered and proven to be hardy.
An important component of Blackfoot Native Plants is education. “Weed education and teaching people about invasive is important,” said Kathy. “Yarrow is a wonderful native plant if it’s in the right place. If it’s in an irrigated area or has too much moisture, it takes over and becomes a weed. Plants such as oxeye daisy, purple loosestrife and yellow flag iris are invasive. For hawkweed, there’s a native and a non-native species, and we need to be able to explain that to people.”
In addition to marketing plants at her retail location, Kathy attends several farmers markets in Missoula, MT from May through October where she sells four inch and one gallon pots. “It’s a great PR tool,” said Kathy, explaining the value of her time spent at the market. “People come by and want to know what a plant is. It gives people a sense of how beautiful native plants can be.” People often bring plants to the farmers markets for Kathy to identify and she’s happy to provide that service. Kathy also receives requests for contract growing at farmers markets.
As she does public outreach, Kathy finds herself fighting preconceived notions about native plants. Ranchers want grass and some are doing weed mitigation with broad leaf herbicides to kill everything but grass, while some understand the benefits of having wildflowers mixed in with the grasses. “Nature teaches so much,” said Kathy. “In working with native plants, you have to be out there looking at where those plants grow and how do they respond to their environment? How to they interact with the birds, insects and climate?”
The demonstration gardens at Blackfoot Native Plants help people see what natives can do in a landscape. “The demonstration garden is two-fold,” said Kathy. “To show what the species will look like when they’re mature, and to give people ideas. People can see the possibilities.” Kathy also holds classes at the nursery to further understanding of native species and how to use them in landscapes. She says that her primary customer demographic is middle-aged to older women and young couples with new homes who have eliminated lawns in favor of natives. One group she doesn’t target is people who own vacation homes because those consumers are seeking instant color for the short time they’re in the area.
For those getting started with native plants, Kathy suggests finding venues where they can be in the public eye. “People aren’t always going to come to you because they just don’t know (about natives),” she said. “There’s a lack of knowledge about native plants, but interacting with the public — whether it’s a one-time event or selling at farmers markets — helps. I try to be out there and available.”
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