Photography by Daniel Vaughan
Re-Introducing Native Plants to Local Gardens, One Seed at a Time
A visit to a nursery or garden centre can be a daunting experience for many, particularly those who are new to gardening. Understanding types of plants, when and where to plant, and how to maintain them can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s a local option to make it easier: Fuller Native and Rare Plants on Airport Parkway in Belleville.
This nine-year-old nursery specializes in plants that grow naturally in our area, making them more likely to be successfully grown in most local landscapes. Native perennials, wildflowers, grasses, ferns, shrub seedlings, and bulbs are available for purchase.
Owner Peter Fuller has had a lifelong interest in horticulture, but he ended up in education. He was a secondary school teacher in both the Belleville and Ottawa areas for many years. When he left teaching 10 years ago, his goal was to set up a business that fed his interests in both the outdoors – hiking, camping, canoeing – and gardening.
“I started the five-year plan when I was in Ottawa, which turned into the seven-year plan before I finally left teaching,” said Peter. The plan included learning all he could about propagating plants from seed and operating a greenhouse. “There’s a good horticulture program at Algonquin College in Ottawa and I did that part-time – evenings, summers, weekends. It got more intentional as I was out hiking – really learning all the plants and starting to experiment with them in the garden.”
Peter’s brother-in-law purchased farmland on Airport Parkway and severed a few acres with an old stone farmhouse where Peter could live and start his nursery business. His vision was to offer native plants that are propagated at the nursery, mostly from seed collected from local sources using ethical seed collection practices.
“I have friends who have woodlots and rural properties and I get permission to go and collect in their yards,” he said. “Now that we have quite extensive gardens here, I can collect a lot of seed from my own plants. I use a 100-mile radius of the nursery as my definition of what a native plant is, so it includes quite a lot of the Great Lakes region and onto the Canadian Shield. There’s a pretty wide variety of plants available.”
One of the primary goals of the nursery is to convince people of the value of local plants and growing from seed in order to create genetic diversity.
Steve Barker is certainly convinced. He lives in Toronto and owns a large property in Madoc with a small rustic cottage he uses as a getaway from city life. He decided to dig a pond on the property and, in consultation with the Quinte Conservation Authority, was directed to Fuller Native and Rare Plants for ideas about planting material.
“Peter came by and had a look at what we were doing, and he put together a planting plan,” said Steve. “This included native plants and trees, shrubs, and perennials. It was largely about stabilizing the land around this pond and augmenting it, and then setting it up for the future to attract wildlife – all in a way that utilized native plants.”
Peter’s guidance, which included a planting map, made it possible for Steve and his family and friends – all inexperienced gardeners – to put the flowers, trees, and shrubs into the ground.
“We started off with just a few areas, and every year it’s grown, and we’ve augmented,” shared Steve. “It’s not as much about ‘this is how we want it to look.’ It’s more of an interpretive thing where we’re kind of growing and changing it.”
Steve’s goal was to augment the existing ecosystem on his property. “It meant increasing the diversity of the ecosystem; also introducing plants that would attract wildlife – bees or squirrels or deer or whatever.” Steve is also seeing many more birds on his property. “We have bluebirds now and tree swallows and cedar waxwings. All kinds of different birds are taking advantage of the ecosystem we’ve now created that wouldn’t have been there before.”
Jes McDonald is an experienced gardener who plans and installs gardens for clients in addition to tending her own. She has developed a keen interest in soil types, diversity, and the value of native plants, particularly those grown from seed sourced from good genetic stock. “Peter Fuller is one of the first people I’ve met in Ontario who has a nursery and does that. It allows me to do a whole bunch of things horticulturally speaking, ecologically speaking, that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.”
Over the last few years, Peter has offered consultation services as part of his business model. For a modest fee, he will visit a property and offer advice about appropriate plant materials. “I identify everything that’s there, but most of the time, I’m supplying lists of plants suited to that location and advising how to set up different types of gardens.”
The gardeners who visit Peter’s business are increasingly looking for something they don’t already have in their gardens, and something they can grow successfully. “There are a lot of people wanting plants that are going to be drought-tolerant, lower maintenance, work with the weird summers we get, and not require a lot of fuss,” said Peter.
“I find a lot of people are interested in using the plant material, but they’re not really familiar with all the plants and which ones to choose and what they are going to look like. The challenge is trying to communicate that. We do have a lot of display gardens, but they’re not blooming first thing in the spring when the plants are ready for purchase.”
The display gardens at Fuller Native and Rare Plants set the business apart from the average nursery. Over the years, Peter has installed a large rock garden, using rocks from the back of the farm and filled with plants that grow in rocky soil. He built some seasonal ponds with wetland plants, native woodland gardens, and a meadow garden. Propagation beds have been put in, both for harvesting seed and for demonstrating the variety of native plants that can be grown from seed. A shrub and tree planting near Peter’s house features a variety of deciduous and evergreen species Peter can assess for their landscaping suitability, as well as offer for sale.
“My gardening style is a little bit informal and eclectic, naturalized,” explained Peter. “I don’t have to have things super, super formal, and I live with a certain amount of chaos. To some extent, it mimics what you see in the wild, which I actually prefer.”
When it comes to propagating new plants from seed, Peter has learned a lot with experience. “There are two or three basic methods that work for most things. There are some default ones you can try, and if it obviously isn’t working, you do a bit more research with it and try things out. Plants are a little bit unpredictable. You try it the first time and it works beautifully, and you think you have it figured out, and you do the same thing next year and it’s a disaster. There are certainly some things I’ve got better at in terms of predicting the most efficient way of doing them.”
Although plant sales are a seasonal activity, Peter’s business keeps him hopping all year. He collects seeds from May right through to November. The native seed then must be stored in a cold setting to simulate winter conditions. While the seed is chilling, Peter focuses on making plans for the next growing season and updating his website with next year’s offerings. When March arrives, Peter starts seeding and planting, both indoors under lights and outdoors. The nursery opens for retail business in May.
Peter donates a percentage of retail sales to local conservation work. “The last while, we’ve been supporting the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory and their migration monitoring down in Prince Edward County,” said Peter. “It’s a completely volunteer-run organization doing really important conservation work for birds.”
Peter’s regular customers come from an area from Ottawa down to Gananoque, Prince Edward County, Port Hope, Peterborough, and Bancroft. Everyone seems pleased with what Fuller Native and Rare Plants has to offer. “I really appreciate how knowledgeable Peter is and how willing he is to provide advice,” stated Steve Barker. “Certainly, it’s been great for us because it’s been this one-stop shop.”
Jes McDonald agrees, “It’s a very shoppable nursery for anybody – amateurs to experts.”