By Susan Emerson Nutter
MARENGO, Ohio - Gale Martin, owner of Natives in Harmony of Marengo, Ohio, knows plants; Ohio native plants to be precise, and she wants everyone in the state of Ohio to know them as well.
On any given day in the spring and summer, Natives in Harmony has upwards of 200 species of native Ohio plants for sale all grown from seeds and settings. Martin’s definition of a native Ohio plant is very specific; the seed source must come from Ohio. And Martin offers these plants to the public in hopes Ohio gardeners will take part in her mission of preserving the native plants of Ohio in their own gardenscapes.
Growing up on a farm in Ohio, immersed in the environment, Gale’s passion for plants developed at a very young age and in its truest sense. She took that passion, graduated from The Ohio State University, and worked as a naturalist for Mount Gilead State Park at the park’s Nature Center. She then became the Watershed Coordinator for the Olentangy Watershed Alliance.
But it was possibly her 13 year stint as Director of the Marion Historical Society monitoring the remnants of prairie plants in Marion County that was the main catalyst for the creation of Natives in Harmony; her nursery of Ohio native plants.
In a 2020 interview with The Morrow County Sentinel, Martin said she saw Ohio prairie plants disappearing. “Some plants are losing their habitat due to the spread of housing and building. Some are crowded out by invasive plants. I wanted to save the genetic conditions of native plants,” Martin said. “Some of the natives are very specific to certain state regions.”
Like any good naturalist, Martin started pocketing seeds of these native plants she found on her journeys, taking the seeds home and attempting to grow them. Martin’s husband, Dan Grau, witnessing stacks of seed starter trays piling up, saw the writing on the wall and built his wife a potting shed on their Harmony Township property. This shed stands today as the focal point and office of Natives in Harmony.
Several hoop houses later along with a covered open market area displaying her retail items for sale, Martin’s mission is well on its way. But it wasn’t so easy at first to get people excited about helping or incorporating Ohio’s native plants into their gardens.
Native flowering plants and grasses are, by nature, not as showy as what many gardeners desire. Martin explains, “I initially set-up at farmer’s markets with my plants and people just walked by. I came home defeated by the lack of interest.” But then husband Dan came up with a game-changing suggestion.
Gardeners are curious creatures and Martin honed in on this by creating information sheets about each plant she has for sale. Every time a plant is purchased, a flier about the plant is included. Once shoppers could see the flowers the Ohio native would produce; the benefits the plants provided to native pollinators like mason, leaf cutter, and bumble bees as well as the striking butterflies of the Buckeye state, what the native plants might lack in producing an over-the-top showy flower display was not an issue because of what they attracted; the gloriously colorful pollinators that depended on them.
“It was a game-changer,” Martin states.
Purchasing plants from Natives in Harmony is a win-win-win for gardeners. By doing so, those that like to get their hands dirty are saving Ohio’s native plants, providing important habitat and food sources for Ohio’s native pollinators, and adding interest and dimensions (often lacking in other non-native, common plants offered at big box store’s garden centers) to their landscaping.
A visit to Natives in Harmony has almost become a pilgrimage for the educated gardener. Thankfully, Martin also continues to bring her passion to garden events across the state as she strives to convert plant enthusiasts to the wonders of Ohio native plants.
This is not to say Natives in Harmony or Gale Martin have reached their zenith. Martin is continually finding seeds and trying to raise different species of Ohio natives with the goal of making them accessible to the public. A cabin purchased from a now defunct campground that was part of the Richland County Park District has been resurrected at Natives in Harmony complete with a self-composting toilet.
“As the nursery grows, we really need to find staff that understands our mission,”Martin said. “With the cabin in place for housing, we were fortunate enough to find an intern interested in learning about growing native plants who will be working with us this summer.”
A woodlot on the property was victim to the devastating effects of the Emerald Ash bore, but Martin’s future plans will make the best of this as well. “We will be adding more raised beds using the trunks of these now dead ash trees to do so.”
“I never got into this with the idea I wanted to run a nursery,” Martin said. “But I am committed to helping others see the benefits and necessity to help preserve these Ohio native plants.”
Thankfully, Martin’s work has not gone unnoticed. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Services is working with Martin to help manage grassland fields. Program participants plant natives on their property hoping to help area wildlife and native pollinators. Martin and other nurseries that raise native Ohio plants are working with the CRP. Local cities, townships and villages wanting to add green spaces or become a “Bee City” turn to Martin for the proper plant materials to do so.
Natives in Harmony’s website www.nativesinharmony.com specifies the availability of plants which changes daily throughout the season. Website info states, “Many species that sell out early are replenished in summer and fall as new seedlings are transplanted into pots. Please call and we would be happy to email you a copy of our current inventory. We generally have over 200 species available and may have closer to 300 at times during the season, although not all of them are listed on the website. If you know what you need in advance, we may be able to contract-grow plants specifically for you.”
Natives in Harmony is located at 4652 Township Road 179 in Marengo, Ohio. For spring, summer, and early fall, they are open Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from 12 to 6 pm from now until October 30, 2023.