Maine Gardener: Maine Audubon shifts the focus of its annual native plants sale

Maine Audubon Society will be holding its annual Native Plants Festival and Sale on Saturday for the first time since 2019, but staff – including newly hired Bringing Nature Home Manager Andrew Tufts – hope people will show more interest in the festival than the sale.

It’s not that Maine Audubon doesn’t want to sell you native plants for your property. It does. But during the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the organization discovered that it’s easy for people to buy the plants online all summer long and pick them up curbside rather than to limit their sale to a single day. Now, they would like the sale to be a festival sideline, and the festival’s main purpose to be education. The nonprofit hopes to teach festivalgoers ways to “bring nature home,” a phrase borrowed from professor, conservationist and writer Doug Tallamy.

The day’s main event is a multicultural program on efforts to conserve the brown ash, which is threatened by the emerald ash borer. That Asian insect pest first arrived in the United States in Michigan 20 years ago and has since destroyed tens of millions of ash trees. It has recently been found in Maine, including at Gilsland Farm, Maine Audubon’s Falmouth property.

The program, to be offered several times between 1 and 3 pm on Saturday, features several University of Maine scholars who are Native American: Professor of Forest Recreation Management John Daigle (Penobscot) and PhD students Suzanne Greenlaw (Maliseet) and Tyler Everett (Mi ‘kmaq); PhD student Emily Francis is also participating. Renowned Passamaquoddy basketmaker Gabriel Frey will demonstrate his art. Although the borer attacks all ashes, Maine’s indigenous tribes use brown ash to weave traditional baskets. The group will talk about the cultural and ecological significance of the tree as well as its vulnerability to the emerald ash borer, climate change and poor forestry practices.

Maine Audubon Director of Education Eric Topper said the ash borer at Gilsland Farm was discovered in a “trap tree,” a green ash from which the bark was deliberately stripped to weaken it, and thus more attractive to the pests. Only a single larva was found, but that was enough to put Cumberland County on the list of places with an emerald ash borer infestation.

There will be other speakers throughout the day; informational tables by such groups as the Wild Seed Project, Xerces Society and BirdSafe Maine; and artwork for sale by painter/gardener Vanessa Nesvig, who has painted a series of works about native plants and ecosystems.

Helping to organize the festival is one of three parts of Tufts’ job, which started about a month ago. He was raised in Topsham, and previously has worked as a landscaper, land trust steward, city planner and most recently, landscape designer at Sebago Technics. His new job also entails community outreach, and conservation and restorative landscaping.

As part of his job, Tufts will be looking for large pieces of land that can be planted with a wide spectrum of native species, because while individual backyards are useful to insects and birds, large, contiguous tracts of land with natives are key.

In passing, Tufts mentioned his interest in designing landscapes to go along with solar arrays. Because my curiosity is roused about such plantings every time I drive by such a site, I immediately asked for examples of such designs. Tufts and Topper dampened my hopes a bit by saying that step one is to research what could work. But I intend to nag them every year or so to see if they have made any progress. Topper was quick to say that it would never make sense to cut down a forest to create a solar farm. Two more appropriate sites he mentioned are abandoned golf driving ranges and abandoned gravel pits.

While landscaping for solar farms is in the future, the Maine Audubon Native Plant Sale and Festival is coming right up, offering plenty of ways gardeners can improve their own yards now to make useful to birds, bees and other creatures.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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