By Juliet Martinez
Crystal Armagost Volchko is on a mission to help create a patchwork of native habitat for bees, butterflies and birds in gardens and yards around the city. The former farm kid and lifelong plant enthusiast has created a small-scale native plant nursery business in the ample yard of her Hazelwood home.
A life among native plants
From a childhood spent outdoors near DuBois, Pennsylvania, and an avid interest in foraging as a teen, Ms. Armagost Volchko has spent a lot of time paying attention to the plants and animals in nature.
“When I was a teenager, I was really interested in foraging,” she said. “I would dig up weird roots and bring them home and cook them up in the kitchen, much to my mother’s dismay.”
When she came to Pittsburgh for college, she wanted to grow her own food like her family did at home. Once she and her partner bought their home in Hazelwood, she started growing vegetables, but gradually her interest grew to include native plants.
She bought her first black-eyed susans from Floriated Interpretation on Irvine Street and grew from there.
Growing diversity from seeds
Now, between Ms. Armagost Volchko’s front and back porches, at least two dozen flats of plant seedlings, each with a white plastic tag bearing its species name, sit in organic soil beside young plants in 2-, 4- and 6-inch pots. She has herbaceous plants like wildflowers, grasses and sedges; tree and shrub species like oak and redbud, and edible plants, from native persimmons and elderberry, blueberry and serviceberry bushes to the Appalachian wild leeks known as ramps.
“Everything I grow is straight species native,” she said. “That means nothing has been hybridized. All of these seeds are seeds just like you would find in the woodlands or meadows here in Pennsylvania.”
Growing from seeds promotes genetic diversity. Many nurseries sell shrubs and trees that were grown from cuttings of another plant, so all the individual plants are genetically identical clones.
“If you want to grow, say, an entire row of blueberry bushes, you don’t want them all to be the same plant because if one plant gets a disease, they all get that disease,” she said, explaining that each seed contains a unique genetic profile so some of those are going to be resistant to disease or variable climatic conditions.
Seeds collected locally provide what Ms. Armagost Volchko described as a snapshot of conditions in the local environment.
“Any time you use a seed, you’re getting all that information. It’s sort of pre-programmed with everything that already happened to that plant in that space,” she said.
She even grows plants that do not make seeds. She recently learned how to grow ferns from the spores they release to reproduce.
Plant it with the tag
Ms. Armagost Volchko’s mentor at the Audubon Society, where she volunteers potting up native plants for sale in the organization’s Center for Native Plants in the Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, first encouraged her to sell her surplus native plants.
She started small, setting up a website and started arranging porch pick-ups of pre-orders at her home on Fridays. She still does that, but also sells at the Murraysville Farmer’s Market and pop-ups around the city.
Her customers may be participating in Audubon programs or Homegrown National Park, or gardeners who simply want to use more native plants and have more butterflies in their yards. Native flowers attract butterflies with UV color patterns humans cannot see, but that function like bullseyes or landing strips. The also have more fragrance, pollen and nectar than hybridized landscape plants, she explained.
Farmer’s markets give her a chance to hear what people want and need when it comes to native plants, like requests for evergreens and the larger trees she would not otherwise carry.
She buys shrubs and trees from another native plant nursery so they are a good size for gardeners, but focuses on small- to medium-sized plants that do not grow higher than 20 feet and can fit in an urban yard. For customers who want something bigger, she stocks trees that are either edible or have high wildlife value. Evergreens like white pine provide habitat for small birds and wild turkeys; she also sells sugar maples and wild black cherry trees.
Farmer’s markets also give her the chance to orient new gardeners to caring for native plants. She instructs them on pruning and watering and provides them with a card showing a picture of the mature plant, along with the identifying tag.
“I tell people when they plant, ‘plant it with the tag,’” she said, because a lot of the perennials die back to virtual invisibility in the fall and winter. “If the tag is there, the gardener can continue to water the plant because even if the upper stems and leaves are not visible, the roots are alive underground.”
“As long as people keep caring for the soil, the plants are going to just do their work,” she said.
A heritage connected to nature
Ms. Armagost Volchko knows not everyone has the space or budget for a native plant garden, but there are other ways to make one’s property more native-habitat-friendly.
In the fall, when flowering plants have turned dry, brown and brittle, gardeners can leave them undisturbed for the winter, creating habitat for native pollinators like mason bees.
Keeping fallen leaves in the yard instead of bagging or shredding them protects pollinators and butterfly and moth species that build cocoons on leaves and overwinter in the leaf litter.
All these actions can counteract the loss to development of forests and meadows where songbirds, pollinators and countless other native plants and animals lived for millennia.
“I really am trying to encourage people who are in urban environments to still plant native plants,” she said. “So that we can have these little micro ecosystems, and together – yard after yard after yard, even in an urban space – we can create a patchwork of habitat to replace some of that.”
She said a lot of people get excited and nostalgic when they see the plants she has available. They remember them from their childhoods.
“I love that people have those connections to the plants,” she said. “I want to continue that heritage that we have here in all of our modern gardens.”
Learn more about Rust Belt Natives by visiting https://www.rustbeltnatives.com/, emailing Crystal@rustbeltnatives.com, or following @RustBeltNatives on Instagram and Facebook.
Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.