The Wild Seed Project hopes that more residents statewide will plant native plants, like those in this Portland garden. Contributed / Heather McCargo

PORTLAND — Just as COVID-19 manifested in Maine last March, the Wild Seed Project was unveiling a 10-year strategic plan to increase native plants across the state. The nonprofit had no idea how it would fare in light of the pandemic.

As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better. Interest in gardening soared during the pandemic and so did the organization’s seed sales, doubling over 2019 sales.

“With the pandemic, a lot of people found gardening to be a very calming and soothing action they would do at home,” said Erin Clancy, chairperson of the Wild Seed Project Board of Directors. “Our seed sales really took off.”

Last year, the Wild Seed Project sold 12,000 packets of wild native seeds, approximately double the output of 2019. Contributed / Lisa Looke

Seed sales are typically strongest in fall and winter, but sales were strong at the onset of the pandemic and have not let up since, Clancy said.

In 2020, Wild Seed Project sold 12,000 packets of seeds from 75 species of native plants.

Executive Director Heather McCargo said seed sales have tracked up every year since 2014, when she founded the organization with the goal of increasing the number of native plants grown from wild seed.

“Every year we have more and more demand for our seeds,” McCargo said.

Because of that growth and the most recent spurt, the organization is looking for a new leader and a new place to call home.

McCargo said the ideal location for the organization would be on a land trust property or conservation land in the area. Right now, seeds, which come from McCargo’s property or volunteers’ property, are prepared and packaged in the basement of her Portland home.

Once a new site is found, McCargo will step down as executive director and focus on increasing the output of the organization’s wild seed program. The new executive director’s focus will be on strategic planning, day-to-day operations and oversight of programs, partnerships and finances.

“Because we have grown so much, it is time to have someone with a full-time focus on the executive director role. I have been juggling all of the roles,” said McCargo, who studied plant ecology at Hampshire College and has 30 years of experience in plant propagation, landscape design, horticulture and conservation.

Native plants, according to the organization, are “species of trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, grasses and ferns that grew in eastern North America before Colonial times.” They provide habitat for butterflies, bees, birds and others, and Wild Seed Project says they ensure the environment is more adaptable to climate change. Examples of native plants include asters, bee balms, black elderberry, coneflowers, dogwoods, ferns, goldenrods, honeysuckles, jack in the pulpit, milkweed, red columbine, wild strawberry and winterberry holly, among others.

Ginger Laurits of Wells got involved with the organization several years ago as a volunteer with the native plant garden and master gardening program at the Wells Reserve.

“I’ve always loved native plants and believe they are in peril and that’s affecting insects, birds and wildlife,” she said.

Over the years, Laurits has inventoried invasive species and other plants on her property and transitioned to almost all native plants, taking what was once grass and transitioning it to a wildflower area. Along with wildflowers, Laurits has many smaller native shrubs.

For those looking to add native plants to their property, Laurits’ advice is simple: pay attention to how much sun or shade an area gets, as well as the type of soil there is and how wet it gets.

“You want to choose the right plant for the right place,” she said.

As part of its 10-year plan, the Wild Seed Project aims to expand access to native seeds and plants with a goal of seeing 1 million native seed-grown plants established in the state. The plan also calls for more outreach and engagement with the public and community partners.

Part of that outreach, McCargo said, includes educating the public about the benefits of wild seeds, which offer a more genetically unique plantings.

“Each seed is an individual and each individual varies in its ability to cope with things. That is what evolution needs and what our plants need to make it in the future,” McCargo said. “Because our planet will be warmer or flooded or drier in spots, we need a variety of traits in our plants.”

McCargo said the goal is to have members of the public as backyard propagators. Native plants sold at nurseries tend to be cultivated from clones of each other, she said.

“You can do that and we want people to do that,” she said of buying from a nursery, “but it is going to take more.”

Clancy said more than 550 people have signed the Wild Plant Project’s Pledge to Rewild, agreeing to, in part, remove invasive plants, increase the diversity of native plants on their property, stop the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and educate others on the wild seed movement.

Comments are not available on this story.