Heather McCargo at her home in Portland. McCargo is the founder of the Wild Seed Project and has been a big part of the local move to landscape with native plants. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The first thing Heather McCargo did when she moved to her home in Portland’s West End in 2014 was start “totally rewilding” her yard. Today, the house on Spring Street is surrounded by native plants such as spicebush, highbush blueberries, sunflowers, columbine, wood asters, ferns, penstamon and anemones.

“I immediately turned the lawn in the back into a little urban meadow,” said McCargo, 61. “I’ve planted hundreds of different native species of trees and shrubs and herbaceous plants. I have a lot of woodland plants – those are my favorite – and meadow species. I have 10 different species of oaks.”

It’s that passion for native species that earned McCargo, the executive director of the Portland nonprofit Wild Seed Project, a Source award. In his nomination of McCargo, Greg Field, who works for the Maine Island Trail Association, called her “a visionary leader” who has brought to her work “an unparalleled depth of knowledge about the foundational importance of fostering native plant habitat.”

Wild Seed Project collects and sells seeds of 75 wild native plants, educates Mainers about the ecological importance of native plants through events and an annual magazine called Wild Seed, and gives them the tools to help restore the biodiversity of the Maine landscape. In 2020, the organization sold about 12,000 seed packets, a 100 percent increase over 2019. More than 500 people have taken the “Pledge to Rewild,” an oath fondly inspired by McCargo’s childhood memory of taking a pledge not to be a litterbug.

The surge in interest in native plants is due, in part, to more people gardening during the pandemic, McCargo said, but much of it comes from the natural growth of the organization, which now has a staff of four and more than 1,000 members.

“I really believe in the power of the individual and grassroots – not that we don’t need policy, too, to make these shifts happen, but there’s a lot of power in going outside and planting some native plants,” she said. “The feedback you get back right away is really powerful. The bees and butterflies and birds start coming back.”

McCargo says that while Maine is ahead of many other states as far as organic farming and food, it’s well behind other parts of the country when it comes to recognizing the importance of native plants and their role in maintaining biodiversity and nurturing wildlife.

“More than 50 percent of the wild plants you see in meadows and roadsides are not our native plants,” she said. “They’re the Eurasian species. Some were intentionally brought, others were brought over early by the colonists and have thrived as we’ve clear cut and set up farms and pastureland.”

Maine nurseries, she laments, are more like supermarkets than gardening centers. They cater, as Wild Seed Project’s website says, more to “human aesthetics and not to the needs of other life forms.”

“The nursery trade in Maine, and the landscaping world, is behind on ecological practices,” McCargo said. “The amount of landscapers I see blowing the leaves, raking everything, using mowers everywhere – these are high-energy, polluting practices that are death to nature.”

McCargo’s expertise centers on the plants that make up the woodland understory. (It drives her crazy when people cut down trees in their yard because they think nothing will grow in the shade.)  She grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania, raised by a mother who was an accomplished naturalist and organic gardener. McCargo had, she says, “a wandering-in-the-forest childhood.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in plant ecology and a master’s degree in ecological landscape design, and in the 1990s, became head propagator at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts, the botanic garden of the Native Plant Trust, the country’s first plant conservation organization.

McCargo and her husband moved to Brooksville, Maine, in 1995 to raise a family. About 10 years ago, the couple moved to Barcelona for a brief period, and it was there that she “got obsessed with nature in the city.” When she returned to Maine, she started Wild Seed Project.

McCargo will be giving up her executive director position in May, but will still be active in the organization she founded. One of her first projects will be seeking a partnership with a land trust so Wild Seed Project can have its own native seed nursery.

She’s looking forward to the change, she said with a small laugh, because “I’ll get to focus just on my favorite part.”


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