TRAVERSE CITY — Longer daylight hours and peeks of sunshine inspire experienced and novice gardeners to dream of summer bounty. Many are discovering that a green thumb can grow healthy produce and beautiful blooms while supporting struggling species, sheltering wild things and creating a healthier environment.

“Gardening is one of those activities that help ground us and bring us back to a more calm place. It’s good for us on all levels, physically, mentally and spiritually,” said Aimé Merizon, Benzie Conservation District’s outreach coordinator. “To know you’re planting to help bees, bats and birds makes it even better.”

Shifting gardening goals to include benefits for wildlife, butterflies and other pollinators is a trend plant nurseries are gearing for in 2021.

“As a community, there’s growing awareness of how important pollinators are for the environment,” said Rachel VanThomme, retail manager at Plant Masters of Suttons Bay.

“The majority of our plants are pollinator-friendly. It’s so popular in our area — with the cherries,” she added.

VanThomme said pollinator gardens can as beautiful or more beautiful than a traditional flower bed because pollinators require and are attracted to “big, bright blooms.”

More property owners are taking advantage of plants for erosion control, another eco-friendly practice. Property owners recognize the value of strong root systems to provide an ounce of prevention.

“Over the past few years, with water levels rising, those living on water are losing beaches and they’re trying to be proactive before it’s too late,” VanThomme said.

Robin Smillie, general manager at Garden Goods in Traverse City, said Michigan’s native plants are also taking a lead role in gardens. Native plants provide for the needs of local wildlife and insects, they’re hardy, need less care and otherwise support local ecosystems.

But the biggest trend Smillie and VanThomme observe is the increasing number of people doing their part for the planet by raising vegetables for their table. According to the Climate Action Business Association, gardeners who grow 20 percent of their food reduce their environmental footprint by about 68 pounds of CO2 per year.

VanThomme said in 2020 vegetable plant sales at Plant Masters increased three times over the previous year — the most in the nursery’s 30-year history. Garden Goods also saw robust sales last season. Smillie said seed sales were “wildly popular.” She is preparing for the green thumb boom to continue in 2021.

“With the pandemic last year, the supply chain was hit or miss,” she said. “There’s an overwhelming response of people who want to garden.” Smillie ordered seeds in October to meet the anticipated 2021 customer demand.

Consumer Horticulture Program Instructor Nate Walton coordinates the region’s Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener Program. Walton said that while there are 100 certified master gardeners within Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties, beginners can find support to get started.

“Having an interest in gardening means you’re taking a step in the right direction,” he said.

“I think all of us, even those who have been gardening for many years, are still learning — and that’s the fun of it.”

Benzie and Leelanau Conservation Districts are kick starting the growing season.

Both agencies will present a free 90-minute Zoom webinar to help property owners learn which plants are suitable for their landscape type and goals. The virtual events hosted by Regional District Forester Kama Ross provides advice and Q&A time.

Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim and Kalkaska Conservation Districts all launched their annual seedling sale. Website sales offer affordable bundles of native trees, shrubs or beachgrass for backyards or acreage.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Adventure Center also offers guidance for learning to garden with ecosystems in mind. The Center presents the free virtual workshop, “Create a Backyard Habitat” featuring ways to add native plantings, pollinator homes and other wildlife-friendly features.

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