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Taking root with native plants

Morning Sky Greenery owner Sally Finzel

Over the last 20 years, Morning Sky Greenery has taken root in the Morris community while continually branching outward as a nationally-recognized provider of native plants for major restoration projects and personal landscaping.

Owner Sally Finzel will be offering tips and advice on using native plants in landscaping during a class at the West Central Research and Outreach Center Wednesday, June 20 at 5 p.m.

Finzel opened Morning Sky Greenery in 1992 at a local farm with two partners. She and her family had just moved to the Morris area, and the nursery offered an opportunity for Finzel to capitalize on her education in horticulture and plant sciences from Cornell University.

Morning Sky Greenery began with just a few plots of wildflowers and grasses started from locally-collected seeds. Three years later, Finzel purchased the nursery from her partners and moved the growing to her own family farm where she could raise her young children and maintain the plants.

"I was growing my family and the business at the same time," said Finzel. When her children were in school, Morning Sky Greenery was at a place where she "could really start to blossom with it."

In 1995, Morning Sky Greenery found its niche as a provider of native plants when it was invited by Douglas County Land and Resources Management and the Department of Natural Resources to participate in a shoreline restoration project near Alexandria - one of the first projects of this kind in the region.

"That's really where we started to come into ourselves, providing native plants for shoreline restoration and rain gardens," said Finzel.

Today, Morning Sky Greenery specializes in providing more than 300 species of plants native to the Northern Great Plains, for use to groups and individuals across the United States for landscaping, restoration and research projects.

The process for cultivating and nurturing native plants is a year-round enterprise for Finzel and her staff of between eight and 12 full-time and part-time employees. Seeds are hand-collected from mid-summer through November, then some varieties are stored in cool, moist sand for 10 to 120 days, depending on the species.

This stratification helps break the plants' dormancy before they are planted in March, which improves germination, Finzel explained. Unlike most traditional nurseries, staff members also track where every seed was collected, to make sure plants are local - collected within 200 miles - for some projects.

For projects outside the 200-mile radius of Morris, Finzel purchases seeds from other growers to nurture, or does custom growing projects with native plants for out-of-state customers.

Morning Sky Greenery is a partner in the Blue Thumb program, a collaborative effort of public entities and private citizens working together to encourage homeowners to use native plants in their gardening, including rain gardens, to improve water quality across the state.

This year, Morning Sky Greenery is working with Monarch Watch to promote planting native milkweed and blazing stars, which help support the monarch butterfly population. Finzel said there are some varieties of milkweed that are "less aggressive than the ones the farmers don't like."

In her presentation at the West Central Research and Outreach Center this month, Finzel plans to offer information for homeowners looking to incorporate native plants - which are often more drought tolerant and resistant to disease than other plants - into their home gardens.

Finzel said it's helpful to start with native plants that work well with the other garden plants a gardener is used to working with.

Native plants can be "quirky," with vastly different growth projects depending on the soil, sun or genetics - "I'm going to help people to learn a little bit more about the individual species for home landscaping purposes," said Finzel.

"[Native plants] are a lot of work when you initially get them started. Other non-native species can easily take over native plants, so you really need to work to establish a native flower bed," said Finzel. "Once it's established, it's pretty self-sufficient and a lot less work."