Ontario Native Plants: Taking back nature one garden at a time

McMaster grad brings native plants to Ontario

Reyna Matties knows her native plants, and she knows how important they are in urban revitalization, restoration and sustainability.

The 30-year-old manager of Ontario Native Plants (onplants.ca) is using that wealth of knowledge in her mission to bring back native plants to Ontario one garden at a time.

For my article on why native plants are important in the garden, go here.

What is Ontario Native Plants?

Ontario Native Plants (onplants.ca) is a Southern-Ontario mail order company, based out of Hamilton, that specializes in providing an impressive selection of native plants, shrubs and trees to Ontario residents. They offer more than 100 varieties of native plants. To ensure clients get only the hardiest plants native to their agricultural zone, Ontario Native Plants only delivers to Ontario residents.

It all started for Matties at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario where she earned a bachelors of Science (Environmental Science) and a Masters of Science (Biology). But it wasn’t until she embarked on her Masters thesis project that her love of native plants took root.

Her thesis focused on analyzing the success of a new parking lot restoration project on the McMaster campus. Part of the restoration involved the extension of a riparian buffer to protect a creek habitat from water runoff of a large campus parking lot.

Being able to provide habitat and a food source for the local wildlife that visit your yard is such a beautiful and important motivation.
— Reyna Matties

The creation of the buffer called for the extensive seeding with a mixture of hardy prairie native plants (rye, bergamot, rudbeckia, etc.). Plant and soil studies were done to assess the success of the restoration (i.e. proportion of native to non-native plants).

Reyna Matties with a selection of native wildflowers from the ONP greenhouses.

Reyna Matties with a selection of native wildflowers from the ONP greenhouses.

The research created an impressive native-plant knowledge base and she landed the manager’s position for the small upstart company in 2019. Ontario Native Plants actually started in 2017, the same year Reyna graduated from McMaster. The job seemed too perfect to be true, combining her education with a desire to make a significant environmental impact.

The McMaster project, Reyna explains, “grew an interest of mine in urban planting and green infrastructure in cities. More specifically, I became interested in how people perceive restoration work and planting native in general.”

“I wanted to work at a plant nursery or business that helped with ecological restoration, or connecting home owners to native plants. The ONP manager job ticked all my boxes of what type of work I wanted to be involved in, and also provided a diversity of roles to learn from in a new small business.”

A bouquet of wildflowers from ONP.

A bouquet of wildflowers from ONP.

Needless to say, the business literally took off after Reyna came on board in the spring of 2019. Today, the on-line mail order business is enjoying great success with a strong on-line social media presence and word-of-mouth advertising.

In 2019, ONP had a crew of about four people during the busy period between May and June. For 2020 that number almost doubled to about seven people and Reyna says that number is expected to grow again in 2021.

“The last two years (2019 and 2020) have been very important for our growth as a business,” Reyna explains.

She has great praise for the staff that have played a key role in ensuring the success of the business.

“The crews have all been such amazing individuals that enjoy working with plants, and bring so much energy to each day,” she explains.

Part of that success is the result of a growing awareness of the environment and the loss of habitat being experienced worldwide. “The interest for planting native is growing,” she explains. “Being able to provide habitat and a food source for the local wildlife that visit your yard is such a beautiful and important motivation.”

The Covid pandemic is also creating more awareness of gardening and the environmental affects of planting native flowers, trees and shrubs.

Reyna looks over some of the many wildflowers in one of the ONP greenhouses.

Reyna looks over some of the many wildflowers in one of the ONP greenhouses.

“With people staying home more in 2020, there was another natural surge in gardening with homeowners having more time and interest in gardening,” Reyna explains. “The physical and mental benefits are mentioned frequently by our customers.”

“With our store being completely online and contactless, we have been able to provide a very efficient way for people to purchase plants for their gardens. We are excited for 2021 and are busy updating our website and getting organized for our opening on March 1, 2021.”

But taking an upstart, online native plants nursery to new heights takes more than good timing and a growing interest in using native plants in the typical backyard garden. It takes both a knowledge of plants and first-rate service.

Ontario Native Plants seems to have found the perfect combination.

I can attest to this after a work colleague and I placed an order with the company last year. Not only were the plants shipped in a timely and obviously caring manner, the product was vigorous and extremely healthy. It transplanted well and produced in its first year. The cardinal flowers I planted proved to be a simply outstanding addition to our garden and helped to draw in a number of hummingbirds and hummingbird moths that worked the flowers from early to late summer providing me with endless chances to capture excellent photographic images in a natural setting.

“Since we are only an online store, we have been able to focus on creating a very streamlined ordering process. Customers can simply create an account, and then add different plants to their cart. The check-out is also very simple, and payment is processed by credit card or Paypal. (Website: onplants.ca)

By delivering only to Ontario, clients can by assured they will receive only the hardiest plants native to their agricultural zone.

“We only ship within Ontario as our business model is to keep the plants in their native range. We also only grow our plants from Ontario sourced seed, so you can be assured that the plants will be well adapted, and also genetically unique. We provide information on each plant’s hardiness zone for you to determine whether it can grow succesfully in the zone you live.”

Success certainly breeds more success, much to the benefit of their clients.

“We have also been able to add a handful of new species each year and, in 2021, we are offering more than 100 species of flowers, grasses, trees, shrubs, and ferns. Pretty exciting stuff!”

An important part of the ongoing success of the business is a growing awareness of the importance of using native plants in typical urban and suburban gardens rather than more showy hybridized versions of the same plants.

“We work to provide as much information in the plant descriptions about the benefits of each plant to the local wildlife, often an important nectar or food source for a variety of butterflies, caterpillars, moths, etc. We also share articles or information on Facebook and Instagram that highlights the importance of native plants,” Reyna explains.

Three reasons to use native plants

What does Reyna consider the three main reasons for using native plants in our gardens?

1. Food source/habitat for local wildlife. From the nectar from a Blue Lobelia flower, to the acorn of an Oak tree, native plants provide a diverse buffet for local wildlife in your garden. Especially in urban areas where green space is limited, bringing native plants into your yard provides “food along the road” for migrating insects, birds, and other small mammals.

2. Ecological connectivity – pockets of native plants in homeowner gardens help weave back together ecosystems that have been removed. This once again could benefit wildlife with corridors for movement or food, habitat, etc. Native plants also contributes to climate resiliency by cooling urban areas with connected patches of trees, shrubs, flowers, etc.

3. Mental and Physical benefits for the gardener – Digging in the soil and taking time to observe the beauty around you. Noticing the small insects that feed on your plants. Moving compost all day and the satisfaction of the physical labour. There are so many ways to enjoy your garden, and then, in turn, benefit from that enjoyment.

This season ONP is adding 19 new plants to its on-line catalogue of more than 100 plants, shrubs and trees. The on-line catalogue lists 59 perennial species, 48 tree and shrub species (For this year’s new plants, look for the ones listed in bold).

A quick look at the website shows perennial flowers ranging from Wild Columbine (see my earlier article here), Wild Ginger, three types of Milkweed, two types of Joe Pye, Asters, Wild Strawberry, Bottle Gentian, Woodland Sunflower, Rose Mallow, False Solomon’s seal, two types of Beebalm, Yellow Coneflower and Black-eyed Susan.

Grasses listed include Big and Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, Bottlebrush Grass and Indian Grass. Carexes include Bebb’s sedge and Fox sedge. Four ferns are listed including Lady Fern, Marginal Wood Fern and Sensitive Fern.

ONP has an impressive list of 23 trees listed for sale, including Alternative Leaved dogwood, Tulip tree, Eastern Red Cedar, Paper Birch, Paw Paw (see my article here), Eastern redbud (see my article here), Eastern Hemlock, Tamarack, White Cedar and Bur Oak.

There are 25 Shrubs listed including Serviceberry, Black Chokeberry, Flowering Dogwood, two types of Sumac, Elderberry, Lowbush Blueberry and Nannyberry.

Besides individual plants, shrubs, trees and grasses, the catalogue also offers gardeners “plants packs,” perfect for gardeners planning to plant a larger area with more specialized needs. For fern lovers, there are a number of packs offering assorted ferns, or packs of four specific fern types such as lady fern, sensitive fern or wood fern.

In addition, there is a plant pack focused on rain gardens.

The catalogue is organized to provide plenty of assistance to seasoned gardeners as well as novice native gardeners. Not only are the plants broken down according to light requirements (partial shade to shade, full sun, sun to partial shade…) it is also broken down according to moisture requirements and soil type.

Reyna works in one of the greenhouses at ONP headquarters in Southern Ontario.

Reyna works in one of the greenhouses at ONP headquarters in Southern Ontario.

New gardeners or gardeners new to ordering through ONP should be aware that many of the plants sell out over the course of the spring and summer, so they may want to get their orders in early.

Last season Lowbush blueberry, Elderberry, Pawpaw Tree, Butterfly milkweed and Wild lupine sold out.

In addition to native plants ONP also sells trees and shrubs. In Spring they offer 1-year-old plants, and then by late summer start selling a 4-month-old crop from that year. So trees and shrubs don't sell out as quickly throughout the year.

“With perennials (Flowers, grasses, ferns) there is only one crop seeded either in the prior fall or Spring, so we are able to order more as quantities permit, but those are more in demand. This is why we emphasize ordering as soon as you can to ensure you get the variety you were hoping for in Spring.”

How to place an order

ONP start taking orders on March 1st. Then, begin to ship orders with ONLY trees and shrubs in mid April. All other orders begin to ship in early May. It is essentially a queue so the earlier you order, the earlier your plants will likely be shipped in May.

Ontario Native Plants offers an updates page (https://onplants.ca/updates/) where they post information on what order numbers are shipping and good tips on making up your order.

Western Canada readers should check out Saanich Native Plants

Ferns & Feathers readers in Western Canada, specifically British Columbia, should check out Saanich Native Plants. They grow plants and produce seeds native to a variety of habitats in the Victoria area, including meadows, woodlands, forests, wetlands, beaches and more.

Their impressive website states they aim to inspire and empower people to restore and conserve nature by providing native plants, seeds, education and expertise.

“We’ve built our business on the core principle of valuing nature. We try to continually work with integrity and excellence and value collaboration greatly.”

More links to my articles on native plants

Why picking native wildflowers is wrong

Serviceberry the perfect native tree for the garden

The Mayapple: Native plant worth exploring

Three spring native wildflowers for the garden

A western source for native plants

The Eastern columbine native plant for spring

Three native understory trees for Carolinian zone gardeners

Ecological gardening and native plants

Eastern White Pine is for the birds

Native viburnums are ideal to attract birds

The perfect Redbud

The Carolinian Zone in Canada and the United States

Dogwoods for the woodland wildlife garden

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tellamy

A little Love for the Black-Eyed Susan

Native moss in our gardens

As an affiliate marketer with Amazon or other marketing companies, I earn money from qualifying purchases.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.


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