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Photographs by Ryan Kurtz
Sunflower Crownbeard. Royal Catchfly. Purple Coneflower. Cylindrical Blazing Star. Wild Senna. Once they carpeted the meadows and dotted the forests of southern Ohio. Nowadays they can be elusive—unless you know where to look. It turns out there is a small group of intrepid homegrown horticulturists who do. The Shaker Trace Seed Nursery got its start 22 years ago, when Hamilton County Parks purchased a 600-acre tract of land in Miami Whitewater Forest formerly used for corn and soybean farming. The idea was simple: Locate the dozens of native flower and grass genotypes that used to grow wild in the area and bring them back. Doing so would support more indigenous species like lark sparrows, marsh hawks, and short-eared owls—and the land could eventually return to a closer version of its pre-settled state.
“The two most endangered ecosystems are wetland and prairie,” says Tim Osborne, Shaker Trace’s nursery manager. Admittedly, mountains, rainforests, and glaciers are much sexier environmental rallying points than humble marshes and meadows. But this country’s native grasses and wetlands are disappearing faster than we can keep track, and they’re being replaced with empty lots and fallow fields.
Since the project was started from scratch with lands that had been farmed for decades, Shaker Trace had to find some mother seeds. In the fall of 1991, volunteers fanned out in a 100-mile radius across the Adams County wilderness to collect those native species that would lead to thousands of new plants in the years to come. The nursery opened in 1992, and the first seedlings went into the ground that spring. “All the original seeds that started this nursery are basically still here,” Osborne explains. “They were grown into plants, and from those plants we harvest the seed every year.”
Volunteers Bob and Sue Bohn were there at the beginning, and many of the nursery’s countless seeds, sprouts, and seedlings have passed through their hands. “When we originally started this, we’d go out and we’d have a little bag hooked to a belt buckle. And we’d strip grass seed, and pull seeds off of each individual stalk of grass,” Bob remembers. “You could work half a day and have a little bitty bit.” From that small supply, Shaker Trace has built a year-round operation, working with some 150 species. And aside from a few full-time administrators like Osborne, the outfit is run almost entirely by volunteers.
Shaker Trace takes its operational cues from nature itself, mimicking the annual life cycle of seeds—sprouting, dropping, and drying as they do in the wild with the help of insects, birds, animals, and the wind. Volunteers sow seeds into flats in the late fall, and periodically place them outdoors so they can stratify (freeze and thaw) as they would naturally. Then the sprouts go into the nursery’s 1,500-square-foot greenhouse to wait out the winter, eventually ending up in individual tubes so they can develop healthy root systems. When spring warms up the air, the seedlings go into the ground, and volunteers spend the summer tending about 140 beds. Finally, Osborne and his helper army go into the rows with hand pruners and buckets to collect the seeds. These are then sorted and dried in an 1880s-era barn on the property, and stockpiled until it’s time for them to be sown into one of Hamilton County’s forgotten prairies or wetlands. “And the cycle just goes on and on,” Osborne says.
Seed harvesting is tedious business, and any gardener or farmer will tell you that it’s not about instant gratification. “I like the cycle of plant life,” Osborne says. “It’s rewarding.” It’s also about doing right by your environment, and this is the philosophy that unites all of the efforts behind Shaker Trace. “We have to take care of the land or the land won’t take care of us,” says Sue Bohn. “It’s time to make people aware of that.”
Originally published in the June 2013 issue