By Carol Stiffler
Drive past the Northern Natives Erosion Control nursery and you almost won’t be able to tell it’s a nursery. Located on M-28 just west of Newberry, the nursery took root years ago and many people may not have noticed.
There are no showy petunias or balls of glorious hydrangeas out front. What you’ll see will mostly look like grass. Or even weeds.
That’s because the nursery grows and sells only plants native to the area – our area. Owner Ken Kerkhof and nursery manager Joth Colefax gathered seeds from local plants that are indigenous to the area – like lanceleaf coreopsis, black-eyed Susan and blue vervain. They specifically sought out the ones growing locally because those are already known to thrive in our environment – the local genotypes, they say.
The result, to the untrained eye, is deceptively simple. But that’s also because they’re good at it.
Kerkhof launched the project in 2015 after noticing there are no native plant nurseries in the Upper Peninsula. Kerkhof hails from Indianapolis but relocated to the Newberry area to pursue his passion.
It’s been a labor of love the whole time: he has had to take other jobs at times to pay the bills, and it’s a lot of work for just two people.
But Kerkhof and Colefax are nothing if not stewards of the Earth. Their work respects and supports all aspects of life: they use no herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. That contributes to healthy soil. The native plants they grow support bees, which in turn promotes the success of agriculture in the region. That contributes to healthy food, and healthy people.
Kerkhof has his own apiary on site – he tends three hives of bees on the property and harvests their honey.
Using three acres of rented property, Kerkhof and Colefax are tending and installing host cells of native plants like fox sedge, bergamot, milkweed, and those mentioned earlier. In nursery areas the plants are grouped by species, but elsewhere on the property they’ve combined them in groupings that are beneficial to each other.
As suggested in their business name, they also cultivate plants that help curb erosion on shorelines. Some of the shoreline grasses – again, they are native – develop roots that are three times as deep as the grass is tall. These plants can anchor the shore in place against relentless waves.
Because their property is a mixture of meadow and wetland, they are developing one area as an example of how erosion can be managed. Of course, they are also growing native wetland plants to assist in wetland areas.
Northern Natives doesn’t yet sell to individuals, though that will come sometime in the future, Kerkhof said. The business has so far been focused on wholesale exchanges with organizations like the Chippewa Luce Mackinac Conservation District.
They also provided native plants along the Zellar Trail, a 1.5-mile walking trail that starts at the Luce Mackinac Alger Schoolcraft District Health Department in Newberry.
Kerkhof is developing a plan for yard consultations to help home and landowners develop native plants on their properties.
You can start small, Colefax said. A simple pollinator buffer of native plants with a high amount of nectar flowers will draw bees to your property or garden. That’s critical – supporting bees supports life.
Colefax and Kerkhof are pouring their time into supporting the local biosystem and making inroads to spark change both here and in the midwestern region. No dream is too big. Big agriculture will need to adapt to use earth-friendly products, they said, and some producers are listening to their message about abandoning harsh chemicals and drawing pollinators to their fields. Those conversations are just beginning.
In the meantime, Kerkhof and Colefax hope that when drivers pass by on M-28, they’ll see the beauty of the plants native to our area, which should offer changing colors and nectar for bees all season long.
And they’re not weeds – though Colefax takes exception to that term anyway.
“A weed is a plant,” he said, “that is growing where it is not supposed to be. You need to have native vegetation in your yard. It’s important in this day and age, especially with the way the climate is shifting.”