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Jan 24, 2017 12:12PM

Nurturing natives: Alexis nursery offers a variety of native plants

By Ann Ring
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Kathy Hale-Johnson at Simply Native Nursery in Alexis, Ill.
A short drive away from the Quad-Cities, just west of Alexis, Ill., sits the Simply Native Nursery, a gardener's delight that specializes in Western Illinois/Eastern Iowa eco-type pollinator plants for prairie, woodland and wetland forbs and grasses.

"I'm a nontraditional nursery," says owner Kathy Hale-Johnson, who grows 90 percent natives and 10 percent nativars.

Native plants are just that plants that grow naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat, and were present prior to European settlement. A nativar is a native plant mutation or a native plant that has been been altered genetically.

Native plants are virtually perfect for the newbie gardener or those like Hale-Johnson who like the idea of "no muss, no fuss" gardening because they're more tolerant of seasonal conditions. Since these plants are inherent to our climate and soil types, they can vigorously grow and are more apt to fight off disease, organisms and fungal pathogens. You also may not have to use fertilizers, insecticides or fungicides because these plants should possess a natural immunity.

"It makes sense to use natives," she says. "Most but not all are so well-suited to our area; they're symbiotic with other plants and their pollinators."

Hale-Johnson's business started as a hobby 22 years ago when she experimented in her own backyard and studied horticulture at a local college, then through Iowa State Extension's horticulture program. When she really delved into gardening, Hale-Johnson discovered she couldn't find plants she wanted for landscaping projects.

"I hate to water plants," she says, and laughs, noting the irony. "I want to plant it, baby it, grow it, then deadhead no muss, no fuss bulletproof."

One conversation with Hale-Johnson, and you will get a feel for her vast amount of knowledge. Simply Native Nursery whose retail store is at 681 St. Hwy 135, Alexis, Ill. and the rest of her property, located in the Henderson Creek area, vary in soil content. She can tell you from first-hand experience what works where.

"I'm not afraid to experiment what grows in clay, shade. I push the limits so I can make recommendations," says Hale-Johnson. "I grow most of what I sell in my own garden."

With gardening comes discussion on the Monarch and bee population decline. Hale-Johnson sells trays which work to "create a royal paradise for the nobles of the butterfly world with a Majestic Monarch garden."

The inventive 32-pot trays take the guess-work out of any confusion or indecision on what plants to buy for the adult and their offspring. The 11 plants, including Liatris (gay feathers), various milkweeds and several other pollen and nectar plants will persuade monarch butterflies to visit over and over. The nursery also offers Monarch Milk, a milkweed tray with up to three species of 32 milkweed plugs.

A decline in managed bee colonies puts great pressure on the sectors of agriculture reliant on commercial pollination services and there are no substitutes for what the bee does for world agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated one-third of all food and beverages are made possible by pollination, mainly by honey bees.

Simply Native Nursery also offers a Bee Garden Tray for your garden. The selected 11 varieties of native perennials (32 pots total) promise you'll see bees swarming to your garden and buzzing all season long. Selected for long bloom times, these plants will provide pollen and nectar for bees from late March and early April through October, when bees are in their most active state. While visiting your garden, bees also will pollinate fruits and vegetables, increasing your harvest.

Other offerings include five types of Blazing Stars; many types of Asters; Spiderwort, Lobelia and Beardstongue for bees and hummingbirds, and Culver's Root and Black Snakeroot for shade.

Hale-Johnson's spouse, Craig Johnson, also has developed a passion and interest in horticulture and is a silent partner who helps out with the business.

"He grows and sells heirloom tomatoes," says Hale-Johnson, who says they own his-and-her greenhouses.

"He's also the maintenance man," she says, with a laugh.

If you buy from Simply Native Nursery, Hale-Johnson says the sale is never over. She promises to be your go-to for any questions. As a customer, you'll appreciate having one person you can count on for all your plant questions and concerns.

"Whatever soil or light, there's going to be a native plant that can grow there."
Ann Ring is a frequent Radish contributor. For more information about the Simply Native Nursery, including a list of what it offers, visit simplynativenursery.com; its Facebook page, Facebook.com/simplynativenursery, or call 309-371-9598.

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