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Looking for native plants? Talk to Eric Gunderson

Article from The Virginian-Pilot by Mary Reid Barrow, Virginian-Pilot correspondent © May 30, 2015

Folks who buy native plants at garden sales around the area or who seek advice about landscaping with native plants
can't miss hearing about Eric Gunderson and Southern Branch Nursery.

The nursery on Benefit Road in Chesapeake is by no means the biggest or the grandest of nurseries in Hampton Roads,
but if you are a stickler for native plants, Gunderson is your man, said horticulturist Trista Imrich,
restoration coordinator for Lynnhaven River Now in Virginia Beach.

"What I always tell everyone about Eric is that, locally, he is the 'natives' guy and has been since before it was cool," Imrich said.

When Gunderson takes on a landscaping job — whether traditional yard, or pond or wetlands — you know
he will use all native plants,preferably those that have been grown right here. You won't find the traditional plants
of the landscaping trade that we have all grown to accept.

"Do you like pink crape myrtles?" he asked. "I will substitute something like buckeyes. And wild cherries are underused."

The buckeye, a native tree, has showy wine-colored blooms in spring, and native wild cherries bloom white in spring, too.

If you want an insect- free garden, don't look to Gunderson for advice.
Take webworms. They aren't going to hurt a tree, and they provide food for birds, he said.

"I like seeing a bunch of webworms in a tree. That's OK!" he said. "Leave them alone, and enjoy."

If you want a lot of grass, Gunderson will push for walking paths through beds of native plants instead.

"I've been accused of being a purist," Gunderson said, "but I'm OK with that."

But it wasn't always that way with Gunderson. He started out as a retail nurseryman on Battlefield Boulevard in Chesapeake
where his property backed up to the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, thus the business name.

"My evolution to the importance of using more, and now 100 percent, native plants happened over time," he said.
"I started hearing about invasive plants displacing native species and how that wasn't a good thing to happen."

He began to fear that some of our local plants would go extinct "if we keep planting things from out of town."

He learned of the importance of local biodiversity to a healthy ecosystem,
that native plants, insects and other animals are "all co-dependent."

"It's all interconnected," Gunderson said. "Everything is here for a reason."

He said the full significance of using native plants sunk in after hearing entomologist Doug Tallamy speak
at a continuing education seminar years ago. Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home," and "The Living Landscape,"
is the guru for gardeners who want to protect the environment.

Several years ago, Gunderson leased his retail nursery property and moved to Benefit Road to specialize
in native plants. He propagates many of them from seed and cuttings on the farm.
The nursery is open to the public only on Mondays, because other days he and his staff are off doing landscaping jobs.

Gunderson believes there are multiple benefits of using native plants. The plants are adapted
to our area — hardy, and easy to care for. In addition, they provide food for wildlife, including
the all-important insects that we must have to pollinate flowers and vegetables.

"I landscape very informally," Gunderson said. "My goal is to have as much genetic diversity as possible."

Though he has to order some natives from nurseries in other areas, Gunderson is working toward growing
all his own plants from scratch, even trees and shrubs.

"Trees and shrubs from other parts of the country might not do as well here," he said. "They are not
as genetically predisposed to do well here."

His preference is to start with seedlings, only using cuttings if he can't get the seedlings going. With permission,
Gunderson will gather seeds from plants when he is on hikes and canoe trips and from private yards
and bring them back to his summer greenhouse, where he starts the seeds in propagation trays.

Right now, he has tiny seedlings, such as clethra, blue stem, sea-oxeye, gallardia, monarda
and even overcup oak trees, poking up above the soil in their little plant cells in germination trays.

Gunderson puts his money where his mouth is. He sells natives at wholesale or less to nonprofits such as garden clubs
and groups like the Elizabeth River Project, Lynnhaven River Now, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation
for their sales and projects. He said he gets calls from all over the state asking for his plant list.

Imrich has worked with Gunderson on various projects. Not only does he know the plants, he also tries to grow
as many as possible from local seeds so they will be well adapted to Hampton Roads gardens, she said.

"To my knowledge, Eric's supply of native plants is the most reliable and extensive collection in this area," Imrich said.

From: Print Edition Page 10 Home + Living May 30, 2015, published as Native son: If you want to know
more about native plants, Eric Gunderson of Southern Branch Nursery is the man to ask.
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