MARQUETTE - As winter slowly descends upon Marquette, the earthy smell of freshly uncovered soil can still be found in the Hiawatha National Forest greenhouse as volunteers begin work on growing an estimated 35,000 native plants.
The annual project began Jan. 26 at 1030 Wright St., with a small group of dedicated volunteers, and will continue with several more volunteer opportunities through the end of March.
"The folks that come have a lot of pride in their work," said Deb Le Blanc, West Unit plant ecologist for the HNF. "They get to see their plants in the ground, doing well. They have a sense of ownership and stewardship."
Linda Rehorst of Little Lake and Ray Bush of Ishpeming fill trays of cells with fresh soil. Both are master gardeners certified through Michigan State University’s Extension Center. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
The first volunteer event focused on soil preparation. Bob Kahl of Marquette and Brian Hinch of Munising mixed the soil together as other volunteers used it to fill 35,000 cells.
Hinch previously worked for HNF through an internship and has been vounteering with the forest service for eight months.
"I don't know what other place there is better to do it," Hinch said. "I've learned a lot of new things."
Hinch spent most of his day elbow-deep in soil, spreading it out over a grate before transferring it to a bucket and mixing it with water.
Other volunteers chatted about gardening and family as they worked their way through thousands of cells, filling them all with soil.
"When we start this stuff in the greenhouse, it's like that feeling when you're a kid at Christmas," Le Blanc said. "It's such a positive on the landscape and generations can benefit from it."
The plants grown in the greenhouse are native to the HNF and their seeds come solely from within its borders.
A seed cache was meticulously collected over several years, providing a roomful of 20-gallon storage bins which house thousands of seeds, with just under 100 species. As human contact interferes with a part of the forest's ability to grow native plants on its own - such as old farms that have been taken over by weeds, or the addition of a culvert - these plants can restore the forest to its natural state.
"It's kind of a long process, but it works so well," Le Blanc said. "We remove weeds and put our natives in as soon as possible."
The greenhouse has another volunteer opportunity from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday when approximately 15,000 cells will have to be seeded.
People can volunteer for as little or as much time as they'd like. No previous greenhouse or gardening experience is required. And while specific dates have been set aside for group volunteer activities, people are always welcome at the greenhouse throughout the week.
"Our volunteers are the heart and soul of this program," Le Blanc said. "We don't have the funding, so we have to rely on our volunteers."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.