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header - Landscaping with Native Plants - Healthy Yards for a Healthy Bay

By Vaughn Deckret
New leaves of pale green spatter the trees, and birds sing and dart about with more zeal than usual. Spring has arrived, and thoughts naturally turn to the wonders of nature and to yards and gardens.

This season of regeneration is an excellent time to take a fresh look at the terrain outside your windows. Whether your piece of Maryland is a small patch or an ample parcel that surrounds your home, chances are you can transform your outdoors into a much more appealing and interesting place.

Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the 18th-century champion of naturalistic landscaping, earned his nickname by habitually telling prospective clients that their grounds showed “great capabilities.” A sure way to release more of the “great capabilities” of your property is to plant native trees, shrubs, vines and wildflowers.

Native Plants and Wildlife
A native plant is defined as one that was growing in a specific area, such as a region of Maryland, at the time Columbus arrived in North America. The fundamental advantage of native plants is that they have adapted to local conditions over thousands of years. These conditions include the soil, the climate, and all of the native living organisms that make up the regional biological community.

a photo of Cardinal flowerAdaptation has several practical consequences. In general, natives are low-maintenance plants and are hardier than nonnatives. They require less watering and little or no fertilizing. They are also more resistant to the predations of insects, a fact that reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides.

As a result of native plants and wildlife evolving together, creatures of the ground and the air have come to depend upon these plants for food and shelter and as places for rearing young. Because native plants are such essential elements of habitat, planting them -- especially those that produce seeds, nuts, berries, fruits or nectar -- will attract more species of wildlife. Strikingly colored birds that you rarely or never see and those flying flowers we call butterflies will arrive in greater numbers than ever before.

Besides adding visual appeal, these and other creatures will serve as dutiful assistant gardeners by devouring harmful insects and pollinating your flowers. Squadrons of bees, probably the most efficient pollinators, will regularly visit and work all day. Other beneficial insects -- ones that were hatched to hunt, capture and consume aphids, mites, mealy bugs and other marauding pests -- will take up residence and patrol every stem and leaf. The ladybug is the most familiar insect predator of this kind.

Getting Started
Once you decide to turn over a new leaf and go native, take this advice to heart: Think big, but start small. Think a lot about plant characteristics such as height, shape in both summer and the dead of winter, flower color and flowering periods, fruit type and fruiting periods, leaf color in different seasons, and effectiveness in attracting wildlife. Then sketch a plan for your entire yard.

As planning aids, easy-to-use reference books with pictures and basic plant facts are indispensable, so consider reading two or three. Going online can be extremely helpful too; be sure to visit the Wild Acres page on the Department of Natural Resources website. On the whole, native plants are not finicky about soils, but a basic soil test is cheap and can be useful. Call your county office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension for more information.

After you have done your homework and sketched a reasonable plan, don’t beat around the bush. Get going, but start small your first year. For instance, plant a tree or shrub, or set aside a sunny plot for wildflowers. Introducing native plants to your grounds and shifting to a more natural look should be a gradual and enjoyable enterprise, not an overwhelming one.

Trees for All Seasons
To make the most of your grounds, plant selection is paramount. One could say that St. Paul gets to the root of the matter in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.” In the spirit of this simple truth, favor plants that offer multiple advantages.

The well-known American holly (Ilex opaca) is such a plant. This evergreen provides birds with fine cover and red berries as winter food. The tree, densely clad in glossy, dark green leaves, has a pleasant conical shape, and it will supply cuttings for decorating during the holiday season.

Besides adding color year round, evergreens are preferred by many birds as roosting and nesting sites. When planted close together in a line, they form excellent screens and windbreaks. The eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) make handsome choices, and their seeds are eaten by many birds. The eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), sometimes used as a Christmas tree, is another attractive choice. Its pale green to dark blue berries, present from July to March, are eaten by more than 50 species of birds.

For shade in summer, brilliant colors in fall, and shapeliness all year, the red maple (Acer rubrum) and the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) are time-honored favorites. The former is a medium-sized tree that turns red and orange in fall; the latter, a large tree famed as the source of maple syrup, becomes a leafy flame of yellow, orange and red.

Smaller trees add a lower layer of habitat and bring virtues of their own. The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) has white flowers in April and May, turns scarlet in fall, and offers red berries to birds from September through December. Another good choice is the sweet crab apple (Malus coronaria). In spring, its fragrant pink to white flowers attract bees and its fleshy fruits provide sustenance for hungry birds.

Native Shrubs
Shrubs bring visual interest and a layer of habitat to the middle space between tree crowns and flower tops. They can also play important roles in yards too small for trees. Of the many excellent species, five are listed below.

Southern ArrowwoodThe spice bush (Lindera benzoin) lives up to its name: All parts are distinctly aromatic. Its small yellow flowers in early spring attract butterflies, and a variety of songbirds appreciate its scarlet berries in early fall. The southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is also a popular choice. Large clusters of creamy white flowers bloom in May and June, and blue-black berries are available from September to November. This species and all viburnums are good for mass plantings and for forming hedges.

The sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) lends an interesting accent to any yard. This semi-evergreen shrub has large, glossy, elliptical leaves and tolerates shade. Fragrant white flowers bloom May to July, and red berries ripen in early fall. A shrub especially good for placing close to house foundations is the common juniper (Juniperus communis). This low, mat-forming evergreen, a convenient source of cuttings at Christmas, makes a good nesting site and produces blue berries.

If pies and cobblers are a favorite of yours, the lowbush blueberry and the highbush blueberry should be as well. Vaccinium angustifolium grows 1 to 2 feet and has red leaves in fall; Vaccinium corymbosum reaches 6 to 12 feet in height. Each produce pink-tinged white flowers in spring; in July and August, both supply delectable blueberries that do not go unnoticed by your wildlife friends.

Vines and Hummingbirds
No yard is too small to accommodate flowering vines. Full sun and a trellis, fence or post will allow a well-chosen climber to make the most of a few square feet of earth. Two native species particularly deserve consideration because they are like gilt-edged, embossed invitations to hummingbirds. Butterflies are loyal fans too.

The easily grown trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) blooms prolifically from July to September. Its large, reddish-orange trumpet-like flowers grow in clusters, produce heavy loads of nectar, and are truly irresistible to hummingbirds.

The coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) will likewise summon the tiny birds all summer long. Tubular flowers colored coral red outside and yellow inside bloom abundantly in clusters from April to October. Songbirds relish its red berries that hang in small bunches on this semi-evergreen vine from August to March.

Planting wildflowers may be the easiest way to begin acquainting yourself with the virtues of a photo showing asterour natives. Buying them in pots or market packs is usually best because growing wildflowers from seed is a bit of a challenge. When shopping at a nursery, ask about the source of the plants: This helps to discourage poaching -- that is, the uprooting of wild plants. As with native trees, shrubs and vines, many species will do just fine in your yard, but several perennials ought to be at the top of your list of possibilities.

The black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Maryland’s state flower since 1918, is surely one. This yellow daisy with a dark brown center blooms from midsummer to October, grows to 3 feet, spreads rapidly, and makes a long lasting cutting. Butterflies are attracted to it and goldfinches like its seeds. The New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is another can’t-go-wrong choice. This plant grows to 6 feet, produces profusions of violet, daisy-like flowers from August to October, and attracts butterflies.

Blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) blossoms early in the season. From April to June, aromatic blue, lavender and white flowers appear and receive frequent visits from bees and butterflies. The plant reaches 18 inches in height. Any species of tickseed sunflower (Coreopsis tinctoria) will brighten your yard. Blooming from June to September, these yellow flowers grow up to 4 inches wide and 4 feet tall, and their seeds are enticing to songbirds.

All species of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) are reliable sources of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. Their blooming periods and heights vary, but June to October and 1 to 6 feet are the respective ranges. Incidentally, goldenrods, black-eyed Susans, asters, phlox and tickseeds all make excellent cut flowers.

A wildflower that qualifies as a butterfly magnet is the butterfly milkweed. Asclepias tuberosa grows to 3 feet and produces clusters of fragrant orange flowers May to July. A large plant often plays host to several butterflies at one time.

For attention-grabbing shapes in brilliant reds, bee balm (Monarda didyma) and the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) are hard to beat. The former has blossoms that smell like oranges. Both grow to 4 feet and bloom throughout the summer. Though hummingbirds love both species, the intensely red cardinal flower attracts them in droves.Butterly Milkweed

Benefits All Around
Cultivating native plants clearly promotes conservation by helping wild plant species and wildlife regain lost ground and habitat. Homeowners -- especially suburban residents, who typically have more land than city dwellers -- can advance conservation further by devoting less space to lawn and more to native plants.

Trees, shrubs and wildflowers are immensely more effective than plain grass at reducing runoff, which degrades water quality by carrying soil particles and nutrients into our tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland lawns cover more than 1.1 million acres and account for a significant portion of runoff.

This spring, why not do yourself and the environment a favor? Begin an acquaintance with the world of native plants. At the very least, plant a few wildflowers, and watch them bloom in the months ahead. Rest assured you will not come to feel you have been “led down the garden path.”
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