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Native Plant Narratives: Baltimore's ToolBank

Gardening, keeping over a million gallons of water out of storm drains, all in a day's work!

native hardy hibiscus Baltimore

A goldfinch flitting from coneflower to coneflower and then across the street, bees and butterflies alighting on an array of pink coneflowers, native hibiscus flowers as big as small frisbees: can you picture it? This garden is on Wicomico street in the heart of the 500 acre Carroll Camden Industrial Park near Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in south Baltimore.

native hibiscus in urban setting
View of Wicomico Street from the ToolBank Garden

This native garden is the culmination of work by visionaries from the Baltimore ToolBank team, a collaboration with Maryland's Department of the Environment to reduce stormwater flowing from the ToolBank's 1 acre shed style roof and a love of nature by many. Head gardener, Rachel Thompson, spends the bulk of her work day immersed in logistics and advising on projects undertaken by non-profits and community groups touching every corner of Baltimore City. Think of the ToolBank as a Home Depot that lends all manner of tools and equipment for community improvement projects. Their warehouse is just as spic and span and organized as a newly opened Home Depot too. Rachel, who also works for the Orioles, is an accomplished triathlete, and has her own community commitments, organizes volunteers who maintain the garden during three work sessions a year. So this tells us a lot about this garden.

goldfinch coneflowers Batimore
Photo by Rachel Thompson

Rachel says the best part of her day is checking in on the two rectangular raised bed gardens at the front of the building. Each morning during the growing season, she can't wait to see what changed overnight -- the mark of a true gardener indeed. For those of us who are home gardeners, this garden tells the story of native plants that survive and thrive in the most challenging of growing conditions and are quite low maintenance.

The two gardens receive rainwater off the roof through a large perforated pipe that lines the back of each bed. The beds are filled with 80% sand and 20% soil to allow rainwater to filter through and gradually recharge the ground beneath, keeping all of that water out of the stormwater system, a good thing for the Middle Branch. This system combined with another system to the rear of the building kept over 1.4 million gallons of water out of the storm drains and our waterways last year. That is why people geek out about stormwater; it's simply amazing what one project can accomplish!

The plants though ... bee balm (Monarda), boneset (Eupatorium perfolatum), blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), goldenrods (Solidago canadensis), liatris (Liatris spicata), monarch's delight (Asclepias tuberosa), native hibiscus and blue vervain (Verbena hastata) all surviving a rainless heat streak.

blue false indigo and bee in flight
Photo by Rachel Thompson

The first perennials to emerge are the blue false indigo. This tap rooted perennial is so easy to grow. It needs full sun, is drought tolerant once established, and best of all, the minty green foliage lasts though the summer. You can cut it back in fall, or not. The only thing is once this plant is planted, please do not try to move it. It develops a very deep tap root and it is extremely difficult to successfully move the entire root system.

Next up are bee balm and coneflowers. Rachel leaves these up throughout summer and fall so they can feed pollinators and birds. There was no shortage of pollinators on the July morning I visited. There is a smattering of monarch's delight, aka butterfly weed, black-eyed susans and cardinal flowers. One note about cardinal flowers; they are 'short lived perennials' meaning they last two or three years but will readily reseed and perpetuate themselves in a sunny moist spot. To get reseeding, it is important not to mulch as this prevents the seeds from making contact with soil for germination.

native hardy hibiscus Baltimore

The standouts of this garden are the native hibiscus. Marshmallow hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) and Rose mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpos) perennials have maroon, red and pink flowers that make a massive statement. Their scale is just right for this commercial space. Hibiscus are very slow to emerge in the spring. Often, they do not come up until June. Once they, do, there is nothing you need to do but wait to enjoy. These grow 4 to 6 feet high, or larger where they are happy, and grow best in sun and moist soils but can also grow in average soils. Planting in full sun will yield the profusion of flowers..

This garden also includes a native American holly (Ilex opaca), very important as a berry source for birds in winter but also to provide safe shelter for birds, and a serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis). In these gardens, Rachel has made sure to create layers for wildlife: perennial flowers for pollen and nectar, small trees and shrubs like serviceberry for mid-height shelter and evergreens for year round shelter.

native switchgrass in rain garden
Switchgrass and rain barrels

To the back of the building is the second stormwater collection system. This series of rain barrels and a large cistern, collect water that can be used on-site for things like washing tools and waters a hedge of switch grass (Panicum virgatum). Oh, and there is a small vegetable plot for sunflowers and corn too!

All of these plants are easy to grow once established and create habitat just about anywhere. These plants are typical for stormwater retention areas meaning most can tolerate periodic inundation but also handle dry periods.

If passing through Carrol Camden Industrial Park isn't a part of your regular routine, a quick jaunt down Wicomico Street is definitely worth it the next time you are in the vicinity. Thanks to Rachel and the ToolBank for all they do every day and for showing us all how a garden and nature can thrive in the most urban of settings. More good news - planting is catching on in the "Park;" the Baltimore Tree Trust, Civic Work's Tree Orchard Project and the Parks and People Foundation are busily adding trees along Wicomico Street. Love it!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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