Chesapeake Native Plants: A Rancher Goes Native

A ranch style home that is.

I am very excited to share this garden with you. My dear friend Robert is one of those renaissance people - master chef, musician, crazed golfer, gardener, DIYer and, oh, he is also an expert in all things insurance. When I say DIYer, he plans and installs garden beds on steep slopes, builds barn doors for the house ... you get the idea. His gardening tastes always tended toward a formal style with lots of colorful annuals. I vividly recall a beautiful terraced slope of impatiens behind a townhome in Baltimore City years ago.

Fast forward, Robert and his family move into a mid-century rancher in a suburb of Baltimore. The backyard is a shady sylvan retreat. The front yard, though, was a blank slate.

When Robert and his family said they were interested in adding native plants, I was ecstatic. After a couple sketches on photographs of the house, Robert was underway. The goal was to create a garden space with four seasons of interest that could be viewed from the kitchen window to the left of the front door and add some visual and ecological life to the front lawn.

In 2018, Robert planted the existing bed along the foundation and significantly expanded an existing bed on the other side of the front walk into a graceful organic shape. The plants selected created layers – trees, shrubs, perennials and vines to move your eye through the garden and create habitat for birds and pollinators. The shrubs along the foundation of the house are a mix of evergreens and flowering shrubs adding spring, summer and fall interest and breaking up the horizontal expanse of brick.

The inkberry shrubs (Ilex glabra) are evergreen. The two arrowwood viburnums (Viburnum dentatum) bloom in spring and produce seed heads filled with berries in late summer. Several ninebark shrubs add contrasting color to the inkberries and viburnums. In the organically shaped bed, a native dogwood is the focal point directly in view from the kitchen window.

For the next layer down, Robert added perennials which are thriving. Look at the size of those blue false indigos (Baptisia australis)! Five coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) feed goldfinches through summer and the seed heads provide food long after the blooms fade. Several ornamental lavender (Lavandula) plants, a family favorite, make up the lowest layer. This is such a lovely example of combining your favorite non-naitves with natives.

Robert artfully framed the front entry with a native honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempivirens) that is growing enthusiastically in full sun. I was awed by the number of blooms in late September.

Robert’s family say they are amazed at the birds -- goldfinches and hummingbirds galore.

Two years later the front entry has totally transformed.

There is a garden design trick I read about a lot having to do with borrowing the view from beyond. This pine tree, contrasting so beautifully with the blue foliage of the blue false indigo, is doing just that as you walk up to the front door.

As we all know, gardening and nature are a process. A very old Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in Robert’s front yard recently died. He is leaving the base as an art piece that will feed and house insects following the movement to leave “snags” in your garden. Seeing the black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) already growing there, Robert is looking to add other robust flowering perennials to create a small meadow in the sunny spot. Golden alexander (Zizia aurea), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), goldenrod (Solidago), and eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) would all work well and provide a succession of blooming blue and yellow flowers and foliage through the growing season. Bear, the canine garden assistant, is also liking all the changes.

This project is a text book example of Dr. Doug Tallamy’s advice to layer in native plants. You don’t have to do it all at once. Robert, thanks so much for showing us how it’s done. I can’t wait to show you his next project, turning a side yard wasteland (his words) into a shady oasis!

Happy gardening.

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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