How and Why They Grow!
As I drove down the gravel road in the heart of the rolling hills of Maryland's southern Anne Arundel County, I wasn't sure what to expect. Bona Terra Nursery advertised its first ever "open nursery day" on Instagram. I was smitten with their recent posts -- gorgeous and intricate photos of plants and pollinators and a lot of detail about the connection between them. So I signed up and am so glad I did.
Bona Terra got its start in the back of a Washington DC row house where founder Jeremy grew native plants in bulk on tiers, most of the plants destined for bay friendly gardens created by DC residents who signed up for the very popular River Smart program. Now, Bona Terra has a full fledged design business and is transitioning to growing only local eco-type plants and nursery retail.
I parked in the shade of an old barn and walked down the hill. An acre of perennials, shrubs and a wildflower meadow, came into view. What a treasure of a place. And what hard work this is. And what enthusiasm the Bona Terra team has!
As Beth and Jeremy started the tour, the first thing I noticed about the plants was how healthy they look. Jeremy explained many of the perennials are grown in 12" deep quart sized containers, as opposed to the usual 5" deep pots to keep roots and the beneficial organisms in the soil cool, especially important during the hottest days of summer. Shrubs like Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) are also grown in large containers allowing very healthy root systems to develop.
As we meandered through the many rows of perennials and shrubs I began to really absorb how difficult this work is. Some perennials grown from seed mature in a year and are ready to be sold as plugs or quarts. Others take several growing seasons. And then there are the shrubs. A few of the fast ones grow to a marketable size in three years; others take much longer. A particular native azalea being grown now for seed production will yield shrubs available for sale in ten years. This all assumes water and weather cooperate.
We also talked about the practicalities of gardening with native plants. A number of plants in the nursery like oak leaf hydrangeas and coneflowers will not be replaced once sold as they are not local eco-types -- plants adapted to a particular local ecosystem. For Bona Terra, that means plants found within 100 miles of their nursery. Oak leafs (Hydrangea quercifolia) and coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are some of the mainstay plants of native gardening efforts throughout the Chesapeake (and my own garden.) Science tells us the very best thing to do is plant only local eco-types. A layer of pragmatism for home gardeners would say gardening with plants native to the region is a very good start. Many scientific sources show oak leafs are native to the southeast and echinacea native to the midwest.
Bona Terra is doing all it can to make its own operations sustainable. They are experimenting with substitutes for peat in compost, potting soils and potting mixes. If you have not followed this issue, peat, which makes a great growing medium and is used in almost all bagged materials you buy at the garden center, is harvested from environmentally sensitive bogs. In the UK, the use of peat in home gardens is outlawed as of 2024 and there is a growing effort now in the US to find alternatives as well. Bona Terra is testing a mix made of decomposed wood chips that feels as light and fluffy as putting your hand in a bag of miniature marshmallows. If you want to adapt this sustainable practice to your gardening efforts, you can make your own compost or use the Organics Mechanics brand of bagged compost and potting soils which are peat free and available in local garden centers. American Plant in Montgomery County, MD also sells its own brand of peat free potting soil. If you know of other peat free soils, please share in the comments below.
Reusing plastic pots and trays is another focus. If you are an established customer, they will take your cleaned pots and plug trays back for reuse.
One of the most interesting aspects of the nursery is the wildflower meadow on a slope immediately adjacent to the growing area. Jeremy explained the healthy insect populations of the meadow are key to virtually eliminating the need for pest control as the wildflowers create a healthy population of beneficial insects. This is something we can all try, even on a small scale.
Bona Terra is a very fitting name for a small group of people working so hard to make their business and our gardens better places! Interested in Bona Terra plants for your garden? Check the website for inventory and delivery. The next open garden days for tours and plant shopping are Saturday, August 28th and Monday, August 30th. You can sign up here!