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Maryland and Virginia Native Plant Gardens: Add Natives without Starting Over

Maryland and Virginia Native Plant Gardens: Add Natives without Starting Over

The most common challenge raised in the recent survey about gardening with natives is how to start when you already have a landscape that has a bunch of ornamental trees and shrubs and you can’t afford, or don’t want, to start over from scratch. Unless your garden was planted recently, there is a very good chance you have ornamental azaleas, boxwoods, burning bush, cherry laurel, euonymous, forsythia, kousa dogwood, Japanese hollies and maples, privet or yews. These are popular plants for good reason. They grow well and are reliable. In fact, if you hire a landscaper today, and don’t specify, you are still likely to get many of these plants. Since these ornamental plants don’t provide much in the way of ecological value, adding native plants is a way to go.

When we moved into our home, we had many ornamentals and still do. To get started on a native plant garden that will attract more birds, provide habitat and contribute to the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these six tips worked well.

If you have ivy, vinca, burning bush, Japanese wisteria or a butterfly bush that is not sterile, removing these is a great way to improve the ecological value of your space. These plants are invasive and spread and outcompete native plants that best support insects and birds and provide habitat. Accomplishing this step is a huge contribution!

Plant a white oak if you have the space.

White oaks (Quercus alba) are magnificent and, magnificently large, trees. Entomologist and author Doug Tallamy has determined that the white oak supports more than 500 types of caterpillars and birds eat caterpillars. Tallamy points out that some birds actually need hundreds caterpillars each day to feed their chicks. This is the very best tree you can plant to support and create habitat in the central Chesapeake Bay watershed. If you have the space, there is an oak to fit your budget. Even a sapling will do!

The Chesapeake Watershed is home to a number of absolutely fantastic, versatile and all season understory trees: Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), Dogwood (Cornus Florida) and Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) to name a few. Each of these have at least three seasons of interest and can fit in small gardens. This also doesn’t have to be expensive. While nurseries typically sell young trees, on line sources and native plant nurseries often sell saplings at much lower cost.

Converting a small area of grass to a new bed is another way to get underway. This can be as small or large an area as you like. Even a small bed provides enough space for an evergreen for winter interest, a shrub that will produce berries and perennials to feed birds through summer and into fall and winter. A fun combo for a small bed in sun would be three inkberry shrubs (Ilex glabra) (evergreen winter interest), a blueberry bush (Vaccinium corymbosum) (spring flowers, summer berries and fall color), one red twig dogwood shrub (Cornus serices) (winter interest), and several baptisia (Baptisia australis), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), and asters (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia) (for late spring, summer and fall bloom and winter seed). For shade, try mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) (evergreen), oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) (winter interest, summer blooms and fall color), and perennials such as virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), huechera (Heuchera americana), and turtlehead (Chelone glabra) (for spring, summer and fall blooms).

Another way to add natives and improve ecological function in your garden is creating beds of shade loving native perennials beneath existing trees, especially oaks and other native trees that support hundreds of caterpillars. Turns out, again according to Doug Tallamy, that those caterpillars need a soft landing pad to make it to the next step of life. I had never thought about it but it makes sense. A young caterpillar hitting a sidewalk or compressed lawn is going to a have much tougher time than if it lands among some heuchera and shredded leaves!

If you have existing foundation plantings or garden beds, is it possible to add deciduous shrubs for interest such as blueberries, itea, summer sweet, or oak leaf hydrangea? Large shrubs such as oak leaf hydrangea and summer sweet nicely fill in bare spots or gaps. Smaller shrubs like some varieties of blueberry and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) can sometime be used for nice effect in front of evergreen ornamentals such as yews and cherry laurel. There are many possibilities. One of the ideas that expert gardeners teach us is to layer the plants, much like the layers of a hair cut. If the landscape has layers, it provides far better habitat and is more interesting to look at. This can be done in a formal or informal style, depending on your preference.

For more info:

A complete spread sheet of invasives in Maryland from the University of Maryland Extension Service.

A recent Washington Post article by Doug Tallamy about the benefits of layering in native shrubs among other tips.

A thorough “how to” You Tube video for planting under trees by acclaimed gardener Margaret Roach. While she doesn’t focus on natives, native such as Virginia bluebells, celandine poppies, heuchera, Christmas fern, and gold and green would work equally well!


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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