Three phases of a native plant journey...
Karen's townhome garden was filled with monarchs and several types of swallowtail butterflies on a recent August afternoon. Earlier in the morning goldfinches swooped in and out. This delights Karen who is in the process of transforming her deep narrow garden -- asking two questions with every planting decision. What will it do for me and what will it do for nature? Two very good questions indeed.
Like many of us, Karen came to native plant gardening after reading a Doug Tallamy book -- books that explain the connection between native plants, feeding insects so they can reproduce, and the health of the planet. Karen immediately set to making more intentional decisions about planting. As a biologist with the US Department of Agriculture, this came naturally to her.
When you enter the garden from the kitchen door at the rear of the row home, your eye is immediately drawn to 8 foot high sunflowers underplanted with an array of natives at the foot of the patio. This patio is the spot from which Karen and her family like to watch the nature show. This planting also keeps the garden behind as a bit of a surprise. A walkway, to the left of the sunflowers, takes you down two more levels. Karen says the three tiers actually reflect her garden style evolution.
In the rear, Adirondack chairs and a fire pit are nestled beneath an ornamental crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia) tree. A huge native trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) climbs over the rear fence. Karen says this was her first gardening phase. Grass, a comfortable place to sit, pretty flowers and the soothing sounds from a fountain were her idea of the ideal.
The next tier up has a beautiful array of pink and peach zinnias (Zinnia) underplanted with ornamental catmint (Nepeta racemosa) that attract pollinators galore. The pretty flowers met Karen's more recent desire for beautiful things in her garden and pollinators to delight she and her kids.
The third tier reflects where Karen is now: committed to adding as many native plants as feasible while still preserving her aesthetic for beautiful flowers for as much of the growing season as possible. The sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are underplanted with native phlox (Phlox paniculata), tickseed (Coreopsis), helenium (Helenium), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata).
At the rear of this patio, Karen also has what she calls her plant hospital. I think of it as more of a maternity ward as she is growing several natives from cuttings and seedlings: a redbud tree, native honeysuckle and a couple of red twig dogwoods. For the red twig dogwood Karen says "I used basic cutting techniques (described in numerous YouTube videos). I took several hardwood stem cuttings from mature plants in October. Select stems that are no thicker than a pencil. Each cutting was trimmed to 3 nodes each, removed the leaves from all but the top node, stuck them in a pot of regular potting mix and left the whole thing outside, uncovered all winter, watering if the weather was unseasonably warm or dry. Expect that not all cuttings will be successful so start more stems than you need. In late spring, new growth will start coming up from the successful cuttings so pot them up, baby them for a year, and congratulate yourself!"
Karen has become serious about native plants since starting her native plant journey a year ago and almost apologized for including ornamental blue salvia (Salvia guarantica) in her garden. She says she just can't resist that color. We talked about giving ourselves full permission to grow non-native plants and to relinquish the need to pull what what some perceive to be weeds. Karen has decided to leave the wild violets. While many view these as a pesky weed, wild violets (Viola sororia) are indeed a native, a great source of nectar for pollinators in very early spring when it can be hard to come by, and thrive. She has them planted next to foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) providing nice foliage contrast.
Actually, Karen's native plant journey began ten years ago when she first moved into her home. She took the opportunity to plant a native tree, so the biologist in her was already on the job. She chose the 'Winter King' green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis). This beautiful tree is now ten years old and loaded with fruit. We shared our respective experiences with this tree which we both love. The tree has such a graceful shape much like an old apple tree. The white blossoms in spring are as cheerful as can be. The tree bears copious small orange-red fruits in fall. These fruits do get apple rust if they are near an eastern red cedar tree. The rust does not harm the tree; it just muddles the color of the berries. We concluded it is still well worth planting. Karen started in a pretty good place because as we all know if you are going to do just one thing in your garden to help nature, it is to plant a native tree.
As fall approaches, Karen is already talking about what she intends to do next year. She is focused on this bed. She would like to replace the smokebush (Cotinus obovatus) to the right of the dogwood and add a layer of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) to the front in the spring.
Karen's recent efforts earned her the title of best emerging native garden in the recent exciting effort by the Green Towson Alliance to promote native plants. Well done Karen and we can't wait to see what's coming next!