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Native Plant Gardens: Five Lessons Learned

Winter solstice, winter weather and time for reflection.

You may have already absorbed these lessons. If so, undoubtedly you will have learned some others this year. This is the amazing world of gardening!

Fringe Trees & Patience

Four years ago I planted a 1/2 inch caliper native white fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) labeled as a female. While both male and female trees bloom with the delicate, papery, fringy white blooms in late spring, only the female tree develops the olive sized blue fruits.

The first year, the fringe tree put on no growth and had two small blooms. The second year, a couple of branches grew two inches or so and had maybe four blooms. The third year, it was covered in blooms but still wasn't growing much at all. The tree is planted in a location suited to it -- full sun. They grow in full sun or part shade in a range of soils. I gave up on it, thinking maybe it was a male plant after all or perhaps just very poor quality soils were doing it in.

And then, this year, there they were. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two perfectly olive shaped fruits! So, fringe trees may need four years to establish and really start taking off. Once again, Mother Nature reminds me of gardening's most difficult lesson -- patience.

Snags & Natural Breaks

Leaving dead trees where one can has been recommended for a while. The dead wood serves as a feast for insect life and provides excellent habitat for all sorts of critters. Experts like Doug Tallamy and others recommend leaving dead trees or the trunks where we safely can so they can decompose and complete their cycle of life.

I recently learned of a new trend among forward thinking arborists to leave natural breaks on trees where branches have fallen rather than adding a clean cut to that break. When I heard this, I remembered earlier in the year, an arborist recommended doing just that when a very tall tree in our garden lost a large branch. He said the science is showing jagged breaks heal faster than a clean cut. I recently heard another expert opine a natural break is both more "insect friendly" and, aesthetically, more natural looking.

There once was a time when sealing pruning cuts with a petroleum based product was the norm. Then we were advised it is not necessary since trees have been healing themselves for millennia. Sounds like natural breaks are next!

Creating New Beds & Cardboard

Converting lawn to a garden bed can be especially tough if the ground is dry and you are trying to remove sod with a shovel. That's why the cardboard and mulch method has become so popular. Placing cardboard over the area you want to convert (using inexpensive ground staples helps keep the cardboard in place), wetting the cardboard, adding several inches of mulch and waiting 6 weeks or so is all you need to do.

A family member asked if I couldn't just skip the cardboard step and let the thick layer of mulch do the work? I tried it and the answer is a hearty no! The cardboard is essential in my book.

Wild hydrangeas

Wild hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) are our native hydrangeas. The hydrangeas typically available garden centers and some native plant nurseries are a cultivar called Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle.' Experts advise that while the science around cultivars of native plants is still developing, generally, using a cultivar that does not change the color of the foliage or the flower of a plant is likely ok for supporting insect life.

A number of years ago I planted several Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' thinking they were in the "likely ok" category. Then I learned most of the flowers on this cultivar are sterile. So the flowers are changed. To provide maximum habitat value, the straight species native is the best choice. I kept an eye out this past spring and soon found two at a garden center and one at a native plant nursery. All were labeled "Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)" and there was no indication any were cultivars.

As they bloomed this summer, I realized the two from the garden center were likely "Annabelle" as they had those sterile flowers. The plant from the native plant nursery was the actual straight species wild hydrangea. It's always true -- if you want native plants, a native plant nursery is always going to be your best bet!

Comma Butterflies & Luna Moths

Build it and they will come. That is what professionals, experts and enthusiasts say about planting native plants in your garden. I always say, in my experience, it brings the garden to life. Well, this summer, in our small garden in Washington DC, I saw two things I've always wanted to see.

The first was a comma butterfly. In early spring, as I sat at a desk near a floor to ceiling window, I saw a comma butterfly leave the ground and settle at the edge of the window to warm itself in the sun. Eastern commas are known to overwinter in leaf litter, log piles or tree bark. While Eastern commas are very common, this was the very first one I have seen in our garden.

Earlier this fall, I was sitting at a desk looking out a second floor window when, during a zoom call, I saw a Luna moth fly by mid-afternoon. You are probably thinking they are mostly active at night. True, but I am pretty positive this is what I saw!

So, with absolutely no scientific basis, I learned if you build it, they will, indeed come!

Happy Winter Solstice.


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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