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Native Plant Narratives: Artistic Touches to a DC Row Home

Alice, my friend, part-time pruner, tireless community volunteer and retired television producer, has a keen eye for design.  Her row home garden is replete with subtle artistry.  A concrete cast leaf supported by an iron stand Alice forged serves as a bird bath.  All sorts of discarded items find a new home in this peaceful setting. Over the past several years, Alice has layered in native plants, transforming the garden.

Layering is one of the techniques experts like Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy swear by. Constrained by space, Alice has thoughtfully considered where each of her native treasures will be placed.  She started in the front by taking advantage of Washington DC’s River Smart Homes program which assists homeowners interested in rain gardens connect with financial incentives and local landscapers. Her front yard is now an array of summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), heuchera (Heuchera americana), christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata).

Alice’s native plant story:

Over time, the rear garden of my small row home in Washington DC had become overcrowded with plants chosen on a whim and planted randomly without any overall design in mind. When my much loved but doomed dogwood was removed this fall, I decided to clear out that entire half of the garden and am now in the process of re-creating the space.  A late comer to native plants, I am determined to make better plant choices this time.

For a fairly sunny spot between my back porch and the new wooden fence separating my property from the neighbors, I wanted a not too big tree with winter interest and came upon the common witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana). In late October, I purchased my witch hazel at Nature By Design, a wonderful native plants nursery in Alexandria, Virginia, and planted it about three feet from the fence. A friend, upon seeing the tree and new fence, immediately saw its potential as an ideal place to espalier the witch hazel. I liked the idea and also liked the notion of saving garden space.

Having never done it, I first did my homework on how to espalier trees. Then in November, I transplanted the tree to 8″ from the fence to ensure sufficient room for the roots to breathe and grow.

Come springtime, I will hammer small galvanized nails into the fence and tie the young, still pliable, branches to the nails to guide their growth. As the branches grow, I will adjust their support to encourage the branches in the desired direction and shape.

There are many patterns used to espalier trees. I have chosen to try the more informal fan shape because it apparently works well with square spaces, looks less severe than other forms and is also not as high maintenance.

For more info:

About espaliering a tree and the various espalier shapes from the University of Wisconsin Master Gardener program.

A Nuts for Natives post about common witch hazel.


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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