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Garden Dirt | Go Native

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They come to us at the garden center, waving a piece of paper, sometimes clutching fistfuls of their own hair, and crying “help…they’re making me do this!”

“They” are homeowners who are building or remodeling on property located within the Chesapeake Bay’s critical area.

“This” is the part of their building permit requiring a defined number of native plants – perennials, shrubs and trees – to be planted on that property. How many and what type of these plants required is a head-scratching calculation based on building square footage and the existing surrounding environment. It can be as daunting as the building project itself.

Native plant requirements are a component of Maryland’s Critical Area Act, passed in 1984 to address the impacts of development near the Chesapeake Bay. The Act defines “critical area” as “all land within 1,000 feet of the Mean High Water Line of tidal waters or the landward edge of tidal wetlands and all waters of and lands under the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.”

It’s a mouthful, no argument here. But despite it being another requirement of Anne Arundel and Calvert counties building codes, planting natives is a good thing. And the old argument that native plants aren’t as “pretty” as other plants isn’t true. Your landscape can be smart – and beautiful.

Native species are defined as plants that occur naturally in our region – not necessarily just in Maryland or Virginia but in the mid-Atlantic, even throughout North America. They have evolved over time to not only survive but to flourish in our environment and they don’t need us to fuss over them; for the most part they do just fine left on their own.

Non-native plants are cultivated from species imported from other areas of the country – and often from other continents. Many of these imports perform very well in our climate, especially if they come from a similar environment. But others at best require a lot of TLC to grow, and at worse, become invasive, wiping out native plants and with them, vital habitat and food wildlife.

Native plants are as easy on the eyes as they are easy to grow. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this is true, but I’d like for you to behold some of our outstanding natives. Even if you don’t have to add them to your landscape, once you discover native plants you’ll probably want to.

The list is a long one and now includes cultivars (or variations) of the species, which means even more to choose from. And there is a native plant for every corner of your yard.

A damp, shady nook? Try a cinnamon or Christmas fern. The cinnamon fern grows to two to three feet high; the Christmas fern is a bit shorter, coming in at about 18 inches. Add any number of flowering perennials, like Jacob’s Ladder, Solomon’s Seal, Virginia bluebells or foam flower for a lovely shade garden.

Got a lot of sun? The list is long, and includes many garden favorites you may not recognize as natives: Aster, baptisia or false indigo, Joe Pye-Weed, cardinal flower, phlox, bee balm, butterfly weed, and, of course, Maryland’s state flower, Black Eyed Susan.

Good choices for foundation landscapes include the evergreen inkberry, the winterberry for its bright red berries, and flowering shrubs like itea, azaleas and clethra. “Ruby Spice” clethra is covered with mauve-pink flowers in mid-summer and you can smell its gardenia-like scent long before you can see it. Noted for its silvery blue foliage, fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ is a nice compliment to the glossy dark green leaves of other plants.
Larger shrubs like viburnums and bayberries with their abundant fruit are favorites of our local bird population. And witchhazel is an unexpected surprise in late-winter, its yellow or rusty red flowers bringing life to an otherwise gray landscape. The amelanchier has a couple of common names: Juneberry, serviceberry and my favorite, the Shadbush – so named because it blooms when the shad are running.

Then there are our native trees. Sweetbay magnolia is a terrific little “garden tree.” It reaches a mature height of about 20 feet, and like its bigger cousin, the southern magnolia, it is covered in sweet-smelling white flowers in May and June. But unlike the southern magnolia, it loses its leaves in the winter (and isn’t as messy).

Add to the list spring blooming dogwoods and redbuds, evergreen white pine and hemlocks, and, perfect for this time of year, the native maple. Fast growing, it quickly provides a canopy to shade out the hot Maryland sun, and come autumn, its brilliant fall foliage rivals that of its New England relative.

You don’t need to replace all the trees and shrubs in your yard to “go native” – or close out that pesky building permit. Just incorporating some of these lovely, care-free specimens into your landscape is a good thing – for the Bay, for wildlife, and for your time. Try them – I’m guessing you’ll probably love them.

For more information and list of native plants:

+ nps.gov/plants/pubs/nativesmd/lists.htm

+ nps.gov/plants/pubs/chesapeake/

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