Beautiful Native Plants

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Native Gardeners Never Give Up!

I wasn’t going to. I really wasn’t going to. We’d left five acres full of native plants and a treasure trove of garden tools for a “lock and roll” townhouse with a postage stamp of an outside. I was getting my gardening highs by volunteering at public parks and schools.  And I held out valiantly for about 18 months. But at the beginning of that merry, merry month of May, the water broke over the dam of pent-up desire, and I did it. I just had to have my own garden. I blame two inciting causes: dull grey blocks, and pollinators.

In the townhouse development, where were all the bees and butterflies supposed to go?

The grey blocks were rigidly clamped to either side of our doorway in stern rectangles; an uninteresting welcome to our new residence in a planned community. The streets had some trees, but the overall look was linear and repetitive. It reminded me of the old song: the one about all the houses made of  ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same. I’m not kidding about the ticky-tacky either.  The buildings are all red brick and the plants are - well, the plants are not native.  Stiff and square they march down the street; mostly bushes that never bloom, or even sway in the breeze. 

When it comes right down to it, a crime was being committed, right? All those pollinators out there and no place to go. And hadn’t I just spent the last nine years since the publication of Bringing Nature Home preaching the Doug Tallamy mantra, the quantitative value of suburban yards, no matter how small, planted in natives?  My two little boxes could be adding to that super-highway of connected native respite! Of course, they were in almost complete shade. And I knew there wasn’t any real soil there. But never mind that,  it was too late for practicalities, the dam had burst.

Rectangles and turfgrass begone!

One morning I simply flung myself out the door and began to wrench those grey blocks out of the ground. And the moment I did that, a  kind of a miracle occurred. Although I doubt my husband would categorize it that way. I saw that I could both double my planting space, and soften up the look, by creating a a sweeping curve from the side of the house to a point two feet on either side of the front walkway. Now the walkway to the door was an inviting embrace. Perfect!

Instantly a plant list began to materialize. I knew from my volunteer work  that shade did not have to mean no blooms. First, Itea virginica. A pair of the sweetspires in pots. One of those would at least distract from the unfortunate placement of a cover plate for the city water system right at our entrance.  Next, Ilex glabra, inkberry, and Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey tea, in the corner that got a bit of sun.  Zig zag goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis, good for pollinators, early bloomer. Packera aurea, golden goundsel, bright yellow in full shade, and cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, of course; and oh yes, Phlox, both divericata and stolonifera.  Don’t forget Tiarella cordifolia, foamflower, I mused; early bloom and red-veined leaves to admire afterwards.
Carex plantaginea, front; and Carex pensylvanica, back; sedges that thrive in shade

Dog hobble, Leucothoe fontanesiana, evergreen, shade tolerant
I would have to have white wood aster, Eurybia divaricata,  to help pollinators in the fall. Sedges and ferns a must for some structure. Grass really mostly likes sun, but there are many choices in the carex (sedge) family that prefer some shade while giving the look of grass. And while caterpillars need their host plants to eat, they often move over to the leaf of a grass or sedge to build their next home as they morph into butterflies.  Planning for plants with a just a bit of winter presence,  beautiful Heucheras, villosa and americana, and the Christmas fern, Polystichium acrostichoides stays pretty green here in Virginia all winter.

All these would be complemented by the stems of the zigzag goldenrod, which I would not cut down. The arching branches of Dog hobble, Leucothoe fontanesiana, would be happy in the shade and have shiny leaves green all year…..Hmmm, that’s a lot of plants. How many of those will really fit here, I wondered?

All purpose garage, no problem...well maybe a slight problem
No matter, because first the sod had to be removed where the crescent shape had been formed. Uh oh. I had known the soil was compromised; compacted fill run over repeatedly by big machines, but until we got spades, (borrowed) under the grass, I had no idea how bad it was. The grass roots stopped, dead in their tracks at three inches. And under that – baseball-sized pieces of rock grouted together with miniscule amounts of red clay. Oh boy. A low wall would have been good, but was out the question for various reasons. Not to be deterred, five Subaru trunk-loads were transferred, bag by bag, onto a tarp (in the garage) for mixing into a special brew: Leafgro, (composted leaves), Bumper crop soil (various organic substances, including lobster claws) and super-fine shredded pine. This mix is too rich for most natives, but because it was being incorporated into a medium that was far from natural, it seemed like a good choice. 

The new brew was heaped up into a mound inside the new crescents by the door and finally - the reward: planting! Nothing in the world feels so good to a gardener as tenderly tucking those eager roots into the waiting soil, knowing that you are going to have the joy of watching them grow, change, blossom, and become a home for native creatures. Or, alternatively, the joy of learning from mistakes. But for the moment - bliss! I crammed the plants in, flouting rules left and right. It will look dense more quickly, I rationalized, and if I have to thin it out soon, who cares? More to share with the parks! 

Interesting comments were made from passersby. “Oh, those are plants that come back, aren’t they?” observed one lady. (What a concept!) “Native plants? Where can I get some of those?” from a gentleman walking a dog. “I like the improvements,” from another gentleman with a briefcase.
"Oh! Those are plants that come back, aren't they?" What a sustainable concept!
Eastern blue-tailed butterfly on New Jersey Tea

And so the deed was done. The first morning I walked outside to gaze upon the new plants, what do you think I saw? A butterfly! I very nearly wept for the joy of it!

Now my little garden is carrying the torch for natives in my community. There will undoubtedly be losses and things that don’t go quite as planned. But fear not; native plant gardeners never give up!

Sue Dingwell