How does your garden grow
Winchester — It may take a change in thought process to plant native trees, shrubs and flowers in home landscapes, but doing so will create healthier habitats that bring in birds, caterpillars, pollinators and a diversity of organisms that result in healthier ecosystems, according to Janet S. Davis, operator of Hill House Farm and Nursery in Castleton, which grows and sells native plants.
“This is not about making a donation to save the rain forest. This is about what you plant in your backyard, so it’s very empowering. What you do will make a difference,” said Davis, who was speaking at a recent garden symposium sponsored by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener Association.
Conventional landscapes include a lot of weeds that are eliminated mainly with chemicals, and “mainstream or industrial” plantings that look more or less the same, she said. These landscapes typically require large amounts of fertilizing, mowing, and maintenance, she said.
Native plants are those that have evolved in a specific eco-region over a sufficiently long time to develop complex and unique relationships with local fauna, and these unique relationships can be replicated in home gardens, she said. Homeowners who consciously start including a variety of native plants in their yards will begin to see a diversity of birds, insects and pollinators, as these plantings provide shelter, food and nesting sites.
Recognizing that they can play a role in the health of the ecosystem, homeowners should stop cutting back and cleaning up their gardens each fall, so that insects and pollinators can overwinter in grass clumps, stick piles and rock piles, she said.
Homeowners should also try to control exotic invasive plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle and wisteria, she said. “Cancel that gym membership and go out and cut back and pull those invasive plants instead.”
When pruning or deadheading, throw the plant matter directly back into the garden, she said. Not only does it reduce the amount of work required to haul away plant debris, “it’s like compost in situ (on site). Leave the leaves and pile the prunings,” said Davis. “Homeowners can also begin to eliminate lawn space by finding ways to connect garden beds.”
Native “powerhouse plants” that should be included in every home garden are goldenrods, such as rough-stemmed and dwarf goldenrod, and pycnanthemums, including virginianum and tenuifolium, she said. Make sure to add liatris spicata, also known as blazing stars, such as aspera, borealis and punctata.
Add rudbeckia, also known as coneflowers, to the garden, including triloba and laciniata. Remember to include all types of asters, such as laevis, puniceus, oblongifolius, and New England aster, said Davis. These powerhouse plants grow easily in various soil conditions with full sun and are good late-blooming plants that attract bees and butterflies, she said.
For other effective native plantings, Davis recommended starting tall with trees, such as White Oak and Scarlet Oak. Oaks help support more than 500 species of moths and caterpillars, which also help to feed and support bird populations, she said.
Hackberry trees are beautiful with their knobby bark and also provide berries for birds. Hummingbirds like to nest in hackberries, and these trees grow in most soils and conditions, she said. Black gum, sourwood, hophorn beam, service berry, American holly, and Virginia red cedar are other native trees she suggested for the home landscape.
Among shrubs, bottle brush buckeye is a plant that is “alive” with insects, because it’s a dynamic nectar producer, she said. Gray dogwood is a multi-stem, deciduous shrub that is loved by birds for its winter berries.
Smooth alder grows well in wet conditions, so it could be planted near a downspout or in other soggy areas in the yard. Native Virginia roses bloom all summer and produces rose hips, which are “loved” by birds. These roses aren’t rampant or aggressive and are a nice alternative to more common Knock-out roses, she said.
Other shrubs to consider include spice bush, bottonbush, summer sweet, New Jersey tea, Virginia creeper, and native honeysuckles, such as John Clayton, lonicera, and magnifica.
Shade-loving herbaceous plants to add to the landscape include sedges, such as Pennsylvania, mountain and blue wood, which stay evergreen and clump so they serve as great ground covers, she said.
Native geraniums bloom in mid- to late spring and are a good food source for hummingbirds that are returning to the area in the spring, she said. Columbine, May apple, native ferns, blue wood aster, white wood aster, and blue stem are other plants to consider.
For sunny areas, bee balm, bergamot, common milkweed, swamp milkweed for wet conditions, purple coneflower, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, blue mist flower, and cardinal flower are all great additions. Among native grasses, Indian grass, little bluestem, switch grass, and prairie drop seed are good plants for the home garden, she said.
For more information, call 540-937-1798, or go to hillhousenativeplants.com.
— Teri Merrill is a resident of Winchester and a master gardener with Virginia Cooperative Extension.