As we move into the cooler months of summer and begin thinking that winter is somewhere in the not-too-distant future, we can find excitement in that September and October are ideal times for gardening and planting.
I admit that after a long winter, I can’t wait to go outdoors to plant and groom my gardens. On the other hand, as autumn rolls around, I often lack the mental energy and motivation to plan ahead and do much needed work there.
Autumn is the best time to plant many native perennials, shrubs and trees. Plants aren’t immediately subjected to scorching sun and drier soils after a few weeks, but instead have time to focus on growing the roots that will be needed to sustain them when the warmer days of spring come and they are hit with summer’s blistering heat.
This fall, there is another reason to kick-start your gardening: an abundance of motivation and resources to help. Yes, it’s true, planting more plants — specifically native plants — is continuing to gain popularity and recognition as an important step to take in environmental and Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration.
The area’s native plants have evolved over thousands of years to thrive in harmony with other plants and animals, as well as the weather, soils and geology of our region. This means they are adapted to handle our cold winters, dry summers, vicious herbivores and sandy soils — whatever the case may be without as much persistent care and coddling. Alternatively, many showy garden plants from Europe or Asia require constant watering, pesticides and fertilizer to keep vibrant. Native plants offer excellent habitat and food resources for other members of the ecological community, including our crucial pollinators, birds and mammals.
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is especially excited this fall to bring an updated online resource for native plants to the Chesapeake Bay region: the Native Plant Center (nativeplantcenter.net). This website is a catalog of the native plants that are often available at nurseries and used in gardens, everything from perennials and shrubs to vines and trees. The original website was launched in 2010 with data based on the popular Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping produced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office.
The Alliance has brought this resource alive on the web with updates and new tools. Users are able to find plants faster and easier by searching for sunlight; wet or dry conditions; flower color; soil texture; and more.
In addition to the improved searches, the site boasts an attractive user-friendly design and social interaction tools like a plant rating system and opportunity for adding comments. These comments and ratings allow users to share how well certain plants are doing for them, such as whether they grow well in shade or spread quickly. This real-world experience will make planting decisions easier.
Another resource we are excited about is the recently released documentary film, Hometown Habitat. Directed by Catherine Zimmerman and narrated by Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, and author of Bringing Nature Home, the film takes the audience on a journey to incorporate nature into our yards and communities.
The popular notion that we are here and nature is somewhere else is disputed in the film, arguing instead that humans and nature can co-exist with mutual benefits. We all have the power to support habitat for wildlife and bring natural beauty to our part of Earth. The film covers multiple “habitat heroes” throughout the United States, including many projects in the Chesapeake region.
It is also encouraging to see the efforts that state agencies and businesses are taking alongside nonprofits like the Alliance. For instance, the state of Maryland has recently issued a list of banned and/or restricted plants for sale. (See “As foreign plants spread, you can’t see the forest for the weeds,” page 16.)
Starting next year, the sale or importation of any of three Tier I plants: fig buttercup, shining cranesbill, or yellow flag iris, will be prohibited. In addition, starting this summer, five invasive ornamental plants: burning bush, border privet, Chinese wisteria, Japanese wisteria and an Asian wisteria hybrid, can only be sold if they carry a cautionary sign about their invasive nature. The Maryland Department of Agriculture plans to gradually regulate the sale of more invasive plants like these.
It is not surprising that many people are divided in their opinions about the appropriateness and effectiveness of these new rules. Regardless, this is an important step intended to have a positive influence on the nursery industry as well as over time reduce or eliminate the market for invasive, exotic plants.
There is a debate about whether retailers aren’t selling more natives because the public isn’t asking for them, or because nurseries aren’t stocking and marketing them. To change this cycle, we hope that the increased interest and availability of information on native choices will help nurseries to better promote natives and their performance to consumers. There will always be many alternatives to native species but we clearly should be offering more native choices to consumers and eliminating those that invade our forests and meadows.
In addition to preventing the sale of some highly invasive plants, promoting the species that yield the greatest benefits and giving people more native choices, it’s important to make sure these species are planted and maintained correctly. The Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council has just launched its Chesapeake Bay Landscaping Professional Certification program. This certification is aimed at creating a network of trained professionals who can design, install and maintain stormwater best management practices, including native plant conservation landscapes and rain gardens. A pilot program is scheduled this fall and will be ramped up in spring 2017. Soon there will be an online list of certified native landscape professionals.
Native plants are often overlooked. Many people are unclear why native plants are important or are not willing to move beyond solely using turf around their home or business. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is excited to be working with our partners to advance native plants instead.
This fall, I challenge you to visit nativeplantcenter.net, get your shovel and create a healthy native plant community near your home or neighborhood. The birds, bees, butterflies and Chesapeake ecosystem will thank you.
≈ To learn about the Hometown Habitat film and watch the trailer, visit hometownhabitat.com.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.