Winterberry Farm Primitives

This blog is now devoted to gardening with native plants with a focus on those species native to the east coast of the United States. With an MS in Agricultural Science from the University of Delaware and my love of native plants, I hope to help folks see the beauty and necessity of using native plants in your garden instead of exotic plants. Did you know that our native song birds and native insects are disappearing as our local environments continue to change?
For those who come to this page to see my 'Winterberry Farm Primitives' blog can now be found at where I will post new additions to my online antiques shop at and discuss various subjects about primitive antiques.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What ….no grass? Native gardening in suburbia.

Here is an article that I wrote for an organization called the UDBG Friends (The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens Friends) a couple of years ago: It's a bit of information on how to overcome that need to grow that green mass of exotic invasives in your yard.

What ….no grass? Native gardening in suburbia.

Ten years ago, that was a statement that I heard on a daily basis. There I was, backpack sprayer on my back, spraying my front yard with Round-up and answering questions from curious neighbors. My first thought was here I am trying to get rid of this terrible weed, Poa pratensis (Kentucky bluegrass), in my front yard and I have to stop every few minutes to talk to a neighbor. Then I realized that these same neighbors were some of ChemLawn’s best customers. As the spring progressed, my grass died and I began to dig holes for trees and shrubs. At this point I noticed that the neighbors no longer came over to talk to me, they just watched me from their windows.

Living in suburbia can present many challenges, not the least of which is the need for conformity by most of the population. When someone goes outside the norm and ‘does their own thing’ with their landscape or their home, one has to be aware of possible problems which can include county or state codes, maintenance organizations, or neighbors who don’t like what you are doing.

  1. State or county codes: Many states or counties have regulations on what you can do with your landscape and home. Some of these include grass height, ‘weed’ population, permanent structures in the front landscape (fences, walls, etc.), and color (house colors are usually included in this category).
  2. Maintenance organizations: Think of these organizations as mini-state or county regulators. Most maintenance organizations have rules that must be followed and these can be enforced even if there is no state or county regulations.
  3. Neighbors who don’t like what you are doing: I separate these people into two categories: a.) neighbors that are living on your street or area when you begin your garden and b.) those neighbors that move in after you have established your garden. Those neighbors who are there during this process of developing a natural landscape should have their concerns addressed. Don’t get me wrong, if you have done your research and there are no restrictions either from your state, county, or maintenance organization (if your neighborhood even has one) you can do what you want to do in your own yard.

The only thing that you might possibly have to be concerned about with neighbors is to keep the peace. The best way to do this is to sit down with them and explain the problems of an exotic grass inhabiting the area in front your home and what the exorbitant amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides needed to maintain the ‘perfect lawn’ are doing to the environment. Here are some good ideas for ‘discussion groups’ with your recalcitrant neighbors: Remember years ago when you would see (and bring home) box turtles, toads, frogs, green snakes and polliwogs? If you lived near open land or a farm, you might have had a black snake in the basement that would kill rodents for you. Look around you. Where are they? The overuse of fertilizers and pesticides are killing off the local fauna. I wonder what it is doing to you? Ever heard of non-source point pollution?

Those neighbors who have moved into the neighborhood after your garden has been established should just be glad there is at least one yard in the neighborhood that the animals, birds and children can walk through or eat in without getting sick. You don’t have to be as radical as I am, you can keep some of your grass if you must see that expanse of GREEN. Now that I have gotten you excited about educating your neighbors about the environment, let’s take it back down a notch and discuss establishing a native garden in your suburban landscape.

A native landscape can be as simple as growing native plants in with your other plants, or the establishment of a garden that is comprised of plants that are ‘native to the United States’ or (my favorite) the establishment of a garden comprised primarily of plants native to the eastern United States. Native usually refers to plants that were here before the Europeans settled the North American continent. I am not advocating clearing out stands of older exotic conifers and deciduous trees. I would just like to increase use of plants that are from this area of the world and don’t need fertilizers and pesticides to give you a wonderful garden full of fragrances, color and an active wildlife population.

Establishing your garden:

Establishing a native garden takes planning and foresight. You must review your site and decide the best way to develop your garden. Do you want to raze all of the plants and start over? Are there a number of older, established trees and shrubs that can not come out of the ground? Are you comfortable with a completely new way of gardening? These are some of the questions that you need to ask yourself before embarking on a project that can become overwhelming to you. Realize, if done properly, this should be a two to three year project just to establish the garden.

When I began my garden, I chose the razing and starting over option. I was concerned about developing an environment that would be pleasing to the eye while also being a place to sit and watch the birds, animals, and plants instead of always spraying pesticides or fertilizer.

In the first year, plant your trees and shrubs. Develop your tree canopy and understory layer. This is not as fun as buying wildflowers and running amok in the specialty nurseries buying whatever you see that has NATIVE on the label, but you will thank yourself in the long run if you are patient and willing to allow this layer of plants to establish themselves. Start by deciding how to clear the area and prepare it for planting. If you raze with Round-up, all you do is wait about a week and start to dig your holes! Don’t turn over the soil, don’t add organic matter to the soil, and certainly don’t put down any fertilizers! Spend your time between using the Round-up and planting to research the trees and shrubs you want to plant. If using Round-up is objectionable to you then use newspaper or black plastic to smother the grass in the areas that you want to begin your garden. Try to find a mix of trees with good fall color, great flowers, fragrance, wildlife food and deciduous vs. evergreen. Some trees can include oaks, maples, our native fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), amelanchiers, aronias, American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum), American holly (Ilex opaca), Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) to name just a few. Some trees are not suitable for the suburban landscape due to size or habit; these include Sweet Gum (Liquidambar stryraciflua), Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), Boxelder (Acer negundo), and Basswood (Tilia americana). In reality, you can plant any large tree that you find attractive in your yard, but remember, trees do not remain cute little saplings, they can grow up into very, very large plants.

The Round-up has killed your grass and you have removed plants that you do not want in your new landscape. The neighbors, for the most part, are just watching to see what will happen next and you are ready to plant! The best thing about native plants is that, for the most part, they don’t need special environmental conditions to grow well in your yard. You don’t have to cover them with burlap in the winter, stake them to within an inch of their lives, or put anything in the bottom of the hole when you plant them. Once your tree canopy is planted and your understory woody plants are positioned, stand back and just look at what you have accomplished. Drink in the beauty of the sun dappled leaves and the sounds of the birds that are thrilled with the new homes you have just provided for them. As you stand there, look down. What is missing? No, not the herbaceous layer, Leaves! There is no leaf cover for your soil. Shredded hardwood mulch can take to place of your leaf cover for the first few years until your trees are large enough to provide the protection that your herbaceous layer will need to survive the difficult years. By difficult years, I mean those years when there is a drought or other environmental conditions that will challenge your plants to make it through the year. One of the great things about a native garden is way it can conserve natural resources like water. Oh yes… you should not water a native garden after the first year of installation. There is no one standing in the woods with a sprinkler or watering can just because of some wilting top growth. Toughen up your plants; make them survive on their own. The reason they continue to exist in the wild is that they don’t need human intervention to grow and thrive. In fact, most native plants will continue live in their natural habitats IN SPITE OF human intervention.

After the first year when your tree and shrub layer are planted, you should start adding the herbaceaous layer. These first plants should be ones that can stand an environment that is not mature or fully established. Again, do your research, pick plants that are able to deal with a variety of environmental conditions. I would not advise installing a large sweep of very expensive native orchids until you are more experienced and your garden has had time to mature. Some plants that are good starter plants are Polemonium reptans (Jacob’s Ladder), Stylophorum dyphyllum (Celandine poppy), Heuchera americana, Tiarella cordifolia, Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, geraniums, monardas, native grasses, and echinaceas, among others. Remember, even in a woodland, there are open areas with meadow plants. Don’t limit yourself to one type of environmental condition. There are several good books and internet sites (including this blog!) that can get you started. You are only limited by how much of your property you are willing to turn over to native gardening. You might be amazed at how quickly that ‘beautiful’ expanse of grass will shrink. As your grassy areas shrink, your expertise and need to grow those ‘difficult’ plants will increase. Please... do not take plants from the wild, even if the wild area is on your own property. If you are lucky enough to have woodland plants, especially spring ephemerals, on your property, care for them by leaving them alone! These plants have survived where they are without your intervention and will continue to thrive if you protect their rights.

When you develop a native garden, you are also providing food and shelter for insects and animals. Use this opportunity to attract and shelter the native fauna that is running out of places to live. I live in a very large suburban development completely surrounded by houses on all sides. I have red-tailed hawks, blue herons, peregrine falcons (new this year!), monarch butterflies, cedar waxwings, hummingbirds and other fantastic native species that visit my yard throughout the year. I am still amazed that they can find my little haven.

One last note, enjoy yourself! You will get to a point where you will wait for spring with bated breath, not for the warm weather, but for the joy of seeing your lady slipper orchids, trillium, and other native plants come peeping out of the ground.

When you get to this stage, plan trips to local woodlands or mountains to see these same plants in their spectacular beauty on a mountainside or down in a valley beside a stream -while you still can see these beautiful plants in their native habitat. When you realize how lucky we are to have all of this native splendor, look again at your neighbors and try to help them see the beauty that doesn’t need anything but time and patience.

Happy gardening!

I hope you enjoyed my story of how I was able to overcome the need to weed, fertilize, mow, water, weed , fertilize, mow, water....... and learned how to enjoy the birds and other wildlife that now inhabits my little bit of heaven in the midst of suburbia!

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