Native gardens take root

Plants: A program called BayScapes is encouraging homeowners to grow plants native to Maryland to help protect the Chesapeake Bay.

April 16, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Last summer's drought scorched yards and wilted gardens, but Saralynn T. Clark took it all in stride.

"I didn't lose one plant," she said.

Her secret?

Three years ago, Clark tore up much of her 1.5-acre yard in Woodbrook and replaced grass and a bank of English ivy with hundreds of plants native to Maryland.

This spring, she looks out her back window on a yard blooming with woodland phlox, columbine, Virginia bluebells and blood root.

The Home Builders Association of Maryland, Baltimore County officials and environmental groups such as the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay are encouraging homeowners to follow Clark's example and select native plants when they make their visits to area nurseries this spring.

Through a program called BayScapes, they are giving buyers of new homes tips on selecting their first shrubs and flowers and teaching owners of older homes how to exchange their grass lawns for plants that require less water and less upkeep while attracting birds, butterflies and animals.

And Clark has another reason to go native: "It's very nice to look out and see it."

Selecting native plants also helps reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, because native species usually don't need herbicides and pesticides to stay healthy, said Frances Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

"You can make a difference, beginning right in your own back yard," she said. "You have to change some of our ideas of what constitutes a perfect yard."

The program wants homeowners to discard the idea that a spread of manicured grass is the ideal yard and look instead at Maryland's woods and meadows.

It's an idea that is catching on.

While landscaping with native plants has been around for some time, recently the interest has increased, said Sharon Cohen, a Baltimore County landscape designer who specializes in native plants. "Not only are people doing something good for the environment. They are enjoying their gardens. People are connecting to their surroundings," she said.

Using native plants makes sense for a lot of reasons, Cohen said.

"We've had so many droughts. Native plants can take the extreme," she said.

Last fall, supporters began an effort to get the word out.

The Home Builders Association of Maryland is helping distribute BayScapes literature to new-home buyers in the city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties. Builders are sending letters to homebuyers asking them to "see your new yard as an important piece of the natural environment."

"You're going to put shrubbery around a house. Why not do it in a manner that is win-win?" said Jay Weiss, president of the association, which plans to use BayScape techniques in a landscape project at its office in Woodlawn this spring.

Literature is available from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center, and from Baltimore County libraries and the county's Web page.

BayScapes recommends mixing trees, shrubs and groundcovers in a way that mimics the natural environment. Stone walls can give shelter to small animals. Evergreens can act as a windbreak. Water gardens can provide water to birds and animals.

Even a small bed of native plants in the back yard can restore biological diversity to an area, Cohen noted. "I think it is an important step. Our back yard is where we touch the earth," she said.

Richard C. Pais, a wildlife biologist who advises developers and retirement communities on how to landscape their properties, said even homeowners who don't have a green thumb can succeed.

He said the first step is to decide the objective: Does the homeowner want to attract birds and butterflies? Does the homeowner want color? How will the space be used?

Homeowners shouldn't worry about making a mistake. Plants can be dug up and moved. "No one is going to grade you," Pais said.

He recommends homeowners start with a small plot of ground and a limited number of plants. Although garden catalogs and nurseries can offer an overwhelming variety, Pais says, most homeowners will be happy with 20 to 30 plants.

He encourages them to patronize native plant sales. Larger nurseries in the area have started to carry and label native plants.

"You need not get overwhelmed," he said. "This isn't work. This is fun."

It also can be profitable. Pais, who recently sold his home in Mount Airy, said a few thousand dollars' worth of landscaping added about $10,000 to the value of his home.

While protecting the Chesapeake Bay is one of the goals of BayScapes, Pais said, it is important to consider the human needs of gardening.

"What development does is change the landscape," he says. "If you view it as destructive, then what motivation is there to change it?"

Pais believes that development of subdivisions and office parks can bring opportunity to create gardens that are beneficial to the environment and people who live near them. "I believe you manage wildlife for people," he said.

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