Should you aim to have only native plants in your Chesapeake garden? The experts say no! Many of us have gardens planted in styles popular years ago or that are tried and true for landscapers. It’s quite common for a garden in our region to have one or two native trees or shrubs and a whole host of ornamental plants like Asian azaleas (rhododendron), yews (taxus), cherry laurel (prunus laurocerasus) hollies (ilex crenata) and boxwoods (buxus sempervirens). Since these plants typically don’t provide beneficial habitat beyond a safe place for a bird to build a nest, it’s really helpful for our gardens and ecosystem to add natives.
After you remove invasives like ivy and burning bush, experts say the most effective way to start is to begin “layering in” native plants. For an incredibly beautifully photographed and readily accessible explanation of this, please check out “The Living Landscape” by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. A garden becomes more ecologically functional and alive, the more layers it has; meaning we need native low growing ground covers, perennials, shrubs, understory trees and canopy trees. Here are five plants to get layering underway!
Let’s start low. A great substitute for ivy and an all around easy plant is seersucker sedge (carex plantaginea). It’s semi-evergreen in the watershed so will stay mostly green year round. It grows in shade or part shade and looks good with no maintenance. There is no need to cut this back at anytime.
For the perennial layer, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) is an all around sound choice. Mountain mint emerges in April, blooms in summer and leaves awesome sturdy stalks all winter long as shown. The foliage is neat and holds up well throughout the year. There is no need to cut it back but you can remove dead stalks in spring if you desire. Also a phenomenal source of nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies.
Third, a shrub I don’t think anyone would regret planting is winterberry (ilex verticillata). Winterberry greens up in April, blooms with small white flowers in June and really shines in fall after it drops it’s leaves and bright red berries cluster along branches. Those berries are critical food for birds during the winter months. Unless a neighbor has a male winterberry nearby, you need both a female and male plant to ensure fruiting. Both are commonly available. These also need no maintenance once established.
Fourth, add an understory tree — a tree that typically is smaller and naturally grows beneath the canopy of larger trees like oaks and tulip poplars. A great choice is the redbud (cercis canadensis). You can find redbuds available from small saplings to 15 foot high trees. They are commonly available, low maintenance and stunning.
Fifth, if you have the space, the number one tree we can plant to add habitat and ecological function, per Doug Tallamy, is a native oak like the white oak (Quercis alba). No room for an oak, or prefer an evergreen? How about an Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginania)?
Add sedge, mountain mint, winterberries, redbud, and a canopy tree and native layering will be well underway in your garden!
For more information:
How to remove ivy from a tree.
How to remove ivy from the ground from Horticultural magazine. Another tip – the best time to do this is immediately after a soaking rain.
Substitutions for ivy, Japanese pachysandra and vinca.
About mountain mint from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
About redbud from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
About native white oak from the Virginia Master Gardeners.