Gardens Can Help the Chesapeake Bay and Wildlife

Natural Landscaping: Designing With Native Plant Communities
Return of the natives
Gardens help Bay, wildlife
Bay Naturalist / By Kathy Reshetiloff - Bay Journal

Today, few of us have the time or resources needed to maintain a formal landscape. As a result, people are exploring alternatives to traditional landscapes and are using a variety of beneficial plants to create a more natural yard. In the Chesapeake Bay region, this style is called BayScaping because of the many ecological benefits these landscapes provide for the Bay and its wildlife.

Beneficial plants begin with native, or indigenous species, plants that were present when the first Europeans arrived in the New World. Many horticultural varieties and imported plants are also deemed beneficial if they have few maintenance requirements and are not invasive.

Beneficial plants are well-adapted to local climate and soil types and thus require minimal maintenance, such as trimming, watering and fertilizer or pesticide applications. Because they require less fertilizer and pesticides, the amount of these pollutants that runs off yards each time it rains is decreased. Therefore, by planting beneficial plants at home, we contribute to the restoration of local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

Beneficial plants also improve wildlife habitat. Native, beneficial plants are especially valuable in habitats, as local birds, mammals and other wildlife depend upon them for fruits and seeds.

If you want to create productive wildlife habitats, it is important to provide a variety of food and cover (hiding and roosting places) throughout the year. A mix of evergreen and deciduous (plants that lose their leaves each winter) trees and shrubs, as well as perennial herbaceous plants will attract wildlife and keep your yard looking alive year-round. These plant communities also provide breeding and nesting sites for wildlife. This is especially important in the Bay watershed, where each day natural areas are destroyed to make room for more people.

Before deciding on the types of plants for your landscape, survey the site for the type of soil (sand, loam or clay), the amount of sunlight received during the day and the general moisture content of the soil (flooded, wet moist, dry). Knowing this information will help you choose the plants best suited for these conditions.

Trees not only provide shade for you, but food and homes for wildlife. Red maple (Acer rubrum), white oak (Quercus alba), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), shadbush (Amelanchier arborea or canadensis), and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are just a few species of the native trees you might want to plant. If you like evergreens, add an American holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) or Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).

You can create a miniature woodland garden by surrounding trees with lower-growing shrubs, shade-loving plants or native ground covers to add wildlife value and reduce maintenance time and costs. Ferns are an excellent yet underused native ground cover. Ferns spread quickly, provide a lush, soft look and help shade out weeds.

Create a cluster of plants of various types and heights like those found in a forest. Mow around the perimeter of the entire cluster for a tidy border that is easy to maintain.

If you’re interested in shrubs, there are many native choices that provide colorful flowers and valuable fruits for wildlife.

In moist to wet areas, try smooth alder (Alnus serrulata), winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), or highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum); or for evergreens, wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera, a “cousin” of the bayberry) or inkberry holly (Ilex glabra).

For moist to well-drained areas, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), or spicebush (Lindera benzoin) all do equally well in shade or full sun.

For drier areas, try planting a shining sumac (Rhus copallinum). Flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) or pink azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) offer native alternatives to the more commonly used ornamental azaleas.

There are many smaller herbaceous plants that may fit into your landscape. New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), and New York ironweed (Veronia noveboracensis) thrive in wet to moist soils.

Meadow plants are excellent for attracting butterflies, seed- and insect-eating birds, hummingbirds and other wildlife.

In drier soils of the eastern United States, natural meadows consist mostly of warm season bunch grasses (instead of turf grasses) with a mix of wildflowers scattered throughout. Try converting a small section of lawn into a meadow habitat that only has to be mowed once a year! Native warm season grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) do well and provide fall color and wildlife habitat if left standing throughout the winter. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), blazing star (Liatris spicata) and bee balm (Monarda didyma) bring vibrant color to any meadow or flower bed.

Avoid using exotic plants known to be invasive. Exotic, invasive plants grow and reproduce rapidly. Because they have no natural controls, invasive exotic plants spread rapidly, displacing natural vegetation. These plants often form dense stands that are hard to control and have little or no wildlife value.

Some common invasive plants that you should avoid include tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), privet (Ligustrum obtusifolium), English ivy (Hedera helix), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), bamboo (Phylostachys aubea), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria or virgatum and all cultivars), and common reed (Phragmites australis). If you already have invasive plants on your property, consult a plant expert about how to remove them from your site.

To begin, do not try to naturalize your landscape all at once. Make a long-term plan to introduce beneficial species into your landscape, one section at a time. For example, when a plant is lost to storms or disease, consider replacing it with a native or beneficial plant.

Buy nursery-grown or nursery-propagated stock only. Do not collect native plants from the wild. Ecologists are concerned about declining populations of these native varieties. Ask the nursery manager to explain the origins of your plant selections.

Most garden centers and nurseries offer a broad range of beneficial plants for sale. When you talk to your local plant dealer, explain that you want plants that provide wildlife habitat, need less fertilizers and pesticides and require less water and overall maintenance.

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Bay Journal September 1996

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