Diane sees beauty in native habitat

I realized that I didn’t have to do everything at once. This gave me time to rethink beauty. I shed my pre-formed ideas about what things should look like and came to see the beauty in the natural forms of native plants.

For example, a serviceberry doesn’t have to be a cultivar that fits my idea of a tree, with a trunk and crown. The native straight species that grows as a large shrub is beautiful.

— Diane, Park Ave., Takoma Park MD

Finding the Right Approach

The pandemic jump-started Diane’s plans to get rid of the grass in front of her house. She had never liked the look of grass, especially because hers was so weedy. However, her work schedule, and especially all the required travel, took up too much time.

Then the pandemic hit the pause button on travel. Working from home gave Diane the flexibility to integrate small garden tasks into her daily schedule.

First though, came the daunting task of figuring out what to plant. Diane knew she wanted Maryland native plants in order to provide habitat and protect the urban natural ecosystem. But, she had to find native plants that would thrive in full sun and dry soil, while most of the nearby examples of nativescaped yards were for some degree of shade.

Eventually Diane realized, “I don’t have to boil the ocean. I can do this a little at a time.” Her approach would be to dig out the grass in a small area when she had something to put in. She would start with some foundational shrubs to give a structure to the garden, and later fill in between them with other natives.

Grass Removal
In the first two years, Diane removed the grass with a shovel as she planted.

Later she learned from NatureForward about killing the grass by covering it with cardboard held down by bricks for about six weeks. It’s then possible to remove the cardboard and plant directly in the ground without removing the dead grass (or removing only a few last survivors).

This method saves labor and preserves the soil structure and texture. That, plus all the dead grass feeding the soil microorganisms, creates a healthy underground ecosystem to feed the plants.

A final cover of an organic mulch (for example, City of Takoma Park mulch), retains soil moisture, moderates soil temperature through summer and winter, and provides more food for the soil microfauna to turn into plant nutrients.

Sources of Native Plants
Initially, Diane got her plants from neighbors and various nurseries, including Chesapeake Natives (see Where to Buy Native Plants).

Then in 2023, she virtually doubled the number of native plant species in her garden through participation in the Sligo Garden Program, which provided practical advice and sample planting plans. Best of all, Diane could purchase a seven-species assortment of 50 plugs for only $25.

Applying the Approach

Front yard

In 2021, Diane dug up the grass in the south corner and planted witch hazel and Virigina sweetspire as foundational shrubs. She added foxglove beardtongue as a perennial accent.

In 2023, the Sligo Garden Program provided Diane with the plugs to plant mountain mint, little bluestem, bee balm (bergamot), butterfly weed, blue-eyed grass, blue-stemmed goldenrod, and roundleaf ragwort.

Foreground: Seven species of plugs planted in 2023.
Background: Plantings from 2021-22.
Close-up of foxglove and witch hazel planted 2021-22

Right of Way (ROW) Strip

As of May 2023, Diane has planted two red twig dogwoods, foxglove beardtongue, a second type of mountain mint, and Gro-low sumac in the ROW.

The front yard garden is visible in the background of the photo.

Next Steps and Lessons Learned

Diane plans to continue filling in the ROW with native plants. Her next big project, though, will be to apply for 50 plugs of shade plants from the Sligo Garden Program and plant them in her backyard.

Her three big lessons learned:
1. Don’t feel obliged to do everything at once. Work incrementally and see the beauty in each plant.
2. Laying down cardboard to kill grass is much easier than digging it up. Diane has tried both and prefers the cardboard method described above. (Editors’ note: Becca reports the same experience in her post.)
3. Connect with other native plant folks. (Join FONTT!) It helps to be part of a community that shares plants, advice, and support.

Native Plant List

Blue-eyed grass: Sisyrinchium angustifolium 
Blue-stemmed goldenrod: Solidago caesia
Butterfly weed: Asclepias tuberosa
Foxglove beardtongue: Penstemon digitalis Fragrant Sumac: Rhus aromatica
Little bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparium
Mountain mint: Pycnanthemum muticum
Mountain mint: Pycnanthemum tenuifolium
Red twig dogwood: Cornus sericea
Roundleaf ragwort: Packera obovata
Gro-Low Sumac: Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’
Virginia sweetspire: Clethra alnifolia
Wild bergamot (beebalm): Monarda fistulosa
Witch hazel: Hamamelis virginiana