More Maryland gardeners are turning to their native roots

When Kay McConnell's daughter moved with the rest of her classmates into Friends School's new middle-school building, the kids seemed out of sorts in the unfamiliar space. It was as if they missed the coziness of the cramped quarters that had been their home.

Like the students, the trees that had been planted in the ground around the new structure didn't look happy either. McConnell, a lifelong and self-taught gardener, offered to try to help the plants, at least, feel comfortable in their new space.


That was in 2005. Since then, McConnell has led the transformation of the grounds around the Charles Street school into a haven for native plants, trees and shrubs, which are as happy in their habitat as the kids who play around them during recess.

"It is all about bringing native plants to the school environment," said McConnell, leading a sun-drenched tour of the gardens recently.


Art students paint and draw in the gardens. Photography students take pictures. Science students study the life cycles of the plants and trees. English students find inspiration there for poems and essays. It is a living classroom for the Sustainability Club, whose members tend the vegetable gardens.

"I wanted to give the kids something rich to look at outside the windows," said McConnell, who also advises home gardeners through her company, Garden Therapy.

Gardening has taken hold of the national imagination, and part of this renewed infatuation is the wisdom of gardening with native plants.

Homeowners are learning what nature already knows — that plants thrive in a particular ecosystem for a reason. They are in an intimate dance with climate, soil, pollinators, pests, disease and wildlife, and they thrive because everybody does their part.

Gardening with natives also makes economic sense. Homeowners need less fertilizer, less water, fewer pesticides — and fewer replacement plants, because native plants can resist damage from freezing and drought.

Native plants can seed themselves and replicate quickly, covering the ground and reducing the room for weeds and the need for mulch.Not to mention that beds filled with native plants mean less time at the other end of a lawn mower and fewer carbon emissions.

Not only are the plants happy, so are the bees, birds, butterflies and the wildlife that use them for food and shelter.

Native plantings also evoke a sense of place. What would Maryland be without its black-eyed Susans in August? And the reds, yellows and golds of the trees in autumn?


And because of Maryland's diverse geography — coastal plain, piedmont and mountain zones — there are more than 2,800 species of native and naturalized plants in the region. Native plants of the Eastern United States are more diverse in number and kind than just about anywhere else in the world.

At Friends, McConnell had the help of the Guilford Garden Club, of which she is a member, and the guidance of Ann Lundy, a longtime member of the Maryland Native Plant Society. She had grant money, donations and school funds, plus all the free labor she needed.

"My goal is that every child who graduates from Friends will know how to put a plant in the ground," said McConnell, who has had three children go through the school.

There is the steep downhill garden planted by eighth-graders and the gardens around the upper school's front steps, planted thanks to money raised by the Class of 2008. The picnic glade was created with money collected by the Class of 2012. And a pretty little blue garden was planted with the help of the fourth-graders.

"The kids are up to their elbow in it much of the time," said head of school Matthew Micciche. "And I feel like everyone has a much better baseline to understand, instead of just planting something because it looks nice."

These gardens are about more than native beauty. Friends School sits in the middle of a kind of geographic water slide. Rainwater roars through the campus from the areas around it — Wyndhurst, the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and Homeland — and into Stony Run. It sweeps away the soil and its nutrients, and carries them to the Chesapeake Bay. It floods the parking lots, where it can freeze in winter, canceling classes.


But on this visit, after a gully-washer of a thunderstorm at sunrise, the only evidence is a bit of a trickle out of one of the beds into the parking lot.

"The goal has to be water management," said McConnell. "We are working to trap the water in the gardens, using the plants suited to the slopes and swales and land formations to trap the water, or at least slow it down."

The gardens are functional, but they are also there to inspire the children. "These are the gardeners of our future," said McConnell.

It was at a seminar on the topic conducted by natives expert Rick Darke 12 years ago that McConnell found her passion for natives. "It knocked my socks off. I turned into this natives-crazed person."

And she returned to do the pickup and drop-off at Friends with fresh eyes. She saw the institutional plantings and the piles of mulch as an opportunity. She feels lucky that the school has given her such a free hand.

"We are setting something in motion," she said. "Now we let them go. They will seed themselves and create drifts."


She sweeps her arm toward beds where the purple-green leaves of the Penstemon digitalis "Husker Red" volunteers are everywhere, standing in contrast with the chartreuse green of the early spring foliage around it.

"It is just so beautiful," said McConnell. "Even the colors are suited to the light in our area."

What is a Maryland native plant?

A native plant is a species that originates or occurs naturally in a particular region.


Since humankind has always moved plants, for purposes of a definition, native plants are listed as species that existed in the region when European settlers arrived. While plant ecologists do not include native cultivars in the definition, some in the horticultural community do. (Cultivars are individual plants selected for commercial cultivation of specific traits, though other desirable traits may be bred out.)

A non-native plant now occurring in the wild without human aid, such as Queen Anne's lace, is called naturalized. However, when a naturalized plant threatens humans or environment, it is labeled an invasive plant.

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—Ellen Nibali, University of Maryland Extension, Home and Garden Information Center.


"Native Plants of the Northeast," by Donald Leopold

"The American Woodland Garden," by Rick Darke


"Bringing Nature Home," by Doug Tallamy

"American Plants for American Gardens," by Edith Roberts and Elsa Rehmann

The Maryland Native Plant Society also has many resources listed on its website,, including a list of books and publications, plus plant lists and a calendar of native plant sales.