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Garden Q&A: Native understory plants and starting a vegetable garden

White avens is a good native, understory plant. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun
White avens is a good native, understory plant. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun(Ellen Nibali / HANDOUT)

I am trying to grow a natural woods to help wildlife, climate and humanity. I already have mature native trees, thank goodness. I tried planting some ground level native plants, but the deer ate them. Foreign invasive plants plant themselves, but they don’t belong here and I pull them out. Some plants appear and I’m not sure whether to pull or not. So what should be growing here that deer won’t eat? How do I get an understory in my woods?

Several “ground cover” natives will sow themselves into your woods that deer leave alone. The Maryland Biodiversity website is a good place to see photos of them in many stages of growth. The white avens (Geum canadense), pictured, for example, looks very different through the year. Another workhorse is Tovara virginica, commonly called jumpseed or Virginia knotweed. Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense) may show up. Woodland ferns such as hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and Christmas fern do well.

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Vines, such as Virginia creeper and poison ivy, are work horses. Keep paths wide so that you don’t brush against poison ivy — or anything else for tick safety. (A balanced native plant habitat reduces ticks.) If a new plant species appears which you can’t identify, we’d be glad to help.

Remember, the happier the plant, the better they produce self-defense chemicals against deer. Let plants grow where they are happiest, not necessarily where we might “arrange” them.

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Times being what they are, my family has decided to plant a “Victory Garden”! We’ve never done this before. How does one grow vegetables? Is it possible without a lot of trips and spending on stuff? Do I have to buy plants or can I use seeds (cheaper)?

Not too late and doesn’t have to be expensive. On the Home and Garden Information Center website, click on Topics > Vegetables and you’ll discover a goldmine of information, including how to get started. Under “When to Plant Vegetables,” a calendar shows what seeds can be planted directly into the soil and when. Dark blue bars for “cool season” (spring) veggies and orange bars for “warm season” summer veggies. Order seeds online if you want.

Do start preparing your soil. Do a soil test of the plot. (The University of Delaware testing lab is still operating as of this writing.) It may recommend adding lime and/or fertilizer. Lime must be purchased, but many gardeners improve soil and fertilize organically using compost they make from kitchen scraps, leaves and yard trimmings. Kill grass or weeds before planting by manually removing or smothering with layers of newspaper, cardboard, weed barrier or plastic. (Plastic will need to be removed before planting.) The website search box can be used to find more topics, such as soil testing, compost or mulch. We’ll be glad to help with questions as they come up.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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