Meg Hosmer has dedicated more time to gardening since she retired and moved to Annapolis. Although her house on Murray Avenue doesn’t sit on the water, she learned that nearby storm drains, streams and rivers all empty into the Chesapeake Bay. So Hosmer set out to learn more gardening with the environment in mind.
As interest in sustainable landscaping is growing in Anne Arundel, a largely suburban county, homeowners are learning that individual decisions can have a significant impact on the local environment.
“Everyone who lives near the bay, I think, wants to do something to improve the health of the bay,” Hosmer said. “I think people don’t realize that there are lots of little things that they can do that really do help.”
The Anne Arundel County branch of Bay-Wise, created in 2000, promotes planting native flowers, shrubs and trees and provides techniques for collecting rainwater so it doesn’t run off roofs or driveways — collecting dirt, oil and other debris along the way — and into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.
Here are some first steps homeowners in the county can make to create homes for local insects, birds and animals, while protecting the Chesapeake Bay from pollutants, according to experts.
A home for the hummingbirds
Sprawling manicured lawns are gradually being transformed into wildflower gardens with roots that sink deep into the ground, capturing rainwater and preventing erosion. Traditional, English green lawns have short roots that don’t capture as much rainwater.
Jim MacNicholl, chairperson of the Anne Arundel County Bay-Wise team and resident, lives in a house at the bottom of what used to be a grassy slope. MacNicholl transformed his lawn into a three-tiered stone and gravel patio profuse with native plants that slow runoff.
The natural backyard garden is lush with striking vegetation: red-fringed cardinal flowers, sunny goldenrod and puffs of purple ironweed that join a host of shrubs and long grasses that monarch butterflies and hummingbirds call home.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, MacNicholl would visit the yards of county residents, pointing out areas where homeowners could plant a native perennial in one spot or install an easily managed rainwater barrel in another.
“We recommend that you decide how much turf or lawn you really need for your family … and how they want to use their yard because we find lots of people spend hours mowing the lawn, spending lots of money on watering the lawn and fertilizing the lawn, and it isn’t utilized,” MacNicholl said.
He often suggests that homeowners allow part of their lawns to go back to nature.
Native plants, like those growing in MacNicholl’s tiered garden, act as groundcover and prevent stormwater runoff. Groundcover like native Rhus aromatica, known as Gro-Low Sumac, keeps water on the property, absorbing it into the ground, rather than allowing it to run off grass, into the street and down a neighboring storm drain. The more area covered with vegetation the better, MacNicholl said.
Homeowners can also prevent rainwater from washing into bay tributaries by collecting it in a large rain barrel at the end of a downspout.
Rain barrels are considered a Bay-Wise “Best Management Practice” because they catch debris and sediment that come from the roof. Rain collected in the barrel slowly drips out through a spout. Barrels can be purchased at box stores and need to be cleaned once a year.
Rain barrels are too big for Hosmer, the Annapolis resident, who has a smaller yard inches away from her neighbors’. Hosmer wrapped her downspout around the side of her house and directed it into the wildflower plot humming with bees and butterflies outside her front door. Water that falls on her roof then washes into the flowerbeds rather than the bay.
Know your native plants
Where and what kind of native plants to add to a landscape depends on where you live. Some plants will thrive in sun-drenched sandy soil close to the bay, while others flourish in wet, mossy areas farther inland, according to Abbi Huntzinger, a restoration program manager for Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Environmental scientists and ecology organizations, such as the Annapolis nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, promote the use of native plants and trees in restoration projects. Groupings of wildflowers and patches of native plants are exceptionally beneficial since the natural species has adapted to local soil and temperature over time.
The resilient species grow abundant without much need for watering, fertilizer and maintenance. These plants are also natural habitats for bugs and the birds that eat them, experts say.
Hosmer’s back garden is teeming with dogwood and redbud trees, blueberry bushes and winterberry shrubs that attract flocks of robins that feed on the red fruit in colder months.
“People think native plants are ugly. I think people think of native plants, they think of driving down the highway and there’s all these weeds,” Hosmer said. “They don’t have to look like weeds.”
For instance, milkweed, a plant that sometimes towers at 5 feet tall and blooms tiny, fuchsia flowers, is not only a beautiful accessory to a garden, but is the host plant for monarch butterflies. Monarchs are attracted to milkweeds and lay their legs on the underside of its leaves. Hatched caterpillars then munch on the plant, Hosmer said.
Natural gardens don’t require much mulching or maintenance once they’re established. And the transition doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing deal, Hosmer said. Homeowners can begin the process by planting one native shrub or perennial and adding more over time.
“If enough people do it, then the patches of habitat can be linked together in a quilt or some type of pattern,” Hosmer said.“We’re trying to encourage the individual homeowner that what they’re doing does have an impact. And you can see the impact. You can sit here and look out at that bush and look at all the bees on it.”
Hosmer’s yard is an example for others. Her garden has been certified Bay-Wise friendly as indicated by a sign.
Solution to Chesapeake Bay troubles
The closer you live to the Chesapeake Bay the easier it is for pollutants to wash into streams and rivers and into the bay after a rainstorm. Large-scale projects, like planting trees along streams near farmland, catch debris before it enters the water and remove nitrogen and phosphorus, said Rob Schnabel, a watershed restoration scientist for Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
One major problem that has seen some improvement over the past year is nutrient pollution.
“The bay is being overfed with nutrients, and these nutrients cause large algae blooms that get eaten by bacteria and rob the water of oxygen,” Schnabel said. Fish species need dissolved oxygen and will die without it.
It’s the mission of Bay-Wise members to help residents control stormwater runoff, offer guidance when planting native plants that benefit wildlife and provide alternatives to fertilizer and pesticides, such as composting with leftover kitchen scraps.
The volunteer organization has 40 Anne Arundel County members trained by University of Maryland Extension. While yard visits have been suspended in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the team visited 900 properties, 78 yards and presented educational material to 535 residents in 2019.
There are 35 public spaces in Anne Arundel county that are certified as Bay-Wise friendly.
Where To Get Native Plants
There are several resources for where to buy native plants, now commonly sold at nurseries as the demand for ecofriendly gardening expands, and what flowers, shrubs, and trees are best for the location you live, including: