On a 75-acre farm near Union Bridge, Clear Ridge Nursery is growing 60,000 plants, all "bay-friendly" and ready for use in conservation and forest restoration projects.
The owners of the wholesale business have a lifelong respect for the state's forested lands, and for the benefits that residents and wildlife derive from native trees.
"Forests are a community of plants, woody trees and shrubs," said Joe Barley, who began the nursery last year with his wife, Sharon. "We are growing the more dominant components in the community."
The farm is the best advertisement for the nursery business. Dogwoods, oaks and brilliantly colored wildflowers line the long entrance to the property off Clear Ridge Road.
"All planted as seedlings," said Mr. Barley, a 41-year-old forester for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The nursery sells about 40 varieties of native trees and shrubs wholesale to landscape contractors, many of whom are working on federal and state mitigation -- reforestation -- projects.
"We specialize in growing native plants for conservation and reforestation," Mr. Barley said. "We provide plants with a well-developed root system that can survive on their own, and often direct our efforts to forest and wetland conservation projects."
Plants that are indigenous to the area have a better ability to survive over time, he said.
"It is just natural to stick with natives," he said. "We have to try to imitate the native forest we have had for several hundred years and protect the genetic base of indigenous plants."
Neil Ridgely, the former forest conservationist for Carroll County who now is general manager at Clear Ridge, said introducing a tree that is not native to the area can have long-range effects.
"The Norway maple was introduced years ago," he said. "Now, it suppresses other trees and monopolizes the forest. Wildlife depends on a diverse plant base for its food supply."
Mr. Barley has dreamed for years of owning a nursery.
"It has taken me this long to understand enough of the business to put the puzzle together," he said. "We had to learn how to grow well and provide a successful product."
The Barleys had a nursery business in mind when they bought the property 10 years ago, but it took them several years to restore the home and outbuildings. Early in the harsh winter of 1994, they turned their efforts to building the nursery.
"We literally had to push snow and ice away last year so we could plant in March," said Mrs. Barley, a teacher at North Carroll High School.
Since that first planting, the Barleys have nearly tripled their stock and have had to hire Mr. Ridgely to manage the nursery.
"We have to have someone here full time to run the daily operation," Mr. Barley said.
Clear Ridge grows several varieties of oak trees, the dominant family of plant in the local forest community.
"We have a lot of oak varieties to meet several different conditions, from dry to wetlands," Mr. Barley said.
With a trowel, he gently dug up a chestnut oak and showed its acorn attached at the roots.
"Our goal is to get a high-quality root system in the first year," Mr. Barley said. "It's a lot like the foundation of a building; without a good foundation, you aren't going to have a house for long."
About 4,000 green ash trees are sprouting at Clear Ridge. In less than three months, many of the ash seedlings have doubled in size. By the end of the season, most will be 4 feet tall and ready for sale.
"They transplant more readily, because they are used to growing in the soil types we have in Maryland," Mr. Barley said.
He dug out an ash to see how well its root system was growing.
"The ash is a hardy and fast grower, and popular for mitigation projects," Mr. Ridgely said. "You see this tree all the time along the outside of forests."
The trees start as seedlings and grow individually in heart-shaped cells. When the root systems and plant tops are established, the trees are moved to 1- or 2-gallon containers for sale.
"Our goal is to have most plants buyer-ready in one growing season," Mr. Barley said.
The business will add an automated irrigation system, but all planting is done by hand. Ms. Barley points to rows and rows of holly plants -- "all planted on our hands and knees for hours at a time. You are sore for days afterward."
The Barleys' three children frequently are invited to weeding parties. "Of course, there is no saying 'no' to the invitation," Ms. Barley said.
Throughout the beds are sticky yellow flags that capture insects. The Barleys check the flags constantly for evidence of potentially harmful insects. Unless they perceive a threat to the nursery, they don't spray pesticides.
"We don't just spray routinely," Mr. Ridgely said. "That is not good for people or the environment. What we do is watch and stay on top of any pest problem."