For years, seduced by the rich peace it evokes, I tried to duplicate the blowzy, rain-soaked lushness of an English cottage garden -- despite the rigorous 90-odd-degree-heat and scorched earth of our Maryland summers. Success varied with the weather, the water restrictions and my energy level. Then, a few years ago, I started to come to terms with the fact that we don't live in the Cotswolds (and that I'll never have a gardener).
By both attrition and design, I began to winnow the cultivars that required coddling and to replace them with native plants. Natives, adapted to our climate over millenniums, thrive with little or no attention.
But not all plants that grow well unattended are natives. Some imports not only thrive but turn rapacious -- Japanese kudzu and purple loosestrife are examples -- when plunked into an ecology different from that of their original home.
"Native plants are those that were naturally occurring at the time of European colonization," explains Ellie Altman, landscape designer and executive director of Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Caroline County, which specializes in Delmarva's native trees and plants.
Altman uses several sources to determine which plants are natives, including the lists of John Bartram (1699-1777), the first American-born botanist, who cataloged the flora along the mid-Atlantic seaboard in the 18th century.
The benefits of natives -- aside from their beauty -- are several. They offer the opportunity to conserve our natural heritage. They're an intrinsic part of the region's ecosystem, so they are beneficially woven into the complex universe of local soil and bugs. As a result, they require little or no pesticides, which means that planting them is environmentally responsible as well as cheaper, and it means lower maintenance.
And they are tough, even surviving in drought -- for example, Boltonia asteroides, with its sprays of tiny daisy-like flowers, and the lovely wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), which is also attractive to pollinators such as bees.
"The native plants in my garden survived [two consecutive years of] drought relatively well," says Chestertown resident Mary Wood.
Three years ago, Wood recruited Altman to design a garden at her new home on a corner lot in town. "I wanted to make a garden I could control," Wood explains. "Besides, I believe in having things that are native to the area."
Although they decided to retain some cultivated favorites that were already in place -- peonies and hydrangeas in particular -- most of the plantings are native perennials, trees and shrubs.
Shadbush -- so named because the satiny white blossoms open when the shad are running -- and dogwood were planted for early spring bloom. Additionally, dogwood produces bright red berries that the birds enjoy and in autumn is covered with gorgeous orangy-red foliage. Coneflower (Echinacea), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), columbine (Aquilegia) and goldenrod, (Solidago 'Fireworks') are among the flowering native perennials. Cedar, a habitat for mourning doves and other birds and one of the few evergreens native to the Eastern Shore, helps fill out the garden's "bones," the structure visible during its dormancy. The result is a garden that has interest -- whether bloom, berries or foliage -- year round.
This judicious mix of native and cultivated plants is the same design principle used in the Helen Avalynne Tawes Garden in Annapolis. The five-acre Tawes garden, situated on what was once a cinder lot behind the Department of Natural Resources, highlights natives, but also includes cultivated plants.
"In general, cultivated plants were developed for large bloom, so they are showier than natives," says Tawes Garden horticulturist Jay Myers. "We have three native areas -- a Western Maryland forest, a stream-side environment and an Eastern Shore peninsula -- and have linked them with cultivated areas. It works well together. We're a good example of how some of the native material could be used in landscapes at home."
With the increased interest in conservation, native plants are now propagated for retail sale and some may be available at your local nursery. Adkins Arboretum has a native plant sale in the spring and fall. (The spring sale is May 13 this year.) The arboretum is also building a greenhouse for propagating natives.
Natives, under siege from increased development, are often threatened in the wild, so buy propagated material rather than digging your own.
Where to get plants, lists
Valley View Farms 11035 York Road Cockeysville, Md. 21030 410-527-0700
Lower Marlboro Nursery P.O. Box 1013 Dunkirk, Md. 20754 301-812-0808
Adkins Arboretum 12610 Eveland Road P.O. Box 100 Ridgely, Md. 21660 410-634-2847
Maryland Native Plant Society P.O. Box 4877 Silver Spring, Md. 20914 www.geocities.com/Rain- Forest/Vines/2996 Annual membership $25/year, $15 for students (The society has lists of native plants.)
Introducing your neighbors...
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana)
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
False indigo (Baptisia australis)
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Black snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Rose mallow (Hibiscus)
Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor)
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans)
Tall coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)