Native Bliss


We’ve always called a lower area of our property “The Meadow,” except it wasn’t, really. Roughly 400 feet by 70 feet, it was heavily shaded by a line of closely spaced white pines. (Photo 1, above: 1998). Some of them have fallen over the 20+ years we’ve lived here; some  we removed. The space had once been landscaped long before we moved in, but had become a mish-mash of of invasive and cultivatedplants. My focus was elsewhere on my one-acre property, so I always thought I would leave this area for the next owner to tackle. It was messy, but at least it was peaceful and private. 

In June 2019, a neighbor put in a driveway along the entire 400-foot boundary, where there had been only tallshrubs and a waterway. What had been a private space for me and my dogs is now exposed to the cars and service vehicles passing by only eight feet from our chain-link fence. (Photo 2, below: After shrubbery removed by neighbor, before driveway installed). (Photos 3 and 4: After driveway installed, before invasive plants cleared).

How to mend a broken space? Put in plants, of course. Rather than a traditional landscaped look, or a row of evergreen shrubs, my choice of plants reflected my 10-year journey into habitat gardening and eco-landscaping. I decided to install a native hedgerow of fruits, nuts, and flowering trees and shrubs along the entire boundary, and start adding native plants to the remainder of this area. But what natives? To figure that out, Idid a deep dive into the ecology and native plants of Roanoke, Virginia. AlthoughI wasn’t trying to restore an area into a natural plant community as it originallyexisted, I wanted to know: What should have been growing there?

I learned my area is in Ecoregion 67f: Southern Limestone/Dolomite Valleys and Low Rolling Hills.[1]  An interesting treatise put out by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), called “Overview of The Physiography and Vegetation of Virginia,”[2] describes in detail what the native habitats once looked like in the major physiographic regions of the state. Roanoke is in the Ridge and Valley Region, with a Natural Community of predominately Montane Mixed Oak and Oak - Hickory Forests.[3]  Reading through the descriptions of trees, shrubs, and understory was almost as good as walking along a favorite trail. 

With this overview in hand, I read every relevant article and plant list I could find for the broader region. The DCR has a brochure “Native Plants for Conservation, Restoration & Landscaping” for our Mountain Region.[4] The Virginia Native Plant Society also has native plant guides, but does not yet have a guide specific to Southwest Virginia. One is being developed for this area, but reviewing the guides for other areas was still helpful.[5]  Relying on these lists, I began to compile a spreadsheet of plants suitable for my conditions. I had a soil test done (pH 5.9), determined the soil texture (sandy-loam to loam), and considered moisture levels (mesic to dry) and sun patterns (center area full sun, side areas part sun). I checked every plant for whether it was native to the Roanoke Valley, not just the broader ecoregion, by using the USDA Plants Database[6] and the Digital Atlas of Virginia.[7] Upon entering each plant, I could zoom in on the map to show each county where a plant was native. My final list ran three pages, with almost all of the trees, shrubs, and perennials native to the Roanoke Valley or very nearby. 

I also elected to plant almost all “straight” species plants, rather than cultivars, or what are sometimes described as “nativars.” A so-called “nativar” has been hybridized or selected for enhanced characteristics compared with the wild-type plant. Research is ongoing as to impact of nativars versus the straight species on pollinators and other wildlife. Experts recommend proceeding cautiously when using nativars, and avoid nativars that feature a different leaf color or dramatically different flower than the straight species.[8] Insects that rely on native plants for food may find the cultivar unpalatable or lacking in nectar and pollen. 

I chose a few cultivars to augment certain native plants. In addition to planting three straight-species Viburnum dentatum, I planted two V. dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’, which differ only in height. I planted two hybrid hazelnuts to supplement the nut production of the three native hazelnuts I planted, Corylus americana. And I will confess to a mistake I made: When researching the native hydrangea, H. arborescens, I chose the cultivar ‘Annabelle,’ as a naturally occurring variant of the straight species. I was distressed to learn later that this cultivar is sterile: it provides no nectar or pollen for insects. These plants will either be supplemented or replaced with the straight species.

Before planting, the site had to be readied by removing invasives plants, including ivy, honeysuckle (bush and vining), Ligustrum, and vinca. The plants were removed manually, with one application of herbicide several weeks later to control the newly exposed weed seeds. No soil amendments were added. (Photo 5, After clearing invasive plants).

We started by installing the large trees: three crab apples and two sourwoods. (Photo 6). Next came the shrubs (Photo 7) and larger perennials, then the smaller plug perennials. In all, we installed 25 trees, 61 shrubs, 305 perennials, and 9 native vines by early May 2020. (Photos 8, 9, and 10). The plants include hazelnut, native beautyberry, serviceberry, paw paw, sassafras, winterberry, sweetshrub, spicebush, sweetspire, amsonia, red and black aronia, sumac, oakleaf hydrangea, and native viburnums. Groundcovers include low-growing aster, golden ragwort, and robin’s plantain, and vines included native honeysuckle, clematis, bittersweet, Dutchman’s Pipevine, and Crossvine. To help with the weed pressure and for more immediate gratification, I also sowed a southern meadow seed mix of native grasses and wildflowers. The seed mix was watered regularly during germination and establishment, with the trees and shrubs watered deeply throughout the summer and fall. I also erected a temporary fence the first year to prevent our dogs from trampling the new plantings.

The plants were spectacular, even the first year. The flowers bloomed in wild abandon. The trees and shrubs bloomed and set fruit, including the crabapples, American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), and Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillate). Even the hazelnuts produced a small crop. As the season came to a close, the dried seed heads and grasses provided a quiet moment of reflection. 

Spring of 2021 began in March, with a gentle clearing of debris (left in a corner to protect any remaining overwintering insects) and a growth spurt of Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea) and Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus var. pulchellus 'Lynnhaven Carpet'). The Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) and Sweetspire (Itea virginica) put on lovely displays and the serviceberries (Amelanchier laevis) provided fruit. The most significant surprise: all three paw paw trees (Asimina triloba) have fruit and have already begun attracting the zebra swallowtail butterfly, which will only lay its eggs on this particular plant. 

As I write this, it’s only July 2021, but the hedgerow is already doing what I intended. The plants are bursting with fruit, nuts, scent, grasses, and floral interest. The closely interwoven mix of trees, shrubs, and perennials already conceals much of the driveway just eight feet away. The small pond I installed provides water and shelter for yet more creatures. (Click on the photo gallery below for more pictures.)

A sense of peace again prevails. As the Chinese Proverb says: “He who plants a garden plants happiness.”

Sharon Burnham

Photo 2- Before driveway installed

Photo 3- After driveway, before clearing invasive plants

Photo 4- After driveway, before clearing invasive plants

Photo 5- After clearing invasive plants

Photo 6- New trees planted

Photo 7- Setting up shrubs

Photo 8- After planting shrubs and perennials

Photo 9- After planting 

Photo 10- After planting 

Gardening is the art that uses flowers and plants as paint, and the soil and sky as canvas.

Elizabeth Murray

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