Variety is the spice of life: creating a new garden with native plants

Nothing like starting out a blog with a cliché, right? But this perfectly sums up one reason to change from a monotypic lawn to a mix of native plants. Instead of looking out at a sea of sameness, the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes of plants offer a more pleasing landscape to view. And, bonus points, more and different kinds of plants attract more and different kinds of butterflies, birds, and beneficial wildlife!

butterfly milkweed with monarch caterpillar
Butterflyweed planted in spring 2020 provides food for Monarch caterpillars later in the summertime.

A do-it-yourself garden is harder but more fulfilling

Once you figure out that you do want more variety of plants instead of lawn in your yard, the real planning begins. But, it can be hard to know where to start – do you just chop up the lawn and start planting? How much will it cost? What’s the maintenance on these plants? What about soil conditions? Don’t worry! There are some really good online tips for beginners. To sum mine up: start small, don’t overthink it, and stick to things you like looking at.

For example, my sister moved into a small house with a fenced backyard. She knew she wanted to avoid the pain of mowing. She knew she wanted low-maintenance, flowering plants. And since she’s a redhead, she knew what colors she liked (hint: little to no red flowers). The first thing we did was start tracking the sun, in both the front and back yards. Each month over the winter, we took a picture in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. We also got started on the paths needed through the garden areas.

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Master Gardener Project Makes Discovery Commemorating the Remarkable Life of Jane Gates

building a raised bed garden
John and Julian begin work on a teaching garden at the Jane Gates Heritage House in Cumberland, Maryland

The Jane Gates Heritage House located on Greene Street in Cumberland, Maryland is a non-profit museum and community center started by John and Sukh Gates to honor the spirit of John’s third great-grandmother, Jane Gates (c. 1819 – 1888). Jane lived most of her life enslaved, most likely in or near Cumberland. She obtained freedom when slavery was abolished in Maryland in November 1864.

Jane Gates Heritage House
Jane Gates Heritage House

Jane purchased the house and lot for $1400 in 1871 in the current location of 515, 511, and 509 Greene Street. Jane Gates is listed in the 1870 U.S. Census in the house at 515 Greene Street as a nurse and a laundress, age 51, living with two of her children and two grandchildren. The house at 515 is Jane’s original dwelling. The houses at 511 and 509 were built decades later by one of Jane’s daughters and a granddaughter. Jane Gates is also the second great-grandmother of Dr. Paul Gates and his brother Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a scholar of African American culture at Harvard University and host of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Jane’s house is featured in his PBS documentary, “African American Lives II.”

The mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House is to empower, enrich, and enhance the lives of all through faith, education, and history. Along with African American history, the President of the board of directors, Sukh Gates, is passionate about teaching elementary-aged children crucial life skills such as healthy living and growing and preparing food. 

To reach this goal, Sukh wanted to transform the backyard of the house into a teaching garden. She asked for help from the Master Gardeners in Allegany County to design and install the garden. I developed a plan based on Sukh’s goals and the available land at the house. The plan called for four raised beds for vegetables, a small bed for fruit along an existing wall, and a pollinator garden along the fence that borders the alley.  

creating a new teaching garden
Construction of raised beds
raised bed gardens
Gardens planted in June

The Jane Gates Heritage House received a grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to renovate the house but not the grounds. Sukh and I applied for a grant from the Allegany Work Group of the Western Maryland Food Council to build the raised beds. In March 2020, the Food Council awarded $600 to cover the cost of materials and soil. Josh Frick, my husband, constructed the raised beds on site. Our families then worked together to install the raised beds and fill them with soil. In June, Master Gardeners donated and planted fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in the gardens. The local wildlife posed quite a challenge, prompting the Gates family to erect a fence to protect their fledgling garden. By mid-July, Sukh excitedly picked the first zucchini.  

This project fostered a growing friendship between Sukh and me and our respective organizations. I regularly consulted with Sukh over the summer and into the fall. Sukh, new to gardening, was amazed by the beauty, the challenges, and the serenity afforded by the garden.

In the course of inspecting the pollinator garden for weeds, I noticed a plant that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. This plant looked familiar, like a flower of some kind, but it had not been planted by Master Gardeners. It was a volunteer that had re-seeded and spread itself from times past. It grew along the alley behind the house. I pondered this a while, and it finally came to me. This plant is soapwort! 

Soapwort, whose botanical name is Saponaria officinalis, may be more familiar to you as bouncing Bet or wild sweet William. European colonists brought soapwort to America because it had several essential uses. Sap from the roots and stems can be combined with water to create a lathery soap solution traditionally used to clean delicate textiles and woolen fabrics. This plant naturalized throughout North America. Further inquiry reveals that bouncing Bet (Bet is short for Bess) is an old English nickname that means washerwoman. The hook was set; Sukh and I wanted to learn more.

herbs
Herb garden

This discovery prompted Sukh and me to learn more about 19th Century laundering techniques. In the 1800s, the boiling of textiles in a large kettle was part of the laundering regimen. An archeological dig in 2019 led by Oxbow Cultural Research principal Suzanne Trussell found remnants of burned wood behind the house, near to where the soapwort grows. The wood was in the ground at an angle, which may indicate Jane used a tripod to hold a large kettle over a fire. Could this have been the spot where Jane spent long hours laboring? Could Jane have planted the soapwort nearby because she used it as part of her cleaning process? We can’t know for sure, but it’s fascinating to consider.  

Finding soapwort created a lead-in to explore Jane’s life as a laundress and to search for further relevant connections. The more we delved into history, the more Jane Gates came alive. Jane’s probable daily routines, methods, and challenges became clearer. Suddenly the life of Jane Gates became tangible. This is the mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House, after all, to learn from Jane by connecting the past to the present. The providential discovery of this inconspicuous plant shed light on the life of this remarkable woman, Jane Gates, and for that we are grateful.

If you would like to learn more about the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their Facebook page and if you would like to donate to the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their GoFundMe page. 

By Sherry Frick, Master Gardener Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension, Allegany County.

How Horticulturists Turn Quarantine Into ‘Gardentine’

While it seems that everything in our world is different today than it was two months ago, one thing hasn’t changed — nature! Maryland’s stay-at-home order has given everyone the opportunity to explore their natural surroundings and given them the itch to garden to relieve tension and do something productive.

So what do University of Maryland Extension horticulturists do to stay grounded during ‘gardentine?’ Just like you, we take pictures of our flowers, gardening projects, and all things nature and send them to each other, natch!

Stephanie got us started by wishing us a happy Earth Day!

horticultural distancing is not a thing

Stephanie and I went on a socially distant walk, participating in the City Nature Challenge iNaturalist project for the Baltimore area. Here are a few of the 53 species we identified for the project. Not too shabby!

Scroll over or click on the images to see the plant names.

One of my neighbors really upped the game by providing informational signs along the sidewalk for everyone’s enjoyment! Thanks, Kathy!

Christa started her “Sketches from the Yard” journal on the 10th day of quarantine. She says drawing, painting, and writing about her observations around the yard and garden is a creative thing she can do at home and is something that helps her relax during these strange times.

“When I look at the details of a plant and try to document it, it gets my mind off the coronavirus news for a while and helps me focus on what is still normal and beautiful around me. I have appreciated my garden harvests of fresh greens, herbs, and even a few carrots that survived our mild winter. And the new tulips I planted last fall were delightful to see in bloom! At the end of this project, I will have a record of my garden and how meaningful it was to me as a place of serenity during this quarantine time.”

She is quite the garden journalist! You can follow her on Instagram @mrscarignan.

Debbie is growing microgreens in a salad box on her balcony.

microgreens in a salad box
Half of the box is arugula and half is lettuce that has just started to germinate. Proving that you don’t need a lot of space to grow some of your own food! Photo: D. Ricigliano

salad box
This is what a salad box can look like when it’s ready for the first harvest. Yes, you can get multiple harvests from salad greens. Photo: HGIC

Miri has quite the impressive indoor garden! The ridiculous volume of houseplants keeps her sane! (Her words, not mine!) Maybe Miri will write a blog post featuring her various mini orchids and Tillandsias and include the routine she uses to keep them all so happy! (Hint hint!) She also entertains herself by secretly diagnosing plant problems on walks through the neighborhood. No photo evidence of that here!

Marian is helping her daughter plant a salad box from a distance by sharing the Home & Garden Information Center’s salad box instructions. See how you can build and plant a salad box or a salad table too!

salad table
I can see that Marian is also using a floating row cover to protect those seedlings from frost and/or marauding squirrels and chipmunks! Photo: M. Hengemihle

Jon has a huge and very productive garden every year! He always gets his garlic planted in the fall.

garlic
This spring the garlic tips have turned yellow either from the cold or the beginning of his perennial problems with white rot and bulb mites. Oh no! Photo: J. Traunfeld

Jon also grows his own seedlings every year and generously supplies the office with baby plants! Thanks, Jon!

growing transplants on a light stand
Here is Jon’s light stand setup. He’s growing downy mildew resistant ‘Prospera’ basil, many varieties of pepper, tomato, eggplant, zinnia, and tithonia. Photo: J. Traunfeld

Wanda enjoys tending her orchids indoors.

orchids indoors
She soaks them in a container of water for about 10 minutes every 2 weeks in the winter and once a week when it gets warm. Photo: W. MacLachlan

Wanda has lovely gardens outdoors too.

raised beds
Here she and her husband are revamping their raised garden beds in an attempt to exclude deer, raccoons, groundhogs, rabbits and (fingers crossed) chipmunks! When finished, these 3 raised beds will be in a closed cage. Stay tuned for a progress report! Note from Wanda: The dark piles in the 2 beds are castings from her indoor vermicomposting project. Wow! Photo: W. MacLachlan

Jean has a passion for pink and her houseplants prove it!

plants on a windowsill
Luckily, she has a south-facing window so she gets a lot of light. For the succulents, she mixes potting soil with some perlite and avoids overwatering. High sun exposure and good drainage is key to her healthy and happy houseplants! Photo: J. Burchfield

Ria – I sheltered in place for part of the last 6 weeks at the home where I grew up in Virginia. I went on several walks taking photos of things in bloom, but I needed to get my hands in the dirt! I had assured Jon in February that I was absolutely not going to create another garden to manage there. He had a good laugh when he saw the photos of my new garden! So much for my resolve, I needed to garden!

For the last 40 years, only daffodils and a perennial hibiscus have grown in the small triangle of space bordered by the split rail fencing, if you don’t count that sneaky Bermuda grass. If you look closely, you might be able to see the pomegranate that I got in Colonial Williamsburg about 5 years ago. It has never even bloomed, let alone produced fruit!

bare ground new garden
To create the new 24’ x 12’ kitchen garden, I killed the grass (mostly Bermuda grass and various other weeds), spread thick layers of newspaper over the area and covered it with soil that had been excavated to install French drains. Photo: R. Malloy

add organic matter to a garden
Then I spread ten bags (2 cu. ft. each) of media labeled for raised beds in 3 rows each about 2.5’ wide, leaving room for a path between each row. I mulched between the rows and around the perimeter of the garden with wood chips from 3 tree stumps that we ground up last summer. I made sure not to incorporate the wood chips into the soil with the plants. Photo: R. Malloy

planting a new garden
I planted a variety of herbs, sweet cherry and grape tomatoes, salad greens, and flowers to attract pollinators. Photo: R. Malloy

new garden
My husband extended the split rail border. I surrounded the garden with green plastic covered wire mesh fencing to deter the rabbits and groundhogs. I am under no illusions that it will really prevent them from getting in! At some point I will need to add a solar powered electric fence like the one I have in Maryland. Photo: R. Malloy

Please join us by taking time each day to connect in some way with nature and stay grounded during ‘gardentine’ and beyond!

By Ria Malloy, Program Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension