Sunday September 25, 2016; 09:06 am EDT
A Time to Reap, A Time to Sow
After 21 seasons, native-plant propagator Mary-Stuart Sierra prepares for one final harvest
Mary-Stuart Sierra walks in peace among rows of potted plants. Shades of green envelop her, as if the plants are watching her watching them. She stops at a lead-root wildflower, an early spring bloomer, and pulls back the petals. She’s looking for the seed pouch, inspecting it for ripeness.
“There is only a five-day span that these seeds are collectable,” she says. “Day one they are perfect and ready to be plucked, but by day five they’ve fallen and you have no chance of finding them. I keep very extensive records of when I expect their seeds to be harvestable. I have to time it just right.”
Finding the perfect time has been heavy on Sierra’s mind in a broader sense, as the native plant enthusiast and nursery owner has chosen 2010 to retire from her home-based business. This winter, she will return to sowing, planting and growing as a hobbyist instead of as a businesswoman.
Twenty-one years ago, Sierra, then 44, turned her interest and love for native plants into a homegrown business, devoting a half-acre of her front yard in northern Calvert County into the Lower Marlboro Nursery.
Back then, native plants were wild things that grew like weeds, not flowers cultivated and sold at nature centers.
Stocking the Woodland Garden
Shade nourished Sierra’s devotion to native plants.-
“In 1975,” she recounts, “my husband and I moved out here and built a house on this heavily wooded four and a half acres. I wanted to garden, but I quickly realized that the backyard ornamentals that I had grown up with simply weren’t going to grow in these conditions.”
Local woodlands, farms and roadsides stocked her garden.
“The woods were full of plants, so I knew there must be something I could grow. So I started taking walks through the woods, identifying things and collecting seeds and the occasional plant,” she explains.
At first, native plants were a hobby for Sierra, who was working as a linguist at the State Department in Washington, D.C. She collected languages before collecting seeds. At the University of Maryland, she earned bachelor and master’s degrees in Spanish while also studying French, German and Portuguese. The former linguist spent her junior year abroad at the University of Madrid.
When her son was born, she quit her job, and her planting and gardening grew. Four years later, when her husband died, she started the nursery, an effort that would allow her to work from home in another field she enjoyed and spend less time away from her son.
“One thing led to another,” she says, of her “hobby business.”
Her business plan was unique. “I envisioned the nursery as primarily a mail-order business,” said Sierra. “So I began with a printed catalog, which first went out by mail in 1989. On-site sales evolved in response to customer interest in seeing the plants they were interested in purchasing.”
She mailed spring and fall catalogues showcasing native plants, all ecologically friendly and native to the region, to gardeners she hoped would be interested
The website, which her son designed and built, went up in 2002. The site lists the nature of the nursery, how to order plants and seeds and contact information. It also showcases the plants in the catalog, with descriptions and photos.
Lower Marlboro Nursery is open by appointment only, with a handful of open houses throughout the spring and fall, to which visitors from Maryland and Delaware flock to collect Sierra’s natives for their own gardens.
What she offers each season depends on what seeds she was able to sow that winter, because she still grows most of her plants from seeds.
The purple Jack-in-the-pulpit grows well in shade, especially combined with ferns. The small white-and-pink clusters of the white wood aster, a ground cover, also prefer the shade. Sierra spends a lot of time these days adoring the vivid leafy greens of skunk cabbage, which flourishes in moist ground.
Her open houses are advertised on her website and in Bay Weekly. Otherwise, customers find her by word of mouth and her placement on the various native plant and eco-friendly gardening contact lists. Lower Marlboro Nursery is one of those off-the-beaten-track secrets of Chesapeake Country; you’ve got to know its there to find it.
“I have my website, but I’ve always kept things low-key,” said Sierra. “I haven’t sought a high profile on the Internet because I don’t want to sell country-wide. This is a local and regional nursery, and I think that other areas should go to their local and regional nurseries to find what’s native to them.”
Over two decades, Sierra has collected and sown the seeds of over 200 species of plants.
“I never take all of the seeds that I find,” she explains of her method. “I wouldn’t take the seeds of something truly rare. Sometimes I’ll buy plants from another native grower and wait for the plant to drop its seeds and collect those. Sometimes it can take years. It’s certainly not the business-efficient way to do it, but it’s what I enjoy.”
Sierra has introduced many unheard-of plants and shrubs into gardens as mainstays, by providing plants to school and community organizations that build native gardens with county or state grants. She has also helped community organizations to set up environmentally friendly gardens with native plants, contributed to several newsletters and spoken at many garden clubs.
She’s happy to support the cause, but her role has grown beyond her expectations.
“I’m not an evangelist,” she says. “I never set out on a trail to bring the good news of native plants. I just grow them and recommend them.”
Still, the gospel is rising.
“People have become more and more interested in these native plants. There are lots of articles out, beautiful books, speakers doing talks on the subject. So as a result, finally, native plants are in. They are very trendy.”
This year’s open houses have brought her more visitors than ever.
In the Native Garden
On Earth Day every spring, Sierra has reopened her garden.
On that cloudy day this year, Sierra kept a watchful eye on her plants. The gardener is mindful of the qualities and uniqueness of each of her beloved plants.
The wild ginger plant is a short, ground-covering plant with tiny reddish-brown blooms.
“Many creatures pollinate our plants,” she says. “A lot of people only think of bees, but there are several other insects that do the pollinating too. Bees don’t fly low enough to get into a bud like this. There are small beetles that do that.”
-What Sierra loves about her garden goes well beyond the physical beauty of the purple coneflower or the Lenten rose. She values the ecological benefits of each of the plants, for she knows how they all work together with the rest of Mother Nature to create a unique environment.
“Any region is divided into different habitats according to plants’ soil, elevation and so on,” Sierra says. “There are different regions up and down even the East Coast.”
“At the base level,” she tells me, “the insects are very hardwired to the kinds of things they can make use of, and the birds and small mammals eat the insects, and the chain works from there. You come to realize these things are a real consideration.”
A few non-local varieties grow in her garden. Before sowing anything, however, she ensures that the plants will be non-invasive and readily able to peacefully co-exist with the nature around them. They must do no harm, though they do nothing to support the ecology.
“I’m not a native purist,” says Sierra. “I do grow and sell some other plants, so long as they are non-invasive. If the infrastructure is native and then the other ornamentals are added on top, you get a much better balance.”
She suggests a caring combination.
“I certainly never recommend planting nothing but natives,” she says of how to create an aesthetic and sustainable garden.
“Gardens are, by definition, works of art: aesthetic creations intended to provide pleasure. We use ornamental plants in them because they offer beauty of form, texture, color and scent. However, thoughtfully planted gardens can be aesthetically pleasing and also provide suitable habitat for a great variety of life forms. To me, a garden’s ability to support a diversity of life is at least as important, and as pleasurable, as its purely ornamental aspect. It takes a garden beyond being a work of art created with live plants to being a piece of creation itself.”
After checking on all of her plants, confident that she and her garden are prepared for the next day’s open house, Sierra walks past the fence that harbors her nursery and up the gravel driveway toward her house. To the left and right of her front porch, her own gardens are in full bloom, with beautiful trees, shrubs and an assortment of plants. As she stops to pick up the red watering can nestled in front of one the flowerbeds, the rain drizzles down, making a gentle reminder of yet another practical use for her plants.
“Do you see the slope of my yard?” she asks. Toward the back of her house, her yard dips steeply downward.
“If these plants weren’t here to soak up the moisture, all of the rain would flood down these hills, and the runoff would be tremendous. The roots of these plants help to maintain the runoff and redistribute the water to the earth, instead of letting it run down, eventually into our Bay.”
The Bay is yet another beneficiary of the lifestyle Sierra has created and taught to others along her journey. As the dry ground soaks up the rain, her plants reap the moisture and are rejuvenated.
Lower Marlboro Nursery has been relatively undemanding as businesses go.
“When I started back in 1989,” she says, “it was really very easy because nobody had ever heard of native plants. They were weeds, strictly, and nobody wanted to grow weeds. So you really couldn’t sell the things,” she said with a laugh.
The natural flow and ebb of natives has also alternated busy seasons with time off — spring and fall being her busier seasons, spring busiest of all.
In between her busy seasons, she closes shop.
“-There’s no use in staying open through the summer,” Sierra says. “It’s much too hot to garden. No one is interested in buying plants. Besides, I’d rather be sailing.”
Sierra, who grew up on the Severn River, has owned a variety of small day-sailors. Most recently, she and her sister kept a 20-foot sailboat on the South River. These days, when she can find a spare moment to sail, she does so on their Sunfish.
Even so, she says her nursery has run its course.
Success is one of the forces putting her out of business.
The popularity of native plants, she says, has expanded the market. “People’s expectations have expanded,” said Sierra. “And in my one-person hobby business, I can’t really meet demands anymore. It’s gotten a little bit too much for one person.”
Also, after 20 years she says her “infrastructure is shot.
“Everything needs replacing and it really doesn’t make financial sense.”
This summer, Sierra will go sailing:
Come Labor Day, she’ll be back to business, sowing seeds, hosting open houses and selling her beloved plants. The final fall season, she says, will showcase as wide a variety of plants as always. Sierra promises buyers that she won’t just be selling off the leftovers but sowing new seeds and putting as much of herself into her final season as her first.
Then she’ll retire her catalogs, her open houses and her nursery as a business, and return to gardening as a hobby.
“I was a pioneer,” she says. “My work here is done, and I will happily turn it over to the next generation.”
Lower Marlboro Nursery’s last spring open house is Sat. May 15 (10am-5pm) and Sun. May 16 (11am-4pm). Other times by appointment. Call for directions: 301-812-0808; www.lowermarlboronursery.com.