My Own Backyard Maryland

Vol. 8, No. 15
April 13-19, 2000
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Story by Lori L. Sikorski; Flowers by Gary Pendleton; Map by Betsy Kehne

When you plant a MarylandScape, you make your corner of Mother Earth beautiful, carefree and Bay friendly.

Every fall, just as the Indians of summer have let go of their vivid hues on the trees and right before Jack Frost begins breathing cold air on us, I take a walk around our yard and dream of the spring to come. Sometimes the herbs have not even dried on their stems and I am already planning on moving them to another location come April.

Often, my husband Paul will join me for the assessments. Together we will plan for the next growing season. Getting down on his knees, he’ll run his hands through the grass, almost like a palm reader, seeing what the blades will need to get through the winter. I bring in the little garden stakes and iron dragon flies that add whimsy to our plots. We roll up hoses and cover the garden bench, tucking everything in for the long winter’s nap.

When Mr. Frost does arrive and we are holed up in our cozy family room on a January afternoon, Paul will clear the coffee table and pull out the gardening and seed books. Graph paper and pencil join in, and the visions for our spring planting begin.

We always plan to do more in-the-ground growing and do away with the many clay pots that always line the deck railing. We always say we’ll try our hand at some unusual vegetation this season. The strawberry plants will move to a larger area, and we note this on the graph paper that has now been adapted as a map of our property. Together we thumb through the seed and bulb catalogs, selecting items as lovingly as we did our wedding china.

With such compatibility, our garden should be nothing less than harmonious. We picture the warm breezes carrying the smell of petunias across the deck. The two of us sipping sun tea as the children frolic with butterfly nets and baskets of fresh-picked mint. This vision will get us through until the first warm day arrives, when we are pitted against one another in the backyard.

He says, “Why are you saving so many clay pots? We decided to get rid of the deck clutter this year.”
I say, “I changed my mind,” and salvage my pots from a trip to the dump. He rolls his eyes.

“Are we going to mulch around the apple tree this year?” I ask.

He nods. “I want to get the cedar mulch this week.”

I roll my eyes. “Cedar is so expensive. Let’s get pine.”

I turn my back to inventory the garden tools only to hear the crash of a clay pot.

“Oops!” he says. One of the pots has slipped from his hands back into the large garbage can. “I was trying to save it for you,” he lies.

“Are you going to try and grow more of those yellow peppers in this space?” he asks.

“Why? Didn’t you like them there last year?” I ask.

He shakes his head no.

“Then, yes, I plan on growing more this year.”

And so the day continues.

Don’t get me wrong. Each year we eventually do sit down to our iced tea in the balmy breezes as the kids gather fireflies in jars. But it does not come right away, and it does not come easy. We have to work to make our yard amicable. Seed packets and graph paper often fly, as well as dirt and tempers.

Fall’s agreements become leverage in our gardening grievances. As the old saying goes, too many gardeners spoil the soil. So we have to be sure we can compromise on the large issues. The biggest is how to get started.

Our MaryLandscape

This season, we have decided to add a MaryLandscape to our little piece of Mother Earth. We’ve borrowed the idea from Gov. Parris Glendening, who wants to create gardens throughout the state to benefit the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Now this may seem a big order for average gardeners like us, but MaryLandscaping adapts nicely to Bay Country backyards, as we learned from Lisa Meyers, who’s had several years of MaryLandscaping at her waterfront home in St. Mary’s County.

“I had seen some gardens in Annapolis, and a friend was working on one over on the Eastern Shore,” Meyers says. “The types of plants and shrubs are just so easy to care for. And I am giving back to nature by doing this.”

Meyers started out a little differently than we had planned. She gathered most of her plantings from her own neighborhood. “We had all of these wonderful plants growing wild along our riverbanks and up the lane in an open field. My husband Tim and I decided to move them closer to our house,” she said.
The county cooperative extension office advised on which plants would survive transplant and how much sun or shade they wanted. “The great thing about these types of plants,” Meyers learned, “is that they really require no special care. They flourish in both sun and shade.”

We added the Meyers’ information to what we found in a copy of the Welcome to Maryland 2000 guide — 20 pages of millennium celebrations in Maryland, with a map of the MaryLandscapes’ garden locations. You can order your guide for free by calling 410/260-6345. Or access their web site at

The state’s goal is to take open spaces in neighborhoods and schools and fill them with Maryland-friendly vegetation. You will find MaryLandscape gardens at the Annapolis Bus Depot, the ARC of Anne Arundel County and Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis as well as at the Bowie Senior Center and along the B&A Trail in Glen Burnie, Pasadena and Severna Park.

With the many children and visiting family romping about, our yard often resembles a community park, but we want to do the project on our much smaller scale, adding our own personality.

We found a register of Maryland plants on the Maryland 2000 web page. Some are old familiars you’ll find at local nurseries or farms. You may already have some growing in your yard. I was pleased to see that winterberry holly made the list, since most of our property in the back is lined with this Maryland native.

Another favorite is the mountain laurel. These, too, grow in abundance around the Sikorski house. Lucky us, because the average price at local nurseries for just one of these Maryland treasures is $29.
Serviceberry trees, fringe trees, sweet pepper bushes, butterfly milkweed, blazing star, bee balm, wild blue indigo, little blue stemgrass and, of course, the black-eyed Susan round out MaryLandscapes’ plant list. Together, they add color and beauty as well as food for birds and small animals. They also require little from you in the way of maintenance, watering or fertilizing, which could pollute the Bay’s watershed and its tributaries.

To see these plants thriving and blooming, visit some of the many MaryLandscapes locations. To fill in what Mother Nature hasn’t yet gotten to this season, you can also view a small photo gallery on the Maryland 2000 web page. This was what we had to do in the beginning, for much of the vegetation was still in winter slumber when we undertook this project.

On the web site you get an idea of plant size, color and shape. We found that, even virtually, these gardens are very lush and inviting, mostly because everything is planted so closely together in such small spaces.

Our yard has much more space and is surrounded on three sides by thick woodland. We have left it untouched with just enough open space to play a nice game of croquet after enjoying crabs on our oversized picnic table.

Our wooden glider swing borders the lush trees, but it’s far enough to allow us to look up at open sky. We wanted to plant our MaryLandscape so that the new greenery would seem to have always been part of the woods.

Gathering Maryland Natives

Since this will be our first year with native plants, we don’t expect too much to happen. It will take time and, of course, trial and error to get them strong and healthy.

Starting out with easy-care plants such as bee balm and blazing star will test our green thumbs in our own MaryLandscape. A local Amish friend who owns and operates a family-owned garden shop told us these plants are almost guaranteed not to drop dead on us, at least in the first few months. Eyeing our list, he said we could start two ways.

We could buy seeds to harvest into small plants. He carried a nice variety, and what he did not have we could purchase over the Internet from Park Seed Company.

Seeds would need a lot of care, a warm location with plenty of light and daily watering. He showed us some small starting containers looking much like miniature egg cartons with clear plastic lids. Many of these would have to be purchased to house the seedlings, which would mean we would have to find many locations for them in our already chaotic house.

Or we could buy small plants. With the weather so warm recently, the infants could be kept out on the deck and pulled in only on chilly evenings. Once the threat of frost had passed, we could place them in the garden.

Four-packs of Amish-grown native plants cost $.95, with six-packs at $1.25. This makes each plant around $.25. Not a lot to spend if we lose a few.

So what will we choose? We both want to add more color to the yard. And we definitely want to attract more birds and butterflies.

The blazing star, a fluffy purple spike, will attract those butterflies and will keep its blooms all summer and into early fall.

Bee balm, a fragrant bloom that resembles a small fireworks in deep red to purple, comes in over 19 plant varieties. It’s great in herb gardens, since the leaves can be harvested and brewed for a nice cup of tea. As well as bees, this plant also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Our Amish friend told us that no Maryland garden would be complete without black-eyed Susans. It surprised me to find that we could choose from more than 16 different types. This native flower needs plenty of sunshine but not too much moisture.

All are very easy to grow, and the best harvest comes from those started as seeds. Not to take any chances, we decided that we would try both the seeds and small plants already started. It should be interesting to see which process works best. The children think of this as a science project. They have already begun to take notes.

Since we have to purchase so many MaryLandscape plants, the frugal side of me thought it would be best to comparison shop. We began by browsing surrounding garden shops and nurseries. That day trip made a pleasant way to spend a warm spring day.

It just so happened that Paul’s parents were in Chesapeake Country from Ohio for a cherry blossom visit. His father, an enthusiastic gardener, was delighted to come with us on our search. Since the weather in the Midwest was still a bit nippy, he had yet to make his rounds to his local nurseries.

MaryLandscape plants and trees were to be had at each location we visited.

At Homestead Gardens, on Route 214 in Davidsonville, knowledge and interest in the MaryLandscapes overwhelmed us. Many of their gardeners had attended winter workshops on Maryland’s native plants.

Nursery associate Bell Hartnack helped us find just what we were looking for. As we walked through many species of holly, she reminded us to always plant a male and a female species so they would pollinate. Nature uses bees and insects to gather pollen from each bush and transfer it to the other.

“Often people will just plant one and then wonder why they are not growing,” Hartnack said. “This really holds true of many species of your MaryLandscape.”

Homestead’s mountain laurels seemed small, probably because the beautiful one that grows in the corner of our yard is well over 10 feet tall. It has probably been growing for decades. But mountain laurels have to start somewhere. The average price here is around $25. The colors range from white to pink and deep red.

Other plants on our list were at hand, as were other plants that are Maryland friendly, with prices starting from $1.50 for four-packs. Homestead Gardens offers its own green sheet with a much larger list of native Maryland plants, ground cover, trees and vines. I took home a copy, as well as some plants. There was no reason to just plant what was on the Governor’s list, was there?

There were no fringe trees in stock, but we were promised one by week’s end. The only puzzler was the blazing star. If we knew its Latin name, they assured us they’d find it.

At Homestead, we also found a vast selection of gardening seeds, including hard-to-find vegetable seeds and an English seed line. If you cannot find the MaryLandscape plants already in bloom, you are sure to find them in seed. All the seeds we would need were priced under $2 per pack.

Next we continued down winding country roads to much-recommended Bittersweet Hill Nurseries. My gardener father-in-law thought Homestead was the best garden center he’d visited throughout the nation, but Bittersweet Hill was more my kind of place: quaint and overflowing with color and scent. The herbs were abundant and cheerful, much larger than any I had seen so early into the season. I spent a bit of time ooohing and ahhing over them before I remembered my real mission.

Here we were led through three greenhouses and all our MaryLandscape questions were answered.

“If we don’t have what you are looking for, we can grow it for you,” said owner Hildreth Morton. But every plant on my list was right there — except the blazing star. And there are no trees at Bittersweet, so there goes our fringe tree.

We’d heard wonderful things about Green Landing Nursery as well, so on our way back south, we found Green Landing Road off Route 4 at Upper Marlboro. We were glad to find that they, too, have many of our MaryLandscape plantings. No fringe tree, but plenty of bee balm and black-eyed Susans in four-inch pots or four- and six-packs.

Farther south, the large selection of trees visible from the road lured us into Farm Valley on northbound Route 4 in Huntingtown.

Here, too, our list was a snap. Mountain laurels, a bit larger than at Homestead, were priced from $20. They had our fringe tree and in several sizes. And finally we found our blazing star.

We came home with many tender plants to nurture into our garden family.

But for the experience, we will try some seeds as well.
Then it was on to preparing their new homes.

Making Beds

We took advantage of the great March weather to spread compost: two inches of compost manure purchased from our Amish market with an inch of regular compost that we purchased from Homestead Gardens. Lightly we dug this mixture into the existing soil.

If you are an avid gardener like Paul’s father, you may have your own compost patch in the backyard. If, like us, you’re just getting started, you might want to follow his advice.

After many years of trial and error, he recommends that you start one by fencing off a corner with something as simple as lattice. Begin with equal parts of manure and rich potting soil. Toss in your grass clippings, green leaves from plants as well as lettuces, coffee grinds, eggshells and any other kitchen garbage that does not include meat, bones or grease.

Compost needs to be turned regularly. You can do this with your shovel or pitchfork or a compost turner sold at most garden shops. Turn from the inside out. Adding fertilizer will heat the mixture up faster. You want the blend to reach a temperature of 150 degrees before using it. If you are worried about odors coming from your pile, toss in some limestone to sweeten the smell. Keep the pile moist too, almost like a wrung-out sponge. And keep it covered on top. A tarp works well

Once we dug the compost into the beds, we revisited our yard map to decide where the new MaryLandscape plants would grow. In the yard, we measured both the area and the plants that we purchased, for I was worried that the bee balm would not have enough room in its originally planned area. On paper it all looks easy, but you really should re-measure once you have your plants in hand.

We wanted to place most of the MaryLandscape plants at the wood’s edge so that it would flow nicely. The holly and mountain laurel have made their home in our woods for many years, so we did not want to uproot them. The new plants will surround several of them with the tallest in the back and then the shorter ones trailing into the backyard and around the bird feeders.

Planting Time

It must be a woman thing that motivates me so much on planting day: sort of that nesting instinct. I have to make sure that all is in place and that the spring breezes are gentle and the sunshine abundant.

Many say they like to plant on a cloudy day or early in the morning when the sun is not so hot, but lately conditions have been almost perfect for us at any time of the day. If we were to wait too much longer, we’d have to plant at the crack of dawn.

When I remove the plants from their growing pots, it’s as if they were delicate crystal ornaments being unwrapped from fine tissue paper. I avoid pulling them out by their stems or leaves. I am afraid garden gloves would have me manhandle their tender stems. And my ungloved index finger works nicely as a trowel for such meager plants. I save the shovel for larger bushes and shrubs.

Once every new little green blade has its place, we step back and make sure that this is where they will stay. It is not wise to re-plant too many times as the plants will go into shock very quickly.

Next it is time for the children to do the watering. We never start off with the water coming straight from the hose. Watering cans and spray bottles seem to do a better job.

They water until the soil is saturated but not puddled. The three children love to take turns doing this, but not for very long. It too will soon become a chore to them, like watering the beagle, so we are grateful when the plantings can stand on their own.

These native plants should not need much help from here on out. Gardeners from several of the already matured MaryLandscapes tell us that they do an occasional weeding as the weeks progress, and that is about it.

The bees will kick in their share of work and our feathered friends will delight in the berries, leaving morsels behind to perhaps germinate next season.

I can now go on to my herbs, flowers and vegetables. After what we just undertook, I feel like an old pro.

Toward Summer

We still have a long way to go with our new endeavor, but it seems like we are on the right path. Half of the joy of gardening is working the soil and seeing the seeds sprout to life and the plants take on their new environment. We will be careful not only to tend our new natives but also to stop and smell them.

On a balmy summer morning, we will sit beneath nature’s roof of billowy clouds to watch the hummingbirds nuzzle into our native garden. We will eat homegrown strawberries, too.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly