A Legacy Garden

butterfly feeding on button bush
A native checkerspot butter fly on a native button bush flower. 

park photo

Our natural heritage or legacy can be as beautiful as any garden. It takes time to create. The following are some tips to get you started. You can begin by identifying and pulling non-indigenous plants or invasive plants.

Inventory what you have

It is so tempting to look at species that thrived in your area a thousand years ago and try to jump right from where you are to that ecological community. However, we have to deal with the reality of changes in weather, soil, and new species. So, start with the weather, soil, and species around you now. You are embarking on ecological restoration on a small scale. It is going to be rewarding, but takes time.

If you have lived in the area a few years, you already know the sun exposure, precipitation patterns and temperature ranges. If not, track hours of sun for the area you are considering. Track weekly rain and snow that falls for a year, or go to a weather log that may be available in your area. This helps plan when and what to plant.

Even if you know your area, diseases and insects have been introduced that may weaken or kill indigenous plants. Save money and effort before you plant by contacting your agriculture extension office to find out if a pest or disease has been introduced that eats or kills an expensive plant. You may have to find an alternative for that niche ( job a species does). Take a walk in the wild areas of parks or natural places near you and see what is doing well that is indigenous. A field guide, like Peterson's, will help you distinguish the indigenous from the naturalized plants. Naturalized plants were brought here and escaped.

Make a plan

For long term success, while you are weeding, you will need to consider niches in your landscape. Niches that exist in all environments are producers (usually green plants ), consumers (eat plants or other animals ), and decomposers (most often mold, fungi, bacteria, and insects ). All life depends on water, air, and soil for a habitat. You will have to find patterns over time, and look for relationships among them. For instance water may be reduced, changing soil structure as microbes in it die. Think in terms of habitats and niches for this to work. It all begins with viable soil, soil that supports insect, mold, fungi and other life. The plants are not just for looking at. They may be host plant for caterpillars that become butterflies which pollinate other flowers. Insects can be good. Ants keep the soil from compacting and carry seeds underground where some are eaten and some sprout spreading your plants. Birds flip through rotting leaves on the ground in winter looking for insects and fertilize and loosen the soil. When done right, it all works together, and you sit back and enjoy the show.

Start with soil. If you start with your existing soil, you may be able to rebuild, over several years, a good habitat for many indigenous plants. In the Washington, DC area, clay soil is common. In the past it was covered by the build up of leaves and decayed wood and animals of the forest. The clay provided minerals and the decayed matter held moisture, so hundreds of different plants could survive that would not survive here now. There are published articles on building soil.. You should also have soil tested for acidity and mineral content through your agriculture extension office.

Water as needed. Unless you really know your weather, get a rain gage to track rain fall over a two or three year period to avoid anomalies. Keep track of it by the week so you can see if there is a consistent dry time of year. Our rains in Washington, DC are often spotty so one area may not be average compared to the whole area. Look through weather records to see what the low temperatures and high temperature are.

Get solar. Determine hours and intensity of sun exposure for where you plan to put plants.

Decide what is possible with the current conditions, and conditions you can control.

Things you can control:

Soil, over time. It takes about a century in nature to build an inch of topsoil. However there are techniques to speed this up.

Water, to some extent. If you have no water restriction, you can add or subtract water from an area as needed. If you are paying for water, cost may be a factor. If you depend on a well, you have to consider what drought will do to your well if you need to water plants for several months at a time. Rain barrels need rain to fill them, but may be a solution. No matter what source, you have to make the commitment to water new plantings for about five years for them to get established.

Plants you select.

Things you cannot control: temperature, large term rain/snow patterns, the needs of plants you may want but that won't live in current conditions.

Taking action

If you have many aggressive plants, you can begin pulling or digging them out in small areas about a yard square or a bit bigger. Remove a bit at a time, allowing indigenous plants to get a good start in the clearing you've made. Then you can expand the area. This prevents soil erosion and other, even more aggressive plants, from taking advantage of the opening. Start at the edge of an area of invasive plants and work toward the densest part of the growth. Keep in mind, if you use herbicides, they may kill all plants and it may be a while before you can introduce any new plants. Just eliminating aggressive plants may allow indigenous plants to sprout and grow.

Determine from a field guide like Peterson's or other sources which plants are indigenous to your area and will grow in your current conditions. Also consider which you are willing to live with, as some become weedy. Start buying indigenous plants that will live in what you have now, not what you will have. Succession is normal in nature and takes time. Some species depend on other species such as a particular fungi or insect to survive. If you don't have the support species, the species you want will die in a few years. Lady slippers and running cedar are two that can be transplanted briefly, but die in time due to lack of support fungi.

Be realistic. If a filed guide says an Appalachian Mountain fern lives on limestone outcropping and needs cool moisture, it will die in the acid soil and dry hot summers of this area. Contact your state or regional native plant society for information as well. For DC, or Maryland, contact www.mdflora.org.. Native plant societies can provide information on what to plant and sources.

Use caution and be responsible in obtaining plants. Never take plants out of public spaces. Ask nurseries to show you where they propagate plants to be sure they did not take them from public lands and put them in a greenhouse to recover from transplant shock. If you see a public hearing sign where a natural area is going to be developed, you can get the phone number and frequently get permission to rescue plants from bulldozers. Exchange seeds with other gardeners.

As you build your soil and plant communities, you may be able to add species that would not have survived in your starting conditions.

For more information on what to avoid and what to grow contact Plant Conservation Alliance: land manager group dedicated to maintaining biodiversity in the global plant kingdom. Has how to's, guides and links to support


Bay Scapes has Chesapeake Bay friendly how to's, wildlife, water conservation, native plants for your area


Last updated: April 10, 2015

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