Good Hedges Make Good Neighbors

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Dense plantings between properties are a valuable amenity, so much so that they are mandated for many building projects. A mixed hedge consisting of native plant species has the added value of supporting the songbirds in our communities. Privacy screens don’t always work out as planned, though, so here are a few considerations for creating and maintaining them.

Rows of identical evergreen trees or shrubs have been the conventional choice for screening. A strong case can be made, however, for mixing it up a bit. Ten plants of the same species may look symmetrical initially, but nature has a way of laughing at symmetry. Small variations in sunlight and moisture can cause the plants to grow at different rates. In the case of shrubs, this problem can be countered for a while by shearing them all to the same height. But it’s not a lot of fun to be standing on a ladder to shear plants, and eventually plants tend to rebel at being chopped back and start to look tired or leggy. A more serious problem occurs when one of them dies, leaving a hole in the screening, or worse, when a disease spreads from plant to plant, as can easily happen to a monoculture.

By contrast, a screen that consists of a variety of native plants – chosen because their natural sizes are appropriate for the situation – can do the job while reducing maintenance needs. As an important bonus, native trees and shrubs provide not only nesting sites for songbirds but also food for both the adults and the nestlings, unlike plants that evolved elsewhere and do little to support the local ecosystem. A list of native plants that are suitable for screening can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website.

Sometimes people find themselves in a hurry to screen off an undesirable view and are facing the problem of having to wait for trees and shrubs to grow high enough. A better solution may be to block the view right away with a lattice and cover it with Coral Honeysuckle or Crossvine. Both of these evergreen native vines have colorful blooms that attract hummingbirds..

Unfortunately, our buffer areas between properties have become a prime target for invasive plant species, which can seriously degrade a site before the landowner realizes something is wrong. If screening was mandated in the development process, local ordinances require that the plants be maintained in good health and replaced if they die. The most immediate threat is posed by invasive vines such as Japanese Honeysuckle or Asian Wisteria which strangle and smother trees and shrubs. A nice screening that was an amenity is now a derelict eyesore and an invitation to dumping. Invasive trees such as Callery Pear crowd out the native trees, and invasive shrubs such as Japanese Barberry, Nandina, and Burning Bush prevent tree seedlings from growing. The sooner these plants are recognized and dealt with, the easier and less expensive it will be to preserve the beauty of our homes and communities. You can learn more about that on the invasives management page of the Plant NOVA Natives website.


Does Your Tree Company Speak for the Trees? Getting Help from the Pros

Photo: Sara Holtz, tree with “mulch volcano”

Article by Cindy Speas, Chair of the Fairfax County Tree Commission

I am frequently asked “What service do you use for advice about the health of your trees?” I’m glad to get the question, because often the expertise needed for lawn and landscape care is not the same service needed to evaluate the health of trees, which is a whole science unto itself. My response is always that you need a good arborist, and not every tree service has one on staff. Some tree care companies do provide a free arborist consultation—but you still must analyze the wide range of recommendations you will get. One strategy would be to hire an independent arborist first, followed by free arborist consultations from reputable tree service companies.

How can you find a qualified professional to care for your trees? Go to PlantNOVATrees for information on choosing someone to work with. Call several services, ask if they have an ISA certified arborist on staff and what the fee is for a consultation (if any). Get recommendations from those you know whose trees are healthy and well-maintained. For more details read Virginia Cooperative Extension’s excellent publication on hiring an arborist.

You will be in a better position to evaluate the arborist’s advice if you know some of the best management practices in tree maintenance and care before you have a consultation. Here are some telltale recommendations that a good arborist would NEVER MAKE:

  1. That you should top your tree (take off the ends of most or all of the branches)

  2. That you should preventatively spray your tree canopy with herbicides to kill any bugs (“pests”) that might be there

  3. That you should trim out all the dead wood that can be seen

  4. That you should trim living branches in a way that leaves a part of the branch (spur) on the tree

  5. That you should build up mulch in a “volcano” shape around the base of the tree trunk to hold in water or discourage pests

  6. That you should frequently irrigate your trees using a sprinkler.

In fact:

  1. You should NEVER top your trees—this will hasten their death.

  2. You should ONLY use foliar herbicidal spray on your tree if there is clear evidence of a killer pest, and not just one that chews on the leaves a bit. A “preventative” spray will kill pollinators and the other beneficial insects that live in your trees and that attract songbirds to your yard. Spraying can also be harmful to overall tree and soil health.

  3. You should ONLY remove dead wood that is hazardous to humans or property. Removing all the observed dead wood does not improve the health of any tree.

  4. You should NEVER leave a branch spur (nor cut a branch flush to the trunk), because the tree cannot heal those wounds. Always remove branches right between the collar and the tree trunk so the wound can heal. It is preferable not to trim living branches if at all possible.

  5. You should NEVER allow mulch to be “volcanoed” around the base of any tree—volcanoing encourages roots to grow above ground into the mulch and invites fungi and tree pests.

  6. You should NEVER overwater your trees—if drought conditions suggest an occasional thorough watering, you should place a hose at various points around the root zone for a long, slow drink.

      Ask the arborist for the science behind his or her recommendations—if you are told you have pests, ask how the arborist diagnosed that. If you are told the trees need fertilizing, ask how and why the arborist believes that is a good strategy. If the responses aren’t based on good scientific evidence, then you might not have the best arborist for your trees. If an answer doesn’t seem exactly right, is too costly, or requires a signed annual contract including all their recommendations before doing the work that you actually want, get a second or third arborist’s opinion. You’d do that for your health and that of your family, so why not also do that for the health of your trees?

    Shrink the Lawn

    Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

    If you grew up in suburbia, a pristine lawn was a welcome herald of spring. Everyone enjoys the smell of freshly mowed grass and the look of a well-kept, manicured lawn. So what, you might wonder, is the problem with turfgrass? After all, it is a green, living plant, busily photosynthesizing carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and glucose, while providing an even surface to walk and play on. But not all is as it seems.

    No one has taught us more in recent years about the negative impact on biodiversity of sterile suburban and urban landscapes than Dr. Douglas Tallamy, an ecologist, conservationist, and Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware. Experimenting for decades on his own ten-acre home in Oxford, Pennsylvania, he eliminated turfgrass and planted native flowers, shrubs, and trees, which vastly increased the kinds and number of caterpillars, birds, frogs, and other critters living there. From this experience, he formed and shared a new understanding of how turfgrass, a staple feature of American suburbia, diminishes biodiversity.

    The grasses we use for turf, even varieties with names like “Kentucky Bluegrass”, are not native to America. Lawn grass has a long history in Europe that extends back to the Middle Ages. To this day, the species of turfgrass planted in the U.S. are native to Europe, and like all non-native plant species, they do next to nothing to support our local wildlife.

    Turfgrass now covers an estimated 40 million acres in America, acting like corn or other farmed monocultures that have replaced the more diverse habitats that supported far more local wildlife. To add insult to injury, we keep it alive using fossil fuels for mowers and leaf blowers and by adding toxic chemicals that harm plants and animals. Useful and attractive as it may be, turfgrass impoverishes the environment. In addition, turfgrass absorbs far less run-off than one would think. Rain washes over it but doesn’t penetrate to any significant depth. It therefore contributes to an abnormal volume of stormwater runoff that pollutes and erodes our streams and rivers and ultimately damages the Chesapeake Bay.

    Converting even some of the 40 million acres of turfgrass to more natural habitats would benefit the environment while also supporting a host of pollinators and other wildlife. Doug Tallamy is optimistic that if we reduce the acreage by half, we will essentially reestablish our country’s biodiversity.

    One strategy to reduce turfgrass, or at least to make it more habitable for local insects, has recently attracted a lot of interest: No Mow May. The movement began in 2019 as the brainchild of  Plantlife, a United Kingdom conservation charity. The idea was to refrain from mowing the lawn for the entire month of May to promote the growth of more flowering weeds and thereby induce more pollinators and other wildlife to stop and stay a while. As the idea spread to America and gained popularity, researchers at Lawrence University conducted a study that supported Plantlife’s theory that more bee species were visiting the un-mowed lawns when compared to nearby public lands that were being mowed throughout the month. The study gained national attention and resulted in the adoption of No Mow May across America in several jurisdictions.

    However, the majority of our common weed species are non-native and therefore provide minimal benefit beyond nectar.  The Lawrence University study was later retracted due to “several potential inconsistencies in data handling and reporting.” In addition, some critics of No Mow May, including Doug Tallamy, raised concerns that providing a safe haven that is so temporary might actually be harmful. For the moment, it is unclear if there is any boost to biodiversity from a No Mow May strategy alone.

    What is clear is that planting a permanent pollinator sanctuary with native species, especially in place of existing turfgrass, is effective. Such an endeavor will benefit many pollinators and caterpillars over the entire growing season while also chipping away at the amount of turfgrass in our suburban and urban settings. It’s a win-win for all.

    The task of creating a healthier environment seems big, but small efforts by many people can add up. If we shrink the lawn by converting even a modest patch of existing turfgrass to native plantings, we will have improved the food web and biodiversity of our yard –  and that is no small matter. For ideas on how to go about it, see the Plant NOVA Natives website.

    Humans and Trees Share a Common Enemy: Stress!

    Article by Elaine Kolish; feature photo: Plant NOVA Natives

    We all know that chronic stress affects our health and well-being, causing us to go into “fight or flight” mode. That, in turn, can lead to a variety of health effects ranging from depression to high blood pressure, which itself can increase our risk for stroke or heart attack. Ongoing stress also affects the health of trees. But unlike us, they have limited options for reducing their stress. They can use internally produced chemicals and scents to deter predators and warn other trees of threats, as well as help stressed neighbors by sharing water and nutrients through an underground fungal network. But they can’t pick up and move to avoid stressful conditions. We need to step in and alleviate tree stressors to the extent we can, particularly those caused by human activity. The good news is that caring for trees and spending time in nature can reduce our own stress. A win-win.
    Although there are some stressors – such as early spring frosts, extreme heat, and heavy snow and ice – where we are mostly powerless to help, there are many others where we can make a difference. And it is important to do so, because trees can die from exposure to long-term stress, such multi-year droughts.or become more susceptible to insect pests or to diseases that kill them. Let’s look at some human-caused stressors – ones that we can control – and at environmental tree stressors such as drought, where we might be able to help.

    ·         Use the right plant in the right spot. Right off the bat, you will stress a tree if you plant it in the wrong spot. For example, a shade loving, understory tree such as Flowering Dogwood is going to be highly stressed if planted in full sun in dry soil. Consult for help in choosing the right trees for your site.

    ·         Use proper planting and staking techniques, These include not planting the tree too deeply and not burying the trunk flare. Think about whether you need stakes and guy wires, because preventing a tree from swaying in the wind will weaken it. If you do use them, always remove them in a timely fashion and not later than a year after planting. When left on too long, stakes can girdle and kill a tree. For information on how to plant a tree properly, consult Fairfax CountyTree Basics.

    ·         Use proper mulching techniques. Mulch should be applied in a donut shape, not a volcano, and should not touch the tree. When piled high against the tree, mulch can cause decay and ultimately death. The mulch should not be more than two or three inches deep to allow the rain to penetrate. If for some reason you want to add more every year, you should remove the old mulch first.

    ·         Avoid competition for water. Trees and turf are not friends. Since both have shallow roots, they compete for water and nutrients, and turf wins the battle in the tree’s early life. Also, if there is grass under trees, we run the risk when mowing of damaging the bark, nicking shallow tree roots, or compacting the soil. Any of those will stress our trees. Mulch and/or dead leaves under trees is best, and the larger the ring, the better. A large turf-free ring also provides the opportunity for underplanting with native shrubs and ground-layer plants, creating a mini productive habitat for insects and wildlife.

    ·         Everyday activities that can hurt trees. Chaining bikes or other items to trees can damage their bark, as does allowing car doors or bumpers to hit them. Repeatedly wounding their bark makes trees vulnerable to decay and disease. Parking under trees also causes soil compaction that can suffocate tree roots.

    ·         Use proper pruning methods. Don’t top trees! That is a sure way to weaken a tree, make it structurally less sound, and in the most extreme situations eventually kill it. It is useful [1] to take out broken, diseased and dead branches. For example, a clean cut to remove a broken branch helps a tree recover from a wound better, and pruning out a dead branch keeps it from falling unexpectedly and damaging something or someone.  If you don’t know how to prune trees properly, hire a certified arborist to do so or consult one of the many how-to-prune books you can find at the library. A good reference book can show you how to prune trees so they are free from structural weakness and are as healthy and vigorous as possible.

    ·         Water during droughts. We may not think to water our native trees and shrubs, because a key characteristic of native plants is that once they are established, they no longer need to be watered. But, when there is a drought, even natives may need to be watered, and that is especially true if they have limited soil space from which to draw water, such as in a small tree box next to a street. Without sufficient water, trees will lose their fine absorbing roots and leaves and move to a dormant state. Years of drought and/or other stressors eventually can cause the tree to die.

    ·         Protect young trees from deer browse. Unfortunately, an overabundance of deer can stress and threaten the survival of our woodies. Consult Plant NOVA Natives for strategies to deal with that.

    Although human actions as well as environmental factors can stress trees, we can avoid causing harm and can take actions that keep trees healthy and vigorous. Trees provide us so many benefits, including a profound sense of well-being, that it is well worth it for all of us to do all we can to reduce tree stresses and promote tree health.

    Create a Mini Meadow

    Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

    When they aren’t being bulldozed over, the natural state of most meadows in Northern Virginia is to gradually revert to forest, but that fact does not lessen their importance to the ecosystem. Although there are many threats to our woods, it is the meadows that are disappearing the fastest, which is a big problem for birds and other critters that depend on sizable meadows for habitat. When was the last time you saw a meadowlark or a quail, for example?  So if you own land with a natural meadow, you do a great service by preventing it from reforesting (or from being developed.)  

    Most of us don’t have natural meadows on our properties, but we, too, can help repair some of the damage by adding meadow plant species to our yards. In most cases, that translates to creating pollinator gardens that can serve as mini-meadows or small-scale meadow analogs that attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinating insects. Even relatively small spaces can foster meadow habitats, especially because much of the ecological value of a meadow comes from common, easy to find, easy to grow species.
    Start with just two or three sturdy and meadow-loving natives that produce beautiful flowers and attract pollinators as well, such as Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Goldenrod (e.g., Solidago rugosa or Solidago caesia), Mountain mint (e.g., Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), and Hollow Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium fistulosum). Plants like to grow in communities near other plants. It’s a good idea to put three to five of them together, which mimics the way plants grow naturally in meadows. You can always increase the types and number of native flowering plants in your mini meadow, expanding it over time as your space and interest allows.
    Pollinator turnout on flowering natives is high. Dozens if not hundreds of hummingbirds, bumblebees, flies, beetles, and hummingbird moths, along with many other kinds of pollinators, will show up. The more varied your mini meadow offerings, the more diverse the pollinator population it will attract. It is sure to delight and amaze you, especially when compared to the dearth of pollinator activity on non-native landscapes. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more insect-eating birds such as warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. They will certainly notice and take advantage of the opportunity.
    When planning your mini meadow, don’t forget grasses. Somewhere between 40% and 70% of meadow plant species are some sort of grass, a term used here to include sedges, rushes, and grasses. All grasses are wind pollinated, so you won’t see the same level of pollinator interaction as with the native flowers listed above. But grasses are nevertheless essential to the wildlife of a healthy meadow.  Their dense roots, which you will only fully appreciate the first time you try to dig up a native grass plant and move it, help stabilize the soil, prevent erosion, corral assertive native flower species, and tamp down weeds. Birds use grasses for nesting materials. Monarch butterfly larva can use grass stems for cocooning. Grasses are host plants for skipper butterflies. The list goes on. They provide support and protection for many birds, insects, and other small meadow critters living in, on, or close to the ground.
    You can find out more about garden-worthy grasses on the Plant NOVA Natives website. Good bets for your mini meadow include Broomsedge, Eastern narrow-leaved sedge, and Little Bluestem.
    You won’t have to go far to find native meadow flowers and grasses for sale. Many sellers are close to where you live. Northern Virginia is fortunate to have several native-only garden centers. In addition, one-day native plant sales are held across the region in the spring and fall. Also, conventional garden centers now supply more native plant options than ever given the growing consumer demand.
    No matter how modest or ambitious your plans may be, taking the first step to build a mini meadow habitat is what matters. Your new native plantings will expand meadow-like habitats, increase meadow-loving life, and ultimately improve the biodiversity of the region.

    Build a Mini Bird Sanctuary

    Article by Plant NOVA Natives

    Photo: Common Grackle by Paula Sullivan

    The best sanctuaries for birds are undisturbed expanses of forests and meadows. Anyone can see that those are rapidly disappearing in Northern Virginia, and where they remain, they are rapidly shrinking below the size needed for many bird species. Those in charge of any patch of land can help some of these birds by adding plants to expand the habitat value of nearby parks and natural areas.

    The partnering organizations that together make up Plant NOVA Natives are inviting individuals and communities to participate in a “Bird Sanctuary Planting Weekend,” October 25-28. People will be installing native canopy trees and understory plants all on the same weekend, all across the region, in a big celebration of trees and the natural world. In Fairfax County, the first twenty faith communities to apply will receive a free “mini bird sanctuary” – a native canopy tree and two native shrubs – assuming they have an appropriate location, as confirmed by volunteers who will be doing site visits to help the communities evaluate their properties for opportunities to improve habitat.

    What does it take to provide sanctuary for birds? The first requirement is that the plants be native to the local ecosystem. This is because the diet of baby birds consists primarily of caterpillars, and most caterpillars can only eat the plants with which they evolved. By far the biggest source of food for caterpillars is the leaves of large native shade trees, by virtue of their immense canopy compared to smaller plants. The second requirement is to provide food for the adults. Adult birds also require caterpillars and other bugs for protein. They also need the seeds and fruits from the smaller native trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers that are tailor-made for their nutritional needs (unlike those of many non-native plants.) Different bird species feed and nest at different heights from the ground, so native plants are needed at all levels. You may notice, for example, the preference of sparrows and robins for the ground layer, bluebirds for the shrubs, bluejays higher still, and woodpeckers in the canopy. (The fact that some birds require the lower levels is the reason why it is so imperative to keep cats indoors.)

    Another reason to install native plants at the ground layer Is that many of those caterpillars feeding up in the trees spend part of their life cycles sheltering on the ground. They cannot find the habitat they need in mounds of mulch, not to mention in lawns where they get chopped up by lawn mowers. What does provide shelter is native perennials and dead leaves.  So once you have your trees and shrubs in place, you can have the fun of exploring the numerous native groundcover options, gradually expanding the landing pad out to the drip line as the trees grow.

    Controlling English Ivy Saves Trees and Combats Climate Change

    Photo: Plant NoVa Natives

    Article by Elaine Kolish, Vice Chair, Fairfax County Tree Commission, Certified Master Naturalist

    English Ivy is everywhere, in our neighborhoods, along our roads, and in our parks. It climbs over fences, covers sheds, and carpets forest floors. Unfortunately, many people think English Ivy is a benign plant that grows in the shade, where nothing else grows.

    The truth is English Ivy is harmful in many ways. Even if well-manicured and contained on the ground, English Ivy provides a resting spot for mosquitos on hot days or hides puddles where they can breed, and who wants that! More importantly, when it covers forest floors it displaces native plants, and eliminates needed and productive biodiversity. When it climbs trees it harms and eventually kills them, which eliminates the important environmental benefits trees provide, such as wildlife habitat, preventing stormwater from entering streams, cooling our environment, and combatting climate change.

    Trees are one of our best tools for capturing carbon dioxide, which is necessary to fight global warming. According to the US Forest Service, America’s forests sequester about 16% of the annual emissions from the United States. Because trees are such excellent carbon sinks, there are large scale reforestation efforts underway. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan calls for more than one billion new trees to be planted over the next 10 years. In addition, the government’s experts know that controlling invasive species that kill trees is an important strategy for enhancing carbon capture.

    We as individuals also have an important role to play in controlling English Ivy at home and in our natural areas. Otherwise it covers everything in its path, and when left unchecked, English Ivy grows vertically (by rootlets on the stem). On trees, the weight of the vine weakens and breaks limbs, which can make trees more susceptible to infections, and over time the vines cover trees so totally that they die. But that’s not all. When English Ivy goes vertical it matures. It then will flower and set fruit. Birds then eat and disperse the fruit, spreading the English Ivy invasion.

    Homeowners can protect their costly landscaping and help the environment by eliminating English Ivy from their gardens or, at a minimum, by keeping it from growing up trees. Wearing gloves, cut all the vines on a tree about two feet up and again at ground level. There is no need to pull the vines off the tree. Deprived of water and nutrients from the soil, the vines will wither. You will have to repeat this occasionally if you do not remove all the ivy. Hand pulling after a rain softens the soil is the best way to get rid of English Ivy. The debris should go in the trash. Do not compost it or put it out with the brush collection as it will continue to grow and spread in these locations.

    The good news is that there are lots of alternative native ground covers that will support pollinators and our environment. You can find excellent suggestions in the Native Plants for Northern Virginia guide, such as Virginia Creeper and ferns.

    You also can help our neighborhoods, forests, and parks by becoming a Tree Rescuer, or by working with organizations that do invasive management including pulling ivy. Working together, we can ensure the health of our wonderful trees and improve our environment, as well as our personal well-being, by spending time in nature.

    Managing larger properties for birds, butterflies, and people

    Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

    The outdoor space on larger properties in Northern Virginia, whether residential or commercial, is typically divided into formal landscaping close to buildings and natural areas at the periphery. New practices are emerging on how to manage both areas, practices that protect the ecosystem and support the birds and the butterflies while better satisfying human needs.

    The natural areas between properties are an important amenity, providing visual barriers and sound buffers while capturing stormwater and reducing flooding. Looking around, it is evident that those natural areas are often being left to take care of themselves. The result is that they are steadily degrading as the native trees are displaced by invasive non-native trees and are directly killed by invasive vines. The shrubs and ground layers are equally damaged by invasives species at those levels. Many of these invasive plants originate from the landscaped areas where they had been planted before people knew to do otherwise. Preserving trees and habitat in both areas requires taking out the invasives and replacing them with native species, of which numerous options are available.

    Some other tweaking is also needed to common landscaping practices. To name a few examples, piling mulch against the trunks of trees causes the bark to rot. Blowing the fallen leaves out from under trees destroys the cover where fireflies and many butterflies overwinter. Leaf blowers with two-stroke engines pour pollution into the air and are loud enough to damage workers’ ears. Outdoor lighting can adversely affect birds, insects and plants. Spraying insecticides kills the bees and caterpillars even more than the mosquitoes they are intended to target. Simple solutions are available to mitigate all these problems.

    Professional property managers and community managers negotiate the contracts with landscaping companies and can work with them to adjust their services. Details of the various options for both landscaped and natural areas can be found on the Plant NOVA Trees website in a section specifically for professionals. Please spread the word to the managers of any properties where you live or work.

    Community Entranceway Landscaping

    Article, Photos, and Images: Courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives: Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association 

    The Audubon-at-Home program in partnership with Plant NOVA Natives obtained a grant from Dominion Energy to award seven matching mini-grants to community associations for converting their entranceway landscaping to all Virginia native plants. The mini-grants stipulated that the landscaping be designed so that the community’s standard landscape company could maintain it. The projects were installed in the fall of 2021. The “after” photos are from Spring 2022. Below, the organizer from Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association shared some thoughts about their experience that may help other communities.

    Note: Any community or individual in Northern Virginia who wish to use their property for wildlife sanctuary is encouraged to invite an Audubon-at-Home volunteer to walk their property with them and strategize.

    In Fairfax County, The Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association participated in the program.

    From the Water’s Edge Organizers:

    It is so exciting to see these plants come back this year! We have several signs that you will notice in the pics. Besides the Native Plants sign, there are some smaller signs as well. The smaller green one requests that the plants not be sprayed. There are also small signs with numbers. The numbers correlate to the educational piece, which is the QR codes in multiple places, which invite people to learn more about the plant that is there. This is something we said we would have by this spring. We are still looking into other educational opportunities for the community and will take any chance to share the work that has been done and the benefits associated with planting natives. Since the entrance is located on a walking path in the area, the QR codes are placed so that anyone walking by has the opportunity to learn more about any of the plants. On our part, having this done and engaging with the work has prompted us to consider only natives in other parts of the neighborhood as trees need to be replaced, beds need to be rebuilt, and our own properties need plantings. The invasives that were in the area, such as the lilies, have been difficult to remove, and they came back in full force this year. Hands Dirty came back to remove more of them, and we will continue to monitor the need for removal. During bouts of hot and/or dry weather, we are watering by hand or hiring the landscaping company to water the plants at the entrance as well as other native plantings we are working to establish.

    Additional articles about this program and participants:
    Welcoming Visitors with Native Plant Landscaping — Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (

    Plant List:

    Switchgrass (Panicum virgatam ‘Shenandoah’
    Southern Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera)
    Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
    Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana)
    Pennsylvania Sedge) (Carex pensylvanica)
    Wood Aster
    Woodland Phlox (Phlox diviracata) ‘Sherwood Purple’
    Native azalea
    Meadow Anemone
    American Strawberrybush (Euonymyous americanus)
    Aromatic Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
    Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) ‘Emerald Pink’
    Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
    Black-eyed Susan
    Culver’s Root
    False Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis)
    Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)
    Mountain Mint


    Before Picture and After Pictures:

    Courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives: Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association


    Courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives: Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association


    Courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives: Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association


    Courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives: Water’s Edge at Fair Lakes Homeowners Association


    Native Groundcovers and Trees: The Perfect Pairing!

    Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

    Native groundcovers are becoming increasingly popular, for good reason: even if they have minimal time for gardening, people want to use native plants to support our local birds and butterflies. To avoid invasive non-native groundcovers such as English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra, they turn to native plants for the same landscaping benefits without the damage to our trees and the rest of the environment.

    Equally popular among time-pressed residents are native trees, which are similarly easy to install and which have benefits that far exceed those of any other plants. Not only does the great mass of tree leaves and roots provide food and homes for birds, soak up stormwater, and cool the air, the insects that evolved with native plants are adapted to the chemical make-up of those plants and are able to co-exist peacefully with them. An American Beech tree, for example, is the host plant to 126 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Hickory to 200 species, Black Cherry around 450 species, and native oaks over 500 species. (The numbers for non-native trees are in the single digits or even zero.)

    Over 30 species of locally native plants make excellent groundcovers, with options available for any growing condition. Several are evergreen, and many have the bonus of a month or two of colorful flowers. Some form a tight mat on the ground, while others such as ferns and White Wood Aster provide a taller look. Native sedges provide even more options. Some sedges make a beautiful substitute for the invasive Liriope, some look more like a grass that never needs mowing, and still others sport spiky seed heads that add a touch of quirkiness to the garden. Our local conventional garden centers are starting to carry some of these plants, and many more can be found at native plant garden centers.

    Encircling native trees with native groundcovers makes eminent sense. Turf grass does poorly under trees because of the limited light. Trees do not appreciate lawn chemicals, not to mention the risk of injury from lawnmowers and string trimmers. A harmful but common practice, especially in commercial areas, is to pile layer after layer of mulch in a “mulch volcano” around trees and spray it with herbicides to prevent grass and weed growth. Not only does this poison the soil, but mulch that is touching the trunk will rot the bark, and compacted mulch prevents rainwater from reaching the roots. Arborist wood chips, which allow the water to run through, are an improvement over shredded bark mulch if applied properly and can protect the tree as it gets established. But in the long run, why not use nature’s alternative to a toxic mulch bed, which is to allow the fallen leaves to remain in place and add a “green mulch” made up of native plants? The trees and the soil will thank you for it.