Native Gardening With Jimmy: An HOA chooses native landscaping
BY JIMMY ROGERS
In October 2021, Maryland became the first state in the nation to ban homeowners associations (HOAs) from interfering with their residents’ native gardens. Many gardeners breathed a sigh of relief, knowing their vibrant creations were safe from warnings, fines and destruction. But why stop there? This year, my HOA planted a huge native garden, and it didn’t cost us a penny.
I moved into a new community on the edge of Old Town Laurel around the same time that the HOA law passed. Patuxent Triangle is tiny, with only five duplexes — 10 units total. Despite our small size, we still have a board of directors, and by asking too many questions, I found myself elected as secretary one year and president the next.
Broadly speaking, no one likes their HOA, so adopting a don’t be evil approach, responding quickly to problems and doing at least one positive thing each year goes a long way to keep the neighborhood happy. Regarding that one positive thing, my effort began when I took a stroll in a thunderstorm.
From my porch, I noticed that water striking some surfaces made a splash, while striking others, it seemed to vanish. My curiosity piqued, I picked up my umbrella and inspected different landing sites. My own native garden hungrily ate up the water while grassy areas sometimes absorbed the water, and sometimes the water formed a standing pool. Native plants have deep roots and create inroads in the soil for absorption, whereas turf grass has shallow roots that do little to break up our local clay.
Looking up the street, I saw a river of storm water sliding off the shared parking lot, pooling on the HOA’s grassy common area, running over the sidewalk and flowing directly into a culvert. To put it another way, the dirtiest first flush of storm water from our parking lot, including oil and other car drippings, was flowing unimpeded into the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, storm drains only take care of water hitting the roadways, so when private land like ours doesn’t absorb its own rainfall, it puts an unplanned load on the storm sewer system.
After conferring with my fellow HOA directors about the problem, I reached out to the Chesapeake Bay Trust (CBT) to see whether we might get some funding for a project.I met with a CBT program manager who recommended a conservation landscaping practice called a swale to divert the storm water into our community’s pocket meadow. After reviewing some options, the program manager suggested we apply for funding from the trust’s Community Engagement and Restoration Mini Grant program. Worth up to $5,000, a mini grant might solve our storm water problem and also allow us to create a whole new garden for our community.
I will spare you details of the ensuing 10 months of planning, working with neighbors, applying for the grant, endless waiting, celebrating the grant award, having a land owner back out, replanning the entire project and eventually starting the work. Ultimately, we received a grant for the full value, and our contractor on the project, Howard EcoWorks, matched the grant with funding they had previously received from the National Wildlife Federation for such projects. What started as my curiosity taking me out in the rain had blossomed into a $10,000 garden design and tree planting project. We received such a large sum in part because our neighborhood is in a historically underserved area, but there is generally a lot of money earmarked right now for projects like ours.
Finding myself with a huge budget to build the swale, acquire plants and hire labor to plant them, I got to work on the design. I marked out 125 feet of relatively barren or eroded land along Montgomery Street and divided it up into beds with different sunlight and moisture conditions. From there, I created a low-resolution diagram on Excel, one cell per square foot. I also kept a list of plants, so I could see which species were used where, when each would start blooming, and how quantities and prices would impact our total cost. The design took up a lot of my time and needed many revisions, but it saved us $1,000 to do it ourselves, and it gave me a lot of control over the final outcome.
Taking what I’ve learned from ecologists and the native gardening community, I included many insect-hosting plants, planned for a wide variety of bloom times, and featured berry-producing shrubs to feed birds. Additionally, I built the groundcover layer first to ensure we could claim the newly disturbed soil and prevent encroachment by non-native weeds. Only then, did I start adding taller herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. Speaking of trees, I found a home for one canopy tree, a white swamp oak (Quercus bicolor), and two berry-producing understory trees called serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis).
Howard EcoWorks helped us source most of the plants, and we targeted a week in October for installation. However, we had agreed to prepare the ground ourselves to save money. We needed to smother turf grass in several spots, so I ordered a load of arborist wood chips through ChipDrop, which connects gardeners with arborists. I was fortunate to find Laurel neighbors (both in and out of the HOA) willing to help shovel 20 cubic yards of wood chips into several locations, and then remove the chips again after five weeks to make way for topsoil and plants. (If you’re curious where we put the chips afterward, we moved them to another neighbor’s yard to begin smothering his grass.)
With the ground prepared, the installation could proceed, and I appreciate the hard work and dedication shown by the Howard EcoWorks crew. Altogether, in a long and narrow garden of 800 square feet, we planted about 800 native plants representing almost 50 species. The garden will bloom from March to November and host hundreds of types of insects. As the garden grows, the roots will pull carbon below the surface, enrich the soil and increase the land’s ability to hold water. As the new trees grow, they will shade the ground and provide shelter for birds and other animals.
Should you find yourself in Old Town, visit the 1000 block of Montgomery Street and see the garden for yourself. I expect it will be quite a sight in late spring and again in high summer. If you’d like to learn more about our project or opportunities for your own organization to build a native garden, you can reach me at email@example.com.