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How to Plan and Plant a Native Garden

A Bay Weekly conversation with landscape architect Sheila Brady
      We’re all converts, right? We’ve learned by heart the advantages of native plant gardens.
      They’re amenable to the peculiarities of our climate, which nowadays is peculiar indeed.
      For birds, bees and butterflies, they’re not only hospitable, they’re indispensable. Monarchs won’t make it home to Mexico unless we plant milkweed. Birds will shun us. Pollinators will have to look for pollen elsewhere. Our native gardens sustain all these creatures and more as one oasis along a greenway of life.
     Plus, native gardens are fashionable, trending and — assuredly — easy to maintain.
     But when we move our good intentions unto our own little patch of earth… well, gosh, where do we start?
     We’ve all tried the wrong way: bringing home wagonloads of plants we just couldn’t resist — only to realize we don’t know what to do with them.
     To guide us from the wrong path down the right one, we turn to Sheila Brady, of Fairhaven, Arlington, and the renown Washington, D.C. landscape architecture firm of Oehme, van Sweden. Apostles of the New American Garden, Oehme, van Sweden is also landscape designer of such landmarks as the World War II and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials.
      Brady, a principal partner at the firm, designed the native plant garden for the New York Botanical Garden. So she knows her stuff.

Bay Weekly We’re catching onto native gardens, but what is the New American Garden?
Sheila Brady The New American Garden is a relaxed garden borrowed from the American meadow. The composition is not so defined formally, and the plant ingredients have to be adapted to the region: to the part of the country, its regional quality and the character in that neighborhood. 
Bay Weekly The New York Botanical Garden Native Plant Garden is a big place: 3.5 acres of 100,000 native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, and grasses: Can we scale a native — or mostly native — garden down to whatever place we call our own?
Sheila Brady Whether a comprehensive garden like the New York Botanical Garden Native Plant Garden or a small square residential lot, you have to imagine what you want it to look like. At Oehme, van Sweden, we gather what we call precedent images of gardens we like. You can easily do that yourself, and you should, searching in magazines, books and online. In any project, a very small residence or an institution, it’s the same process. 
Bay Weekly So there’s a better way to start than walking the aisles of our garden store with spring fever, big hopes and a cart to fill?
Sheila Brady I’m guilty, too. My greatest pleasure is to take a day off and look and buy. But you’ll do better if you visit the garden center after you develop a concept plan.
Bay Weekly How do we develop our plan? Do we have to account for our whole gardenable space? Did you start in New York with the whole 3.5 acres? Or can we take it area by area?
Sheila Brady You have to see it all. And you have to draw it all out. When you do your plan in your head, it’s never organized, never detailed enough. Working on paper you can start measuring, how much sun, shade, moisture — or not — you get in each area.
      At Oehme, van Sweden, we’re diligent. We do our research, all the biology, mechanical parts, many different plant lists …
Bay Weekly That sounds very planful. Can we do it on our own as home gardeners? Or do we need an expert’s help?
Sheila Brady That depends on you. Not everybody has that ability. If I wanted to compose music, it would be difficult because I don’t have that skill set. So don’t be afraid to get help in doing a plan. You can get free plans if you buy at many garden centers, and help like that might be a starting place to help you start designing further. 
Bay Weekly Is the next step the same, whether we do it ourselves or get help? 
Sheila Brady The next step is always to find and distinguish habitats. In the New York Native Plant Garden, for example, there were woodlands, wetlands, an open space perfect for meadow and some partial shade. Then you start to understand microclimates inside each habitat. Those woodlands, for example, had a drier upper section and a middle with normal shade, a couple hours sunlight a day, and finally a wet woods.
      Once we divided them into microclimates, we knew what plants could grow in them.
      Without that step, you’re going to put plants in the wrong place. We all know about that. It’s part of gardening. 
Bay Weekly When I visited your Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden last October, I was struck by the massive rock outcroppings nature had given you. How can we imagine dividing space when nature hasn’t been so good to us? Where do we start when we have a square subdivision lot or, as I do, a roll-downhill slope?
Sheila Brady Once you understand the land, you ask yourself what’s in my program. Do I need a front walkway? Some screening from my neighbors? An area of beautiful flowering trees? You might have a broad open lawn area.
       That’s the design part. On your plan, you have to form your space. Use the physical attributes you have. Do you want seating in a sunny area? On a long, sloped back yard, how much shade and moisture are there, and where. Then, do you want to terrace part of it? 
     Working with what I’ve got, I’d force myself to come up with a design, drawing in shapes, form, pattern and texture, and discipline myself to what will make up that shape and form.
      Look again for those precedent images that show you what’s possible. Find images that look like your space.
      Then you can go into working the space. 
Bay Weekly When you’re doing an Oehme, van Sweden garden, you’ve got tons of good help. But when you’re doing it on your own with maybe one helper, can you give us some advice about how big a space to tackle as a project?
Sheila Brady Scale your dreams to your abilities. I can do this now; this is what I can afford.
       At home, I don’t have time to design my own space; I have only two little areas. Even so, it starts with your overall plan. Then you develop Phase 1, for example, your front yard. Identify the light and soil and moisture, then develop a plant list and identify what plants can go where. Work with those ingredients, shaped on a plan.
Bay Weekly Once you choose a space to begin work, I imagine we have to pay attention to the soil.
Sheila Brady Yes, we work very hard to get the soil right. I’m not a soil scientist, so I’ve learned from working with Frank Gouin, the Bay Gardener for 40 years. He’s so knowledgeable; he’s taught me so much. We have the soils tested at the lab he recommends. Then he analyzes the results for what specific amendments we should use.
Bay Weekly Finally, it’s time to buy plants! Can you advise us on buying when you’ve got a limited budget and can’t buy by the hundreds?
Sheila Brady First, learn what plant zone you’re in. For much of Chesapeake Country, that’s 7b. Then get to know the kinds of plants that thrive in your zone, your habitats and your microclimates, I like using MoBot Plant Finder online from the Missouri Botanical Garden for learning basics and attributes. It’s one of the best. 
      We also go to University of Maryland Extension Service all the time to get our plant lists. Both the University of Maryland Extension and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer lists of native plants, the latter with photos. 
     To keep focus, shop with your plant list. Choose plants for their color and form and the right amount of sun.
     Here’s a real discovery: Think in terms of foreground, middle and background. That’s far more successful than hugging houses with foundation plants.
     You can use native grasses as bulk and something to work against. For example no-mow fescue, a slow-growing blend that you mow maybe once or twice a year, can cover space and give you character.
Bay Weekly Not in a day or a season are we going to achieve the kind of show you put on at the New York Botanical Garden. How can we work within our own limitations?
Sheila Brady Enough for today: My back will tell me that.
      If you stick with your plantings and let something get better and better, you’ll see their growth and that they really do look well together. You’ll see your own growth, too, as you’re able to use your intuition and artistry and trust your own design.
University of Maryland Agricultural Extension Native Plants of maryland: 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: