Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Favorite Native Plants ~ Steve Bates

This is the second in my series of favorite native plants of local gardeners. Today's choices are from Steve Bates, a longtime gardener and journalist and author of The Seeds of Spring: Lessons from the Garden.     Steve grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he still lives.  He has won numerous awards for his writing and spent 14 years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post.  
Steve's Favorite Natives

Virginia has a wide range of native plants, which isn’t surprising, given the fact that it has such a wide variety of garden settings. We have sandy coastal areas, rolling piedmont and some mini-mountains, at least by Colorado standards. But my favorite native plants are the ones that can take some shade, given that I’ve never owned or rented a house with a sunny side yard or back yard big enough for a decent-sized display of annual and perennial plants.

My favorite has to be the Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). I have a few in my back yard, or at least, I did. Their foliage hasn’t shown up yet, and the foliage doesn’t tend to stick around long after they finish blooming in the spring. So they are kind of a phantom plant. But I trust they are coming.

The buds start out almost pink, and even at peak their shade of blue is not as deep as some of the more prized blue flowers you can buy. Also, they arrive at a time—April—when many other showy plants are at their peak. But when they are in full bloom, naturalized in a wooded area—often near water—they can be breathtaking.

No matter how busy I am, I try every spring to take a walk along Goose Creek, near my home in Loudoun County, and enjoy their short-lived splendor. You can see them in other parks in Northern Virginia, and even from the Washington and Old Dominion trail if you know where to look. But the (well-hidden) hiking path that connects Goose Creek, a scenic waterway in its own right, with the Potomac River is a terrific one. The path begins near the ruins of an old stone bridge, and it slides northward in an easy one-hour hike. If your timing is right, every time you take a turn in the path, you come upon a patch of bluebells even better than the last one. Somehow, I always forget to take my camera….

I’m very fond of mountain laurel and rhododendron, also native Virginia plants. But you sort of drop them in the ground and run, so there’s not much mystery or work involved.

Butterfly weed is a nice, colorful addition to a sunny garden spot. And you can’t go wrong with black-eyed susans. Still, if I could grow or simply enjoy only one native Virginia plant, it would be the bluebell.
Thanks, Steve, for sharing your thoughts.  

To read more about Steve's gardening experiences, look for  The Seeds of Spring, which  follows the challenges, failures, joys and revelations that Steve experiences as he cultivates vegetables, fruit and flowers in a remarkable setting.

The book intertwines practical, “how-to” gardening advice with deep insights as Steve recognizes the richness and simplicity of the outdoor life and the importance of sustainability for individuals and the planet. The Seeds of Spring takes the reader beyond the ordinary, revealing the extraordinary in everyday activities amid the all-too-familiar setting of suburban sprawl.

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