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The Shady Maple House, Baltimore, MD

Featured Site Created By J. Marlow

What do carnivorous plants, cranberries in a bog, a xeric garden, a rain garden, a rain barrel, hundreds of native plants, and a pond, all have in common? They are all excellent habitat features; and, they can all be found on this quarter-acre property in suburban Baltimore! If you are looking for ways to “fit-it-all-in” on a small plot, this featured site should inspire you. Their yard is so appealing to wildlife that in the summer their front yard is THE destination for watching fireflies. Get out your pencil and paper, or smart phone, and be prepared to take some notes for your own property.

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

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Photo © J. Marlow
We purchased our home in 2013. At the time, it was mostly lawn, a few old trees, and many popular, but invasive, exotic species, such as English ivy. We immediately went to work converting the yard to gardens with a native-plant focus, and have been adding elements every year. The first thing we added was the pollinator meadow and xeric garden. These gardens provide nectar and host plants for insects, which in turn feed larger predators, such as songbirds.

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Photo © J. Marlow
The xeric garden helps conserve water by selecting dry-adapted plants in a location that tends to retain very little water. We also added a small pond, a wetlands garden, a rain garden to catch roof runoff, a peat bog garden, and a sand dune garden, all with Maryland native selections. We’ve added many trees and shrubs and are waiting for them to grow up and create a wooded area. The pond, in particular, has proven extremely attractive to wildlife! We never saw warblers in our yard until we added the pond. Now we see them bathe in the pond frequently during their migration periods and we are happy we can provide a rest-stop for them.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

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Photo © J. Marlow
The biggest improvements we’ve made are related to water runoff abatement. Many wildlife gardeners overlook the importance of reducing run-off because it doesn’t directly attract wildlife to the yard, but it is very important for helping to maintain healthy ecosystems. We live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and runoff is a big problem for the health of the Bay and its tributaries, particularly from the sprawling, chemical-coated lawns of suburban areas.

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Photo © J. Marlow
The first steps we took were installing rain barrels and a rain garden at the downspouts and by converting portions of our lawn to gardens. Because our yard is slightly higher than our neighbors’, and we know he uses pesticides on his lawn, we took extra steps to keep water on our yard from flowing down into his. We added a berm and short French drain to catch water before it gets to his yard and divert it into a peat bog, which we planted with native carnivorous plants, bog orchids, and cranberries. We deepened a depression in our yard, installed a small pond and created an adjacent wetlands area to divert overflow towards our vegetable and herb garden.

When working to retain water, mosquitoes are a definite concern! Our bog is full of sphagnum peat and never has any standing water (the peat soaks it all up), and the rain garden and wetlands garden are designed to drain in 48 hours or less. The pond is stocked with fathead minnows, which relish mosquitoes but are too small to feed on amphibian or dragonfly larva (goldfish, the popular mosquito solution, prey on frogs and dragonflies so we chose to use a gentler alternative). All these efforts took a lot of work, especially since they were all dug by hand by just the two of us, but I think it was well-worth the effort!

My favorite wildlife spotting has got to be a Barred owl in our maple tree, as well as the migratory warblers that pass through. Our yard also lights up like Christmas in early summer with fireflies. We have friends visit us in the summer just to see the fireflies, and our neighbors enjoy it too! Pretty impressive for a relatively small backyard surrounded by suburban lawns!

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

purple passionflower JM

Photo © J. Marlow

Two challenges come to mind. One challenge is finding the right plant for the right place. Some plants that I desperately wanted to grow in my yard simply don’t do well, without frequent watering/fertilizing or soil amendment. Instead of forcing these plants to grow where they aren’t well-adapted, I choose a new spot or simply do not try to grow that plant in my yard. Selecting natives adapted to your region (I go on walks in nearby parks and natural areas to get an idea of what grows here and where) is a great way to make good selections that will thrive, but sometimes I miscalculate and a plant fails to thrive in a spot that I very badly wanted it to grow. Instead of fighting nature, it’s best to work with nature to find the best solutions, even if it means you can’t grow your favorite plants.

Another challenge has to do with living with wildlife, particularly pest insects. I grow my own vegetable crops, and I do a yearly battle with the insects that love to eat them. Many of the worst pests to the home gardener are actually native! Tomato hornworms and squash-vine borers are as native as the monarch butterfly or luna moth. I use exclusion, such as fine netting to deter these insects, but if one gets past my barrier, they win, and I let them keep the plant. I don’t kill native pests, even if it means losing a few crop plants. Growing “scapegoat” crops that are more appealing to the bugs but less appealing to the grower helps, as well as growing many individuals of the same plant, so you will still have yield even if a few are destroyed. For squash vines, burying portions of the vine as it grows will help the plant survive an attack.