Jul 9th, 2019

Bay-Friendly Gardening in Richmond Can Improve the Health of the Chesapeake Bay

Chemicals, excess nutrients and sediment are the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest pollutants. You may not live near the Chesapeake Bay, but what you do directly affects it – as does what you do or don’t plant. Efforts to protect and restore the Bay are not new, but some planting practices are.

“We have this idea in the mid-Atlantic region that an ornamental landscape must have rows of plants surrounded by mulch,” said Elizabeth Fogel, senior horticulturist at Lewis Ginter. “That’s not a natural way to grow, and it’s not the most water-friendly landscaping.”

Fogel, certified as a Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional, is determined to educate local home and business owners about ways to support water quality through landscape designs and water-wise plantings here, upstream from the Bay.

“My hope is to help spur a paradigm shift as to what’s accepted as an ornamental landscape, and Richmond is a really good place to begin,” said Fogel, a recipient of the Frank L. Robinson Endowed Chair. “Because the city has combined sewer systems, heavy rainfalls can cause overflows of untreated wastewater from the sewers to spill into local waterways that eventually feed into the Bay.”

Variety of Virginia native plants in a field that help protect the Chesapeake Bay.

Layered eco-planting requires a higher input of labor and cost. However, this planting style needs much less input as plants mature over time. Image by Elizabeth Fogel

As Richmond increases its green infrastructure, more stormwater runoff is slowed and captured before it can harm water quality.

Last year, Fogel revitalized an area at Lewis Ginter as a working model of water-wise landscaping. It was a challenging section along the Sydnor Lake shoreline with mostly solid clay, like many Richmond yards. The area was compacted more than usual, however, since cars had parked there in the past.

Sediment had built up along the lake’s edge, as well.

How can you help the Chesapeake Bay in your own yard?

Using Bay-friendly planting techniques, Fogel demonstrated how to make the landscape pleasing, yet sustainable. Her step-by-step process might work for your yard’s revitalization, too.

1. Remove turf and non-native plants that are high maintenance with little offered in return. Work gently with the lightest equipment possible to prevent soil compaction.

2. Lightly grade the area, if needed, to slow runoff, prevent erosion and avoid ponding in unwanted places

3. Design the planting area using a layered technique that develops its own natural or ‘green’ mulch over time. Tall and short plants grown close together in a layered pattern help block sunlight and choke weeds. The process lessens the future need for herbicide and pesticide applications, too.

4. Use native plants adaptable to poor soils with deep root systems, so they require little or no watering. For the lower level, use ground covers and shorter plants, such as native sedges, geranium, lyre-leaf sage and smooth phlox. For the taller level, consider tall garden phlox, milkweed, coneflower, yarrow and native grasses such as switchgrass and little bluestem. This naturalistic, layered style requires fewer inputs–—chemicals, pesticides, fertilizer, water—plus it supports native insects and wildlife. The plants also help filter sediment and reduce erosion.

“After a couple of years, the plants will all knit together and look like a highly stylized meadow,” Fogel said. “An environmentally friendly landscape like this is not just pretty plants. It’s all the ways your landscape gives back through ecosystem services that benefit Richmond and the Bay.”

For more information on Bay-friendly landscapes, visit the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council. For lists of native plants and nurseries that sell them visit the Virginia Native Plant Society.

This article first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in July 2019.

About Lynn Kirk

Lynn Kirk, a freelance writer and marketing consultant, has collaborated with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden since 2002. She considers it a joy and privilege to write newspaper articles and member newsletters for such a top-rated (and utterly gorgeous!) public garden.

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