Bay-friendly gardens

Tall and short plants grown close together in a layered pattern help block sunlight and choke weeds, decreasing the future need for herbicide and pesticide applications.

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 Botanical Garden in Henrico County. “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 waterwise 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,” Fogel said. “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.”

Chemicals, excess nutrients and sediment are the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest pollutants. 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 waterwise 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.

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 also lessens the future need for herbicide and pesticide applications.

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 blue stem. 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 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 info on bay-friendly landscapes, visit the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council website at

Native plant lists and nurseries that sell them are listed by the Virginia Native Plant Society at

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Lynn Jackson Kirk is public relations writer for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

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