This year I had the amazing opportunity of leading a native plant project for the Chatham Conservation Foundation. They have recently relocated their headquarters to an antique house on Main Street, the Mayo House. After restoring the roof and exterior and removing a failing tree from the front yard, they were contemplating a lawn replacement project to be more ecofriendly and help educate the public about native plantings.
By a happy coincidence, I was meeting with the executive director in late February to discuss volunteering for CCF. When he asked what kinds of things I like to do, I told him I was a native plant geek, and he mentioned the idea of the lawn replacement. I jumped on this and offered to come back with some ideas. A few weeks later, in March, I presented the idea of a mini-meadow to Oonie Burley, the CCF President and Jeanne Branson, a CCF trustee and local nursery owner. After some brainstorming and adjustments to the original idea, we had a design we all liked.
And it was time to start implementing. We went on site in April to finalize the exact design, dimensions, and details of the layout and figure out a budget. Oonie worked with the CCF Board on the funding needed, and Jeanne and her company, Pinetree Nursery and Landscaping, took on site preparation. Oonie and I tracked down plant sources and started accumulating plants in our backyards.
June came and with it, Planting Day. The executive director had recruited volunteers from the CCF board/membership and from the Rotary Club. We delivered the plants, got them laid out and got to work!
It was an epic day. We planted 400 strawberry plants, 75 Pennsylvania sedge, 50 butterfly weed plants, 50 sporobolis grasses, and 25 monarda plants. Each was watered by hand as soon as it was planted, and then at the end of the day, with a deep sigh of satisfaction and sore backs, we turned on the sprinkler for all the plants to get a deep soaking.
Within the next couple of weeks, we followed up with an irrigation system (that we plan to use only the first and maybe the second years before we switch to a no-watering-except-in-severe-drought policy) and with mulching (for the first few years until the meadow fills in).
Over the summer, we kept the meadow irrigated and came by every week or two to weed. Things started to fill in and the perennials bloomed beautifully. Lots of people were interested in what was going on, so we created a brochure of the plants and put up a sign on the front lawn.
This fall, we felt good about the first year of the Mini-Meadow on Main. After some light fall clean-up, the meadow will be dormant until spring, and we are looking forward to seeing how the plants do next year.
Our main criteria for selecting plants for this project is that they all had to be native not just to New England but specifically to Cape Cod. We needed plants that would thrive in our sandy and acidic soils with little to no manual intervention after they were established. Since we are right on Main Street, we wanted plants that would stay relatively neat looking and provide some color and textural interest throughout the year. Plants that would provide food and habitat for pollinators was key as well.
On the Berm
On one side of the property is a berm, and we are populating that mostly with shrubs.
The low shrub around the trash can is Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina). While it looks like a fern, it is a tough woody shrub that grows 2-3’ tall and has small flowers with seed heads that persist all winter.
The larger shrubs on top of the berm are Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). Eventually these shrubs can grow 5’ tall and 8’ wide. They have lovely white spiky flowers in July and August, followed by seeds that look like peppercorns. The seeds stay on all winter, making it easy to identify these shrubs all year long. There are many attractive cultivars of this shrub available at local nurseries.
Underneath the shrubs is Canadian Anemone (Anemone canadensis) a perennial with interesting cut leaves and delicate white flowers in June. This plant is known for spreading aggressively, so it makes a different kind of ground cover when it has room to run.
Behind the shrubs is Hollow Joe-Pye weed (Euchatorium fistulosum). All the Joe-Pye varieties are tall, with billowy purple flowers in late summer. This variety should be 4-6’ tall by late summer, and should gradually expand into larger clumps, forming a great backdrop to a garden.
In the Meadow
The majority of the front lawn is a mini-meadow of primarily grasses interspersed with tough native perennials.
The grass is Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which grows about 2’ high and has light grass blades that flow in the breeze. In fall, there are attractive brown seed heads to add interest.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a relative of the common milkweed that supports Monarch butterflies, has a long-lasting orange flower that is a magnet for many kinds of pollinators.
The Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata) is a striking plant with unusual lilac flowers in July and August. It is a short-lived perennial but self-seeds to return to the garden in later years.
Along the front path, and in the narrow spaces on either side of the house are ground covers.
Along the walkway and to the left of the building is Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana). This three-leafed plant sends out runners to effectively cover the soil.There are white flowers in May, and if you get there before the critters, small flavorful alpine strawberries in June and July. The plant recovers quickly if it is walked on.
To the right of the building is Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanicum), a lovely grass-like sedge that slowly spreads by runners to fill up a space. It can be left as 10-inch flowing blades, or it can be mowed to 4” (only once is needed, in late May). While not suitable for backyard footfall, it too can be walked on.
Most of our local nurseries carry some native plants, especially interesting cultivars, and every year they seem to expand their selection, which is terrific. For our planting, we went to these nurseries to get the exact species we were looking for:
- Pinetree Nursery, Chatham
- The Farm, Orleans
- Crocker Nursery, Orleans
- Capabilities, Dennis
- Garden in the Woods, Framingham