In the summer of 2010, I moved into the parsonage at Brookmont Church in Bethesda. The church had been looking for a long-term renter who would treat the house as her own; I’d been looking for a place in Brookmont and had always wanted to live in a parsonage as the Brontë sisters had.
I envisioned a place with roses cascading from trellises in an English-style garden. But as I gazed out the front windows of my new home, I was greeted by an entirely different landscape: a large flatland of weeds, with a steep hill at the yard’s edge sloping down to the street below.
On the crest of the hill, a rectangle of wire fencing guarded limp, scrawny carrots, a couple of green beans and cucumbers whose shapes had morphed into W’s and Q’s. A huge oak tree stood at one corner, its branches shading an expanse of brown lawn.
It looked like something Dr. Seuss might have created on a not-so-good day.
I tore down the wire fencing, then started researching what I could accomplish with limited money and time.
Brandon Sackett of Garden Gate Landscaping in Silver Spring suggested the answer: I needed to go native, he said.
Native gardens are defined by plants indigenous to the region. They tend to flourish in the soil and have a built-in resistance to local pests. They also provide a natural habitat for wildlife. In Oregon, where Sackett was born and raised, native gardens are the rule rather than the exception. And now “this type of garden is gaining national momentum,” he says.
But what about those roses I’d envisioned, not to mention tulips? Sackett told me both would require an investment of time, money, fertilizers and pesticides.
“You’re used to the typical Bethesda garden, which is built for its aesthetic appeal,” he said. “Bethesda gardens consist of a lot of evergreens with lots of grass in front and some accent flowers along borders. These gardens don’t provide any sort of habitat benefits—none.”
I needed instead to create a beneficial habitat for the local wildlife, he said. “The grasses provide them shelter; the flowers provide them food—because these native plants and animals have, in a way, grown up together. Part of the beauty of this garden is you’re building it so you can watch nature up close and personal.”
There’s an even more tangible benefit, as well. Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection has a RainScapes Program that offers rebates of up to $1,200 for residential properties and $5,000 for commercial ones making use of native plants.
“Research shows that in order to have a healthy environment that promotes food production and clean water, you have to have plants that support that system,” says Ann English, the RainScapes coordinator. “And the plants that do that best are native plants. Most native plants have strong root systems that prevent soil erosion, and this helps reduce runoff, which can pollute our waters.”