A walk or bike ride through Towson’s many charming neighborhoods makes a tree-lover really happy. So many yards are filled with trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, in addition to the more traditional mowed grassy areas. This past fall, more than 300 native trees, including Bald Cypress, Black Gum, Fringetree, Willow and Northern Red Oak, Redbud, River Birch, Sweetbay Magnolia, Sycamore, and Tuiliptree were planted in Towson neighborhoods through our partnership with Blue Water Baltimore. Yay! Most people seem to agree that trees provide many benefits, including shade, cooling, cleaner air, stormwater and erosion control, pollutant filtering, habitat, and beauty.
There seems to be less agreement about what to do with all those leaves when they fall. The simple answer is–as the meme says–“leave the leaves.” Leaf “litter,” as it is so inappropriately called, returns nutrients to the soil, insulates plant roots, and provides critical overwintering and nesting habitat for many species of beneficial insects, including bees, fireflies, many butterfly species, and beautiful moths such as the ethereal Luna moth.
We tend to think of insects only when we see them in their adult form in the warm months while giving little thought to how they get through the winter. Unlike the famous migrating monarch butterflies, most species hunker down for the winter out of sight as either a larva, pupa, or adult in leaf litter, under the soil, or in crevices and nooks and crannies. Many of them unfortunately get killed when we blast the leaves with blowers or put them in plastic bags and get rid of dead plant stalks. Mulching the leaves with a mower puts nutrients back in the soil but also kills the insects. Populations of insects, and birds who depend on them, have plummeted in the last 50 years. Our yard practices matter because there just isn’t enough habitat “out there” anymore.
Since I retired and am home during the week, I notice the lawn services with their noisy leaf blowers removing every leaf from some properties. I take out my hearing aids and ponder ways to spread the message about insects and leaf litter. If you have a thick carpet of leaves, especially Oak or Holly leaves that can take years to break down, consider ditching the leaf blower or lawn service and instead gently raking some of the leaves into your plant beds or into piles in a far corner of the yard–your “wild area.” Get the kids involved–like the group of kids I saw in my neighborhood today squealing with delight while making and jumping in “the world’s biggest leaf pile.”
I would like to add that seeing your yard as habitat instead of just “lawn” or “landscape” is incredibly fun and rewarding. For example, on my daily rounds in the yard the other day, I unexpectedly discovered a large yellow-green and pink caterpillar with horns on its backside crawling on the native Blackhaw Viburnum shrub. I took a photo and uploaded it to the iNaturalist app, which identified it as a Hummingbird Clearwing moth larva in its final instar before pupating in the soil just under leaf litter. I had seen the fascinating native Hummingbird Clearwing moth before, but never the caterpillar, which feeds on the leaves of a variety of trees. Since I had placed only mulch at the base of the shrub, I went off to gather leaves from under the Pin Oak tree in front. By the time I had completed this task, the caterpillar had disappeared! Hopefully it either found another plant to eat or successfully pupated and burrowed through the thin mulch layer (no “mulch volcanoes” in our yard!)
Many neighbors tell me that they leave at least some of their leaves and laugh about being “lazy gardeners.” If you are not a “lazy gardener,” I hope I’ve inspired you to think about leaves as habitat and allow at least some of your leaves to lie where they fall or gently rake them into your garden beds. You may even be inspired to leave seed heads of your flowers for the birds, spent stalks for bees to nest in, and a wood pile! In Spring and Summer when you see adult bees, butterflies, and maybe even a Hummingbird Clearwing moth, you will feel good knowing that you helped them.
Adreon Hubbard is a Master Gardener, Master Naturalist, retired teacher, and a member of Green Towson Alliance. She has taken the photographs in this article.
2022 was a banner year for Green Towson Alliance. We are pleased to have met many of our goals including planting trees in downtown Towson, helping community associations successfully plant native canopy trees in their neighborhoods, and cleaning trash out of our local streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.
Here’s what we accomplished in the past year:
In partnership with Blue Water Baltimore, GTA helped to coordinate the planting of more than 285 trees in Towson communities in the fall of 2022. Tree stewards worked with their neighborhoods to choose the right native tree for their yard or as a street tree. The vast majority of these trees are canopy shade trees which can grow at least 60 feet tall and provide much greater environmental benefits than the smaller, understory species.
MORE TREES! DOWNTOWN TOWSON TREE REPLACEMENT
72 trees were planted by Baltimore County in downtown Towson in December. GTA volunteers advocated for years for the replacement of trees that had died or been removed.The County has created a Street Tree Replacement Program that will add 1,300 trees in six concentrated areas. We are delighted that Towson is one of those areas that will benefit from this critical green infrastructure.
SAVING TREES AND OPEN SPACE
GTA volunteers worked with the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability (DEPS), the communities, and the developer of the Villas at Woodbrook (on the site of Villa Maria nursing home for the Sisters of Mercy on Bellona Avenue) to provide more open space, and to save a few more large specimen trees.
In partnership with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, GTA organized 216 volunteers to pull 4,570 pounds of trash out of neighborhood streams in the spring of 2022. In many cases, volunteers also pulled invasive plants out of stream beds and the surrounding areas.
ADVOCACY FOR NATIVE TREES AND LOCAL PARKS
Green Towson Alliance testified at the Baltimore County Fiscal Year 2023 Budget hearing, asking the county to increase funding in the following areas:
Expand and maintain the shade tree canopy throughout the County to reduce flooding and excessive heat impacts due to climate change, as well as improve air quality and habitat for native birds and insects. The County’s Street Tree Replacement Program is a great investment toward this request.
Fund additional forestry positions in the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability (DEPS). Three additional forestry positions were created in the budget including an urban forester who is administering the Street Tree Replacement Program.
Fund a canopy tree inventory by DEPS using GIS, based on the Downtown Towson Tree Survey created by the Green Towson Alliance and plant trees downtown. DEPS is tracking the Street Tree Replacement program with a GIS program.
Fund a position in the Department of Recreation and Parks to administer a volunteer “weed warrior” program, like programs in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, that will organize and manage volunteer efforts for habitat restoration, particularly for removal of invasive vines that are slowly destroying our existing trees. We will continue to advocate for this.
Create a county-wide open space plan similar to the NeighborSpace of Baltimore County initiative. We will continue to advocate for this.
INVASIVE PLANTS INITIATIVES
Green Towson Alliance volunteers have continued to remove invasive vines and plants from the Blakehurst Retirement Community property, in Radebaugh Park and Overlook Park. In parks, GTA members from nearby neighborhoods are working in coordination with the Towson Rec Council of Baltimore County Rec and Parks to remove invasive plants (Overlook Park) and plant pollinator-friendly native perennials (Radebaugh Park entrance gardens at 11 Maryland Ave).
The effects of the invasive plant removal in Overlook Park were striking:
Beneficial native plants in Overlook Park got a boost in 2022 from the dedicated volunteers of Habitat Stewards of Overlook Park (HSOP.) Habitat was restored by manually removing (without power tools or herbicides) non-native invasive plants (NNIs) that outcompete and smother natives. In addition to freeing dozens of trees from English Ivy, the group’s methodical removal of aggressive non-native Porcelain Berry vines near the athletic field and stream gave a variety of native plants access to the air, water, and sunlight they need. It was exciting to observe so many natives unexpectedly rise up, phoenix-like, as if they had been just waiting for their chance. These native plants include: Blue-eyed Grass, Blue Flag Iris, Boxelder, Black Raspberry, Common Milkweed, Daisy Fleabane, Dogbane, Horse Chestnut, Pignut Hickory, Red Chokeberry, Tall White Beardtongue, and Virginia Creeper. Beneficial native insects seen utilizing these plants include butterflies such as Azures, Eastern-tailed Blues, Monarchs, Common Sootywing and Silver-spotted Skippers, Brown-belted Bumble Bees, Red Milkweed Beetles, and Orange Assassin Bugs. Birds seen include Red-shouldered Hawks, Pileated Woodpeckers, Gray Catbirds, Carolina Wrens, and many others.
The work at Overlook Park will begin again this month. If you’re interested in helping out, please contact Adreon Hubbard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Invasive plant removal at Blakehurst Retirement Community is ongoing as well. Volunteers worked through the early spring of 2022 and then paused during the summer while a professional environmental service company removed large areas of Porcelain Berry and other invasive species. Blakehurst is working with Baltimore County to re-forest at least some of these areas.
NATIVE PLANTS INITIATIVES
GTA engaged in several public education efforts to inform our neighbors about the vital link native plants and trees play in supporting our environment. This includes the Towson Native Garden Contest, which we have run for the past two years; an educational display at the Stoneleigh Elementary School Environmental Fair, the Church of the Redeemer Native Plant Sale and the Towson Gardens Day. We also arranged a tour of the green roof and rain gardens at Patriot Plaza and the Towson Fire Station which utilized native plants. We marched in the Towson 4th of July Parade promoting “Nature’s Communities” of native plants and the bees and butterflies they host.
More information on native plants and the upcoming 2023 Native Garden Contest can be found at nativegardencontest.com
GTA signed on as supporters of the Road to Freedom Trail, a proposed multi-purpose trail linking Hampton Plantation to Historic East Towson. The trail is conceived as an educational, environmental, and historical trail for walking and cycling that will tell the story of the relationship between the 500 enslaved people at the Ridgely estate and the enclave of those who were manumitted after 1829 and created a community nearby in Towson.
GTA advocated for the passage of several bills in the Maryland General Assembly. The following bills passed:
HB15/SB7 Invasive and Native Plants expands the list of invasive species regulated in Maryland. It also requires state agencies and projects with state funding to prioritize the use of native plants. – PASSED
HB275 George “Walter” Taylor Act prohibits the use, manufacture or sale of fire-fighting foams, carpets and food containers that contain PFAS after January 2023. PFAS are Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances which are a type of human made ‘forever chemical’ and a known carcinogen. – PASSED
SB541 Great Maryland Outdoors Act Provides historic investment in Maryland’s state park system. It funds new full-time positions in the Maryland Park Service to deal with park overcrowding, addresses a long maintenance backlog, restores historic sites, fixes aging infrastructure, and acquires new parkland. It also has provisions to improve the equity of access to our state parks. – PASSED
SB0528 Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 This comprehensive climate bill requires the state to cut emissions 60% below 2006 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 by addressing emissions from the transportation, building, and electricity sectors. It also promotes equity in the allocation of climate funding. – PASSED
The following bills did not get voted out of their House/Senate Committees:
HB59/SB783 Constitutional Amendment for Environmental Human Rights guaranteeing each person in the State of Maryland the right to a healthful environment.
HB0135 Environment – Single-Use Plastics – Restrictions to prohibit a food service business from providing certain single-use plastic food and beverage products to a customer unless the customer asks for them. The majority of these items are not recyclable and they often end up in our streams and rivers.
HB0376 Outdoor Preschool License Pilot Program – Establishment to establish the Outdoor Preschool License Pilot Program in the Maryland State Department of Education to license outdoor, nature-based early learning and child care programs in order to expand access to affordable, high-quality early learning programs and to investigate the benefits of outdoor, nature-based classrooms.
On Earth Day, I was scrolling through my email and came across a Washington Post article on 10 Ways We Can Reduce Our Carbon Footprint. Some of the things listed in the article I already do (#1 Create Less Food Waste, #5 Protect Our Forests), and some are good suggestions (#4 Shop Less, #6 Trade-In For An All-Electric Car). But right there at #2 is something I have recently been advocating for: Ditch the Lawn.
Ok, I haven’t completely ditched the lawn, but we are mowing less, and I am encouraging the spread of everything from violets to goldenrod into our green space that we call “lawn.”
Americans Love Their Lawn
The Washington Post article reminded me that Americans have a love affair with lawns. They are pristine, weed-free, large expanses of perfect green. And yet, they are essentially biological deserts – partly because of what we do to them and partly because they are a giant monoculture. Here are some of the appalling facts related in the article:
Lawn covers 40-50 million acres in the continental United States, almost as much land as in our national parks.
Lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water per year
50 million pounds of pesticides per year are applied to lawns which can seep into waterways.
Gas-powered lawn and garden equipment used roughly 3 billion gallons of gas last year – equivalent to nearly 6 million passenger cars running for a year. This astronomic number is partly a result of poor efficiency.
Lawn care equipment (mowers, blowers) are responsible for 5% of the air pollution in the United States because lawn equipment motors are not regulated by EPA.
Two years ago, when we were encouraged to stay home due to the pandemic, I decided to kill part of my lawn. I wrote the article Lawn Murder describing the process of using cardboard, wood chips and a mix of purchased loam and compost to smother my lawn. It was the easiest garden I have ever started.
I sowed a bunch of seeds but primarily focused on sowing a native annual called partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). I threw out some other seeds I had on hand and planted some small plugs of various meadow plants right through the cardboard.
Once the plants began to grow and the partridge pea began to flower, I did almost no weeding! I removed weeds like pigweed and burdock, but I tried to leave the garden to grow on its own. I did pull some of the partridge peas to give the plugs more light. I was amazed at what I had in mid-summer as the partridge pea – my annual cover crop – matured. The whole patch buzzed with the sounds of all kinds of bees! Some (Agastache, Monarda citriodora) seeds grew and bloomed in summer. Some transplants (Echinacea purpurea) also bloomed, but for year one, the partridge pea was the star of the garden.
I was so happy with the garden that in the fall, I expanded it towards the back of the property – around the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) connecting to the shade garden along the property line. In the shaded area, I used primarily golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum), ginger (Asarum canadense), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), and a few black cohoshes (Actaea racemosa) that I transplanted from another garden. As the growing season ended, I didn’t cut anything back. I let the partridge pea drop its seed back into the bed and go to sleep.
Year #2 Surprises
Last spring (2021), I removed the old stalks of the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata) as they were pretty tough. Some partridge pea grew from seeds and were scattered through the garden, but it was primarily concentrated in the front edge of the garden where I had planted strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) in mid-summer. The plugs and transplants I put in the first year began to thrive – they had developed good roots, and the tops were ready to grow, ready to out-compete the annual and show their true colors.
Surprises? You bet! All of my perennials grew and overtook most of the partridge pea, creating a beautiful meadow of a variety of flowers. The Beebalm (Monarda didyma) bloomed in mid-summer. Despite planting what I thought was the red bee balm, they turned out to be hybrids of M. didyma and M. fistulosa because I had grown them from seed collected in a mixed field. The flowers bloomed lavender, pinkish, and a rosy purple instead of the red I hoped for. The purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia) was abundant as I had both seeded it and planted plugs. I harvested quite a bit for tea and the plants still grew and flowered in late August. I planted a few plants of yellow giant hyssop (Agastache nepetoides), which were 10’ tall! But like the beebalm, several turned out to be hybrids between A. nepetoides and A. foeniculum and had a weird purply-yellow colored flower. This was not what I wanted or expected, so in this case, I pulled the hybrids out and left the three pure yellow-flowered plants. Still, the garden was amazing!
The broad leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) was huge and loaded with flowers attracting many bees and pollinating wasps! It began encroaching on other plants as it spread quickly from 1” plugs to large 12” clumps! I had flowers on my swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and the self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) was forming a mat at the edge. Goldenrod came up and bloomed this second summer and added yellow to my mix of purples and white. The strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) were struggling under the tall partridge pea, so in late summer, I pulled the partridge pea from the garden so it would not go to seed, allowing the strawberries to spread and cover the soil.
The grasses have been slow. I knew this when I planted them. The little bluestem (Schizachyriumscoparium) was too short and not all visible. In fall, I could see they had grown and formed clumps in various places. The Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) was small and did not thrive; I am not sure it is still there. I added some new plants such as skullcap (Scutellaria incana), sedge (Carex sp.), and catnip (Nepeta cataria). The newer back section of the bed is loaded with violets. They make a nice ground cover, and I added more black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) for some height above the violets.
Stunning purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), Monarda – it’s actually a hybrid between M. didyma and M. fistulosa), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata) really give this new meadow some pop!
This second year I still did almost no weeding in the meadow. The density of the plants helped keep the weeds at bay. I did find mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), an invasive species, coming up in the meadow. I pulled what I could and then dug it this spring to try to eradicate it before it takes hold. I had some weeds, such as pigweed and wild lettuce, which are easy to remove, and I still pulled some of the partridge pea. I had lots of color and lots of plants! This second year I had a lush garden of flowers. I was extremely pleased with the color and density of the meadow. I probably could let the garden grow on its own now.
Third Spring: From Nothing to Mature Meadow
This is the third spring from nothing to maturing meadow. I used a brush cutter and cut down the remaining upright stems in April. I left most of them on the ground but removed some stiffer things like the giant hyssop (Agastache sp.) and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) stalks. Although I was pleased with the beautiful flower plants of last year’s meadow, I am a gardener, so I am reassessing the mix. I need to make some additions and some changes.
I am removing some of the broad leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) as it overtakes other plants. I will add some true beebalm – the red one while leaving some of the hybrid Monarda already there. I will add some yellows, too – black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and native sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides). I have added some skullcap (Scutellaria incana) and some showy tick trefoil (Desmodiumcanadense) to add deep purple and pinks to the mix.
Shade meadow garden (meadow) featuring golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum) and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Meanwhile, I am thrilled with the garden. The shade plants, particularly the golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum), have taken off. I can’t wait to see the garden in mid-summer. I see seedlings of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) coming up, and I know that they will help fill in any gaps.
This project has been just amazing! Now, I am looking for new places to kill my lawn and add some new species.
Lawn to Meadow Season Three by Leslie Duthie originally appeared in the ELA Newsletter, June 2022, and is reprinted with the permission of the author and the Ecological Landscape Alliance.
Green Towson Alliance is kicking off its 2022 Native Garden Contest, and any gardener who lives in a Towson neighborhood and incorporates native plants, trees and shrubs in their yard is welcome to enter. An entry can be a specific garden bed, or the whole yard. People who have a rain garden designed to reduce lawn runoff, or a garden that features mature or recently planted native trees are encouraged to enter the contest.
Why native plants? Native plants are defined as plants and trees that have been growing in our region since before European colonization. Research has found that most insects can only ingest plants they have co-evolved with for thousands of years. Most butterflies and moths can lay eggs only on specific plants that they have co-evolved with. Caterpillars that hatch from those eggs, and other insects, are a vital food for songbirds, especially when they are nesting. Nearly all birds feed insects to their fledglings. No insects, no baby birds!
The Native Garden Contest will celebrate Towson gardens and yards that support the health of our local ecosystems. More information on the contest and the importance of growing native trees and plants in your yard can be found at nativegardencontest.com.
Start snapping pictures of your garden! Participants will be asked to upload photographs of their garden when the contest opens for entries on June 13th. GTA’s Homegrown National Park Workgroup will visit the entries and announce the finalists on July 16th. The public will be invited to vote online for their favorite garden.
Green Towson Alliance is a group of Towson area residents who care deeply about our natural world and are working to mitigate the effects of climate change. We have planted hundreds of trees, cleared out tons of trash from local streams, restored woodlands and parks by removing invasive vines that are strangling mature trees, and advocate for good environmental policy in Baltimore County. This is our seventh year of service to our community and the environment.
The Native Garden Contest was born from the imaginations of members of the GTA Homegrown National Park Workgroup. We are inspired by a national project to restore our ecosystems. The purpose of this contest is to encourage and celebrate Towson gardeners who incorporate native trees, shrubs, and plants in their landscapes. Together, we can do our part to protect and sustain the natural environment for our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, and all we love, including the non-human species who share our communities.
Much research has documented the importance of native plants in our yards, our neighborhoods, and our ecosystems. Two members of Green Towson Alliance submitted the first-ever plant exhibit using native plants in the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show in 2019, winning 2nd and 3rd Prize Ribbons for their native plant terrarium exhibits.