"In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water."
For many years the Deep Run courtyard was essentially left to its own devices. There was no grand plan, and maintenance was limited to not much more than mowing the grass. While staff, PTA members and even students made small contributions of the occasional plant here and there, the courtyard was essentially an afterthought, and as a result, became a jumbled mix of random plants and weeds, and very rarely enjoyed.
That all changed about six years ago. At that time a concerted effort was made to organize the courtyard and have a master plan. This plan was to restore the area with native shrubs and herbaceous plants, and specifically include host plants for several of Maryland’s native insects. It also meant removing several invasive plants which had been introduced over the years.
One of the first actions was to remove several Nandina bushes. This took quite a bit of effort to remove the well-established shrubs, including quite a bit of digging to remove the mature root systems. Unfortunately, we’re still finding small saplings popping up every spring as small portions of the roots were invariably left behind, or seeds in the soil from previous seasons germinate. Several butterfly bushes were also removed. While these are quite beautiful and do attract butterflies, their ability to proliferate and push out native plants was not part of our plan. Grape hyacinth and liriope were also removed, but also seem to keep trying to make a comeback. Keeping these non-native invasives at bay is a yearly battle.
While the courtyard is predominantly a sunny area, it also has areas with more shade. We’ve brought in a wide variety of native plants, each filling a niche in terms of the conditions it thrives in and the habitat it creates. We’ve included plants to feed our native caterpillars, such as several varieties of milkweed to serve as nurseries for monarch caterpillars. We also have many nectaring plants to feed hungry bees and butterflies. These include clustered mountainmint, Joe-Pye weed, mist flower, woodland sunflower and golden ragwort. We’ve included several varieties of shrubs to house and feed not only our local insects but also our local birds. Spicebush, American Beautyberry, black chokeberry and Virginia sweetspire now call the courtyard home.
As our new plants have settled in and become established, a beautiful thing is happening. They are starting to expand and move to new parts of the courtyard. This is a wonderful sign and we welcome it. As a result, we’re reducing the lawn in favor of letting our natives explore new territory. Our little Deep Run courtyard ecosystem is thriving and we couldn’t be happier. And, it’s not just the critters that have returned. The beauty of the courtyard has encouraged people to return, as well. Where there was once empty benches and unused patio tables and chairs, you will now find students, teachers and other staff out and enjoying the courtyard. Classes come out during the growing season to inspect the plants and discover what insects are about, and have a handout to help guide them through the process. Teachers take their lunch breaks amidst the buzzing bees and sweet scents wafting on the air. The courtyard has come alive! And all it took was a thoughtful plan including a wealth of natives and the time and space to let those natives settle in and take hold.