To kick off our new Conscious Gardeners series, Jules interviewed our friend Mary Lewis, assistant manager at Herring Run Nursery of Blue Water Baltimore. You can watch the full video interview on IGTV here! Her written answers are below.
ell us a little about Blue Water Baltimore and Herring Run?
Blue Water Baltimore is one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the Baltimore region. We focus our efforts on Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and our mission is Clean Water and Strong Communities. Mary
We have many different programs, like the Baltimore harbor water keeper, which tests our waters for different pollutants and holds polluters accountable, and an eco-literacy team which works in the schools and partners with libraries to make sure all the kids in Baltimore city & county have access to education about our environment. We have a community forestry team, which organizes tree plantings around Baltimore, and of course we have the nursery where we sell plants native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and that is a huge source of unrestricted funding for our organization. We do many other things as well, like a lot of advocacy work, working on legislation like the bag ban, etc.
How did you come to work with BWB, and Herring Run?
I applied for the nursery coordinator position back in 2017. Much credit goes to Rob Jenkins, our current nursery manager. We worked together at a different nursery prior to joining Herring Run/Blue Water Baltimore. I am inspired by the mission of Blue Water Baltimore every day – Clean Water and Strong Communities. It is really fun to work at a place that is making a difference in our city every day in so many ways. I have the unique opportunity to guide folks on their conscious gardening journey.
Once I settled in at the nursery, I was able to join our Forestry team, Water Quality Team, and eco-literacy teams and got to see first-hand all of the unique ways we are involved in the community.
How did you get into working with plants in the first place?
I’ve been working with plants for about 12 years now. My first job was at a little roadside plant and produce stand. I applied there because I started backpacking in middle school, and from backpacking I really got an appreciation for nature. Some of my favorite parts of hikes were just all the wildflowers in bloom, and specifically seeking out places because of the plants that were there. I knew that I wanted to have a job that was outside, and when I learned you could make a living by growing and selling plants, I was like, “great!”
Clean water and native plants.. what’s the relation?
There are many! First – native plants require less/no fertilizer and watering when established. Lawns and other ornamental plants often require fertilizer to perform to our expectations. Fertilizer is a major source of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, so the less we use the better!
Less water, once established. We can conserve our clean drinking water. We also promote the use of rain barrels – to reuse rain water to help new plantings establish.
Stormwater Projects… this is a big one! Native plants are an essential piece to the stormwater puzzle – they help to slow the flow and absorb water running off of paved surfaces. This lessens the amount of stormwater entering our already overwhelmed stormwater pipe system (think sewage overflows).
Why else should someone care if the plants in their garden are native?
Why not!? Think globally, act locally – one of my favorite sayings.
We get so ingrained in the mindset of, “this is my property, I own this property, and I’m going to do what I want with this property.” But I think it’s really important to take a larger view. If you start to think of your property as a part of the larger ecosystem, you can begin to understand why it is important to plant things native to the region. When you try to match the plants in your landscape to the native plants in the closest natural areas, you will find that they will be incredibly easy to grow and will stand up to whatever garden pests might be around (deer and bunnies for example).
Many creatures depend on native plants, even very specific native plants for survival. Think monarch butterfly and milkweed – that’s just one very charismatic species… there are countless tiny little native bees, ants, beetles, caterpillars… so many things at the base of our food chain that have interconnected relationships. Why not support this essential part of our ecosystem every chance we get? At Herring Run Nursery we feel that it is important to realize the impact you have on the entire ecosystem when you choose native plants.
If you have stormwater issues – plant natives!
If you like butterflies and hummingbirds – plant natives!
If you are concerned about pollinators – plant natives!
What’s the most common misunderstanding you see from customers at the nursery?
This is a tricky question, during a ‘normal’ spring we welcome customers of all gardening levels. We have folks come out who have never planted anything before, and we have customers who have created a native oasis in their yards and are just adding to the jungle, as I like to say.
I would say the most common misconception is that if you plant a pollinator garden you will be attacked by bees. It is totally understandable that if you are allergic to bees you will not want to encourage them in a spot in your yard that you pass by regularly. However, the bees that are attracted to these plants are looking for nectar and pollen. They are not out to get you; in fact, you can get pretty close to them and observe their behavior. I have yet to be stung by a bee, and I go in and weed in the pollinator garden all the time, or just take videos of the bees (because I’m obsessed).
Also, the bees that a lot of people are allergic to are really wasps and hornets, which have a venom that’s designed to paralyze mammals. A lot of the small native bees have venom designed to harm other insects, so we typically don’t have as bad of a reaction.
That being said, it’s totally understandable if you’re nervous about bees – I’d say you can still put a pollinator garden in a corner of your yard where you can visit if you want, but don’t have to necessarily pass by them every day.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to be a conscious gardener, but doesn’t know where to begin?
Herring Run Nursery offers on-site consultations. Myself or Rob would come out and walk your property with you, to let you know which areas would be good for a rain garden, a pollinator garden, etc. 1 hour for $150 – all proceeds benefit Blue Water Baltimore.
If you are more of a DIY and researcher, first step is to figure out what your environment is like. Sun/Shade, Wet/Dry, Garden Pests. From there, a quick good search of ‘native plants for XYZ’ will come up with all kinds of lists. The USFWS has a really nice book online which is available for free.
Monsanto is in the news for a class-action settlement that involves Baltimore’s waters.. can you tell us about that?
While Blue Water Baltimore was not directly involved in this case, we are always excited to see polluters held accountable. It’s great news for the Baltimore region. The next step is figuring out how in the world you clean up all these PCBs from the bottom of the harbor… but just knowing that they’re taking responsibility (or being forced to) for the pollution is another great step toward cleaner waters in Baltimore.
I can say that at Blue Water Baltimore we are consistently monitoring water quality – and you can check our latest reports by visiting howsthewaterhon.org, or baltimorewaterwatch.org. If you are curious about what we test for, check out the website, it breaks it down by station and by parameter.
Tell us a bit about yourself outside of work - hobbies, family?
I am a mom – that’s by number 1 job! Besides that, I always prefer to be outside. I love hiking, gardening with native plants and with vegetables, riding bikes, taking pictures of plants and bugs, traveling (pre-pandemic) and creating art with my daughter.
What’s your favorite Baltimore native plant?
This is one of the toughest questions I am asked. I have so many favorites! Right now I would say Buttonbush (or Cephalanthus occidentalis) because it is so versatile and it is blooming right now. It is wonderful for pollinators and butterflies and often has nice fall color, too.
Join us Tuesday, 7/7 at 12:30 p.m. EST for an interview with Brian Keenan, a local N.D. and herbalist!