All posts by Toni Genberg

Do Not Plant: Bradford Pear

The asian import, Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), commonly called Bradford Pear, is an ornamental tree that’s widely used in landscaping.  It has, like so many other nursery-grown plants, escaped from residential and commercial land and is designated as invasive in more than half of our states. This tree greedily invades natural habitats and out-competes our valuable native species for resources.

Invasive Callery or Bradford Pear blooming in spring.

An ever-mulitiplying patch of invasive Callery or Bradford Pear blooming in spring.

“Do not plant” is the official advice regarding this invasive. I’d like to add, “Do not propagate” and “Do not sell.” Please! Unfortunately the Bradford Pear is legal to sell here in Virginia and I suspect this is the case in most of the states it’s sunk its insidious roots into.

The Curse of the Bradford Pear” is a no-holds-barred look at this unfriendly tree.

If you like their white flowers and habit, here are some handsome Mid-Atlantic native alternatives to the Callery Pear for your consideration (sources noted below):


Common/Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
Light Reqirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Canadian Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Wet
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

American Hornbeam/Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana)
Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Cockspur Hawthorne (Crataegus crus-galli)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Green Hawthorne (Crataegus viridis)
Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Wet
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Sweet Crabapple (Malus coronaria)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist, Wet
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Note: this tree can grow to 100’
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
Note: Not recommended for urban areas
Water Use: Low
Light Requirement: Part Shade
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

American Plum/Wild Plum (Prunus americana)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist>
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia)
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Southern Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist, Wet
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Black Haw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist, Wet
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The best plan is to use local ecotypes (plants native to your area) that grow in the same conditions as your garden’s.  Soil pH, light and moisture should be taken into consideration before planting to insure long term success.


City of Columbia, Missouri

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

US Fish & Wildlife Service
Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping, Chesapeake Bay Watershed

USDA Forest Service

Updated July 2, 2018

Natives are a Girl’s Best Friend (Forever)

Diamonds, emeralds, rubies?  No thanks, Dahlink, what I prefer is plants.  Native plants, Dahlink.  My treasures are not found in any jewelry store or at the nearest mall.  No, no.  My favorite gems are on display in the rapidly diminishing wild areas here and there across our land.  And I keep some in my secret jewelry box: my garden.

Jewels in my garden. A hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, feeds on the nectar of the pollinator magnet wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa.

More gems. A damselfly rests on a stalk of little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, a pretty fall-blooming native grass.

Yes, I could be charmed with much more expensive, sparkly — but ultimately useless — stuff.  “You know it could be much worse,” I tell my sweetie, my arms cradling freshly purchased perennials.  And he agrees.  He knows a tiara would rest uneasily on my head.  I am no princess.  I’m a fierce warrior woman when it comes to conservation.

Quite Affordable

Native plants are necessary for our survival.  It’s a fact.  Science says so.  And considering what natives provide, they’re surprisingly affordable.  Bank accounts need not be bled dry to add these essentials to any landscape.  But wait, there’s more!  As a bonus many of our natives give back.  They self-sow, sometimes insanely, finding and filling garden space and asking for no more than some time and patience.  Sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors is also self-fulfilling.

So Go Native!  Thanks, Dahlink, you’re my BFF.

Native Plants for the Penny-Wise

Sticker shock.  That term is usually associated with purchasing a car but it can happen when shopping for plants, too.  Plants can be fairly pricey — especially those larger-sized garden center trees and shrubs.  The cringe factor is multiplied when landscaping sizable areas.  But do you need such a large plant to begin with?  I say absolutely no, you don’t.

Start Small

If you have a little patience it’s a sensible idea to purchase a smaller, younger plant for a fraction of the cost.  In short time, that whip of a sapling will be the size of the tempting five-gallon container of greenery you wisely passed over.  And it will probably be healthier.  Seasoned gardeners know that the joy of tending a garden is in nurturing, observing and in watching life grow.  No instant garden is needed.

Cheerful woodland poppies at a native plant sale.

Cheerful woodland poppies at a native plant sale.

What Grows In Your Area?

Common garden shops, besides shrinking your wallet, offer very few native species.  When they do have them in stock, these natives aren’t necessarily found naturally growing where you garden – they’ve evolved in other regions of the country.  The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is no longer a sound tool to measure what to plant.  It’s simple: we just plant local-ecotypes – and as many as we possibly can.  We know that planting natives local to an area, in the conditions they evolved in, lowers water and chemical inputs and makes for strong, thriving plants.  California is the perfect example.  Many homeowners are replacing non-local landscaping and lawn with plants that originated there to offset the current multi-year drought’s effects. Continue reading

Virginia Pesticide Disposal Program 2015 — Free!


Free and safe disposal of unwanted and outdated pesticides is available to homeowners and commercial businesses September 15 at Merrifield Garden Center, 12101 Lee Hwy, Fairfax (the Fairfax location, NOT in Merrifield) 9am-1:00pm. Other dates and locations are also collecting. This event happens only once every 5 years. The 2010 collection disposed of over 13,500 pounds of pesticides, weed & feed products and herbicides! Why not consider “going organic” and ridding homes, garden sheds and garages (waterways, wildlife habitats and gardens too!) of these expensive, dangerous and unnecessary chemicals. Please check with the Office of Pesticide Services for more information and a list of acceptable items. This program is sponsored by VTech, VSU, Va Dept of Agriculture and the VA Cooperative Extension. Please share this information with others. Thanks!, Julie Liu, Fairfax County Master Gardener.

Adria Bordas, Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, mentioned that the form need not be filled out if a person is turning in a low volume of pesticides. Please note: Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and rodenticides.

Here’s the disposal brochure/form with state-wide collection dates.

Thanks to grand neighbor and friend, Julie, for sending me this pesticide disposal information.

The Unusual Occurrance of Dead Animals

Dear neighbors,

We have had unusual incidents of wildlife turning up dead or dying in our neighborhood.  We found a dead raccoon in our backyard on Poplar Drive on April 7 and the kind neighbor diagonally across the creek on Kennedy Street found a dead squirrel in her backyard a week prior.  Twenty days after discovering the dead raccoon, another neighbor came across a sick and dying raccoon – also on Kennedy Street.  None of the animals showed signs of trauma.  I’ve been chatting with a lot of experts hoping to find the cause of this unusual occurrence of dead critters.


Rat poison is a possible cause because we do have rats — primarily because where we live, backing to Tripps Run, there are gabions.  Gabions are rocks in wire cages.  Fairfax County installed them years ago to stabilize the creek.  Using gabions is now considered an outdated practice but they make a good habitat for rats to live.  People may not like rats and mice but there are many reasons not to put out poison to kill them.  Poison can be consumed by any number of non-targeted animals.  And these poisoned animals are then eaten by other wildlife that in turn are also poisoned.  More humane alternatives to poison include a ‘Rat Zapper’ or a spring/snap trap.

Another poison that animals get into is antifreeze — it’s made with a chemical called ethylene glycol.  It is sweet tasting and highly toxic.  Here’s a NY Times article on why antifreeze manufacturers are changing their formula to make it unpalatable to animals and people.  If you have antifreeze stored in an area that wild critters, children or pets have access to, please move it to a secure location.  If your auto is leaking antifreeze, this could attract wildlife or domesticated animals and can also cause certain death if consumed.


When I made my second call to Fairfax County Animal Control about the dead animals, Officer O’Connor suggested that the animals could have been shot with a .22.  The bullet hole would be small enough to be indiscernible.

Although this seems far-fetched, a friend of mine knew a person who confessed to shooting squirrels at his bird feeders.  He lived in Falls Church.  Aren’t there times when you hear a loud sound and you think ‘that sounded like gunfire’ but you immediately dismiss it?

Officer O’Conner also stated that Animal Control does not test wildlife for poisons because it’s too costly.  They will test an animal for rabies, like our dying raccoon, but only if it has been in physical contact with a person.


Jane, from the Wildlife Rescue League, couldn’t add any additional insight about why our wildlife was turning up dead — except to state that animals don’t normally just up and die.  She did suggest I chat with the Fairfax County Health Department.  So I called FCHD and they gave me the number of Dr. Katherine Edwards, a wildlife biologist with Fairfax County.

Dr. Edwards, a Wildlife Management Specialist, listened to my account of the two raccoons and the squirrel and stated that there could be any number of reasons why the animals were killed.  She felt that the circumstances were indeed suspicious.  However, sometimes squirrels fall out of trees, she said, or animals get hit by vehicles and drag themselves elsewhere to die.  She wanted me to stress to my neighbors the importance of securing trash bins so animals can’t access harmful items.  Also, move your bin to the curbside in the morning instead of the night before pickup.


Debris or stacked items in a yard will create protected areas for small animals.  Compost bins can also be a source of food.  What is great is that in our suburban environment, our resident foxes, hawks and owls help keep rodent numbers in control.  If you don’t care for rodents or other creatures on your property, eliminate sources of food and shelter — or just let nature keep the balance.


Please don’t harm our wildlife.  Here is the law on killing wildlife in Virginia.

The unfortunate series of deaths remains a mystery.  I hope it was a freaky occurrence that will not be repeated.  For future reference, I’ve compiled some phone numbers that may come in handy:

Wildlife Rescue League: “If you have an injured animal or orphaned babies, please call our hotline at (703) 440-0800 so that your situation can be handled quickly.”  These kind folks want to help our furry and feathery friends.
Non-Emergency Questions: (703) 391-8625

If you have a wildlife conflict, such as a raccoon living under your deck, please call the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline: (855) 571-9003

A great non-profit organization we’ve received help from for a mangy fox: The Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation: (703) 549-4987 (Alexandria)

Fairfax County Wildlife Biologist: Dr. Katherine Edwards: (703) 246-6868

The Wildlife Center of Virginia (Waynesboro)

Fairfax County Animal Control: (703) 691-2131
Call FCAC “For dog bites, animal cruelty or neglect, sick or injured wildlife or human exposure/encounters with potentially rabid wildlife.”
“Animals that pose a direct threat to public health and safety are a top priority. Animal Control responds to wildlife calls for injured, sick, or aggressive animals. Seriously injured or aggressive wildlife will be humanely euthanized.”

I don’t advise calling Animal Control if you are trying to help an animal, because they say that is not what they do.


This raccoon is just one of the many welcomed creatures that visit our backyard habitat.


Fairfax County Gives Away ‘Green’ Money

Native trees and shrubs awaiting planting.

Native trees and shrubs await planting.

Calling all Homeowner and Civic Associations!  Fairfax County, Virginia, has launched their Conservation Assistance Program.  If your HOA or Civic Association is interested in creating sustainable landscapes or wants to become more energy efficient, the County will pay for 50% of the cost.  Check out their website for the fine details.

Currently, private homeowners are not eligible.

Watershed Conservation

BayScaping. Incorporate native trees and shrubs, meadow or wetland plants into your landscape. Typical cost: $5-15 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $1500.

Rain Gardens. Bowl-shaped garden area that collects and absorbs runoff. Typical cost: $10-25 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $2500.

Vegetated Swales. A wide, shallow ditch with dense vegetation or grass and amended soil designed to slow and absorb rainwater runoff and/or filter pollutants. Typical cost: $5-25 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $1500.

Infiltration Trench/Dry Well. A gravel-filled area that collects and absorbs runoff. Typical cost: $5-15 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $1500.

Porous Pavement/Pavers. Replace impervious hard surfaces to allow water to pass through and absorbs into the ground below. Must be installed by certified professional. Typical cost: $10-35 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $3000.

Energy Conservation

Energy Audit. Have a certified energy auditor perform an assessment and report on civic/homeowner association building(s). 50% match up to $500.

Energy Audit Recommendations. Implement a certified energy auditor’s efficiency recommendations for your homeowners or civic association building, from air sealing, insulation and HVAC to lighting and electronics upgrades. 50% match up to $3000.


Audubon Petitions Local Counties to Cease Spraying

Our local Fairfax and Prince William Counties plan to spray for the fall cankerworm, Alsophila pometaria, or ‘inchworm’ this coming spring as they have done annually for many years.  They will aerial spray Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki (Btk) which will kill not only the cankerworm but also other native Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) larvae.  According to Cornell University, “More than 150 insects, mostly lepidopterous larvae, are known to be susceptible in some way to B.t.”  That’s a huge amount of butterfly and moth larvae species affected, including innocuous species already in decline.  It is also a lot of food loss for our feathery friends that are increasingly stressed by habitat degradation.  Caterpillars are the main food source for migrating birds and also for breeding birds and their hatchlings.  Did you know that it takes up to 9000 caterpillars to raise a single clutch of chickadees?


Caterpillars that support our birds could be unnecessarily targeted by County spraying.

Fairfax County states on their website that 5000 acres of trees have been defoliated in the past.  However, the North Carolina State University site referenced by Fairfax County indicates “cankerworms generally don’t kill trees”.  It’s not clear how the County defines defoliation, as our native trees are hosts to many native insect species.  Oaks, for example, support nearly 600 species of Lepidoptera.

This past spring The Connection ran a story on the debate over the spraying.  Local entomologist Ashley Kennedy said that the spraying was not necessary and it costs Fairfax County about a half a million dollars annually.  The County sprayed 2,200 acres of residential area in the spring of 2014.  The primary reason, the County explained, was because the caterpillars were a nuisance to people.

Do we really need to be spraying?  Could our tax dollars be better spent?  I believe this is a woeful waste of our money as cankerworms are generally not killing trees and they are an important food source for native critters, particularly birds.  Additionally, the spraying causes unintended consequences to many other caterpillar species as all pesticides kill indiscriminately.

The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia is petitioning Fairfax County and Prince William County to end the spraying of our native fall cankerworm.  Please consider signing this petition to reduce County spending and to end this attack on our ecosystem: Audubon Community Petitions



Why Cultivars Could Be Problematic


Our Native Bumble Bee on a Goldenrod (Solidago) Cultivar

The topic of cultivars can be a polarizing one for folks in the native gardening community. It’s true, cultivars can provide food and cover for our wildlife just like our native species do… but… as well behaved and form pleasing as they can be to some, cultivars could prove to be detrimental to our ecosystems.

Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council points out the following in The Eight Essential Elements of Conservation Landscaping:

Cultivated varieties (cultivars) are available for many native plants. These plants have been nursery grown as “improved” selections to provide plants with certain physical characteristics, such as a different flower color, a particular foliage shape, early bloom time, or compact size. All the plants belonging to a particular cultivar are genetically identical. 

Although gardening with cultivars may be suitable to meet aesthetic goals, those planning habitat projects to provide food and cover for wildlife should use as many true species (not cultivars) as possible. No one really knows how these cultivars will affect the wildlife that depends on local native plant species for food. If a local native plant’s bloom period, color, fragrance, or flower shape is changed, it could have a serious detrimental effect on the hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife that may use that plant. True species are most suited for use by native wildlife, and planting them will increase your chances of attracting these creatures. Continue reading

The Killing of Lawn (and the Planting of Native Plants)

I confess.  I did it.  I smothered our lawn.  There was a vibrant swath of lush turf occupying the bulk of the front yard and I quietly murdered it.  It was a crime of passion.

Travel with me back to the early winter month of November 2012.  That’s when the idea of transforming the lawn into a productive vegetative habitat crept into my head and, like a catchy pop tune, wouldn’t leave my brain alone.  Obsessive thoughts of wild creatures.  Of seductive native plants.  It was early winter, with drab charcoal skies, cool temperatures and growing darkness.  The dismal days further fueled my desire to do the dastardly deed of death.


The new area would be a native perennial island oasis ringed by a narrow path of turf that I would spare.  I mowed the large area short.  Newspaper I had dumpster dived out of the nearby recycling center was then laid over the sheared grass about four sheets thick.  I chucked a few inches of compost over the paper layers, shoveling with the zeal of a demented gravedigger.  The act was now complete.  All I had to do was wait.  Visions of decayed turf grass combined with springtime planting filled my murderous heart with anticipation.  It would be a long winter.

The newly smothered 'island' outlined by a turf path in early 2013.

The newly smothered ‘island’ outlined by a turf path in early 2013.

Continue reading

It’s Time to Plant Native Plants

“Fall is the best time to plant!” is not just a gimmicky line used by garden centers to lure in customers during September. The plants you lovingly add to your garden now can establish a decent root system and get a strong start before the onslaught of the hot summer months.

And what do you want to plant? Natives, naturally! Ultimately, strive to plant species native to your region.

Last year's Parkfairfax Native Plant Sale in September.

Last year’s Parkfairfax Native Plant Sale in September.








Where can I find native plants?

Take a stroll through our Native Plant Sales calendar. There is an exciting array of native plant sales being held – from large to small, in all regions of the Mid-Atlantic. That special plant awaits you.