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Wednesday - May 11, 2011

From: Washington, DC
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Wildlife Gardens
Title: Replacing Nandina with natives for a schoolyard in Washington DC
Answered by: Leslie Uppinghouse


Dear Mr. Smarty Plants, Our schoolyard now has some invasive plants in the landscaping that we would like to replace with native plants. We have four clumps of Nandina planted at each pillar along a south facing wall, which looks nice for all four seasons. We wish to replace this without unduly shocking folks accustomed to standard landscaping. What are some native alternatives? We would like four season interest and no toxic berries since it is a schoolyard with young children, but wildlife interest would be a plus. We will have classroom planting beds between the pillars, so something like a shrub would be better than something that spreads rampantly. So far we have thought of highland blueberry but how do they look in winter? Many thanks!


Replacing non native Nandina with something native on your school grounds presents a unique learning opportunity for your kids. As a nation, children are seeing local wild landscapes disappearing at an alarming rate. Biologically diverse landscapes are being replaced with homogenized non native landscapes both in commercially developed areas as well as residential neighborhoods. Their personal landscape is changing all around them and changing fast. If kids have a strong bond with nature they are more likely to preserve and protect biodiversity. It is becoming harder and harder for children to find and connect to their own sense of place. Anything we can do to help them connect, helps them to appreciate, understand and thrive in their environment.

A simple act of planting a native plant purposefully can draw kids into the discussion of how bringing a plant back to it's historical home can help protect all of the other native species of birds, bugs and mammals that are reliant on having that specific food and shelter. By involving your students in this process and having them excited about the project you might find that this also educates the parents into understanding that planting natives doesn't mean letting go of a landscape. That wild doesn't have to mean out of control but rather putting nature back in balance. By having a native plant, planted at their school in plain sight, kids learn to recognize that plant and will see wildlife flourish around it; they will remember it and hopefully care to protect it.

There are great native options for replacing the Nandina. You have native evergreen shrubs that can provide you with good shape, colorful foliage and berries that are safe for kids. Not knowing the specifics about your soil type or light conditions for the particular spot you have, we will offer you a variety of choices and encourage you and the kids to do a little research into the best plant or plants that will work. It might be fun to have the kids keep track of the rainfall and sunlight the spot receives, and keep a list of any birds they find visiting the Nandina now and then compare that with any new birds or animals they find visiting the natives. To study which plants would work for your area, use our database and take a look at the recommended species section of the website. Here, you can choose District of Columbia and the type of plant you are looking for. It will bring up a list of plants that are native to your area and are commercially available at local nurseries. If you click on the links to the plants in that list you will find details about the plants and how to care for them.

You might want to think about planting more than one kind of shrub. This gives you more visual interest as well as diversity for wildlife. Nature is rarely patterned in distribution of species. With careful choosing, a variety of species can become a more appealing environment to wildlife, still keeping a tidy appearance for the school board. The other advantage of grouping some plants together instead of choosing just one, is you would be able to use some of the deciduous species in combination with the evergreens to give you more color and seasonal change. 

Here are some choices based off of a search in the recommended species list of our website for the DC area.

Mahonia aquifolium (Holly-leaf oregon-grape): A staple to much of the American landscape. Native Americans used Oregon grape for food and dyes. Animals eat the berries and you can still find recipes for jelly using Oregon grape. It is about the size of a Nandina, 3-6ft. It has glossy green leaves and bright yellow flowers. It is evergreen but unlike many other evergreens there is a change of color in the foliage in spring. The new growth is a bronzy copper color.

Gaylussacia baccata (Black huckleberry): A small shrub with berries, would be a good companion to a larger shrub. This plant only grows to a height of about 2ft. It is deciduous or evergreen depending on the conditions and the grower, so check with your local nursery on finding one that has proven to be evergreen in your area. The foliage turns crimson in the fall so again a nice addition to an evergreen shrub which would stay green all year long. The berry is edible and this is a desired plant for wildlife.

A larger shrub Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf hydrangea) is an evergreen again depending on the season. In very harsh winters they can lose their leaves but usually not until late winter. Even the blooms on this showy bush will stay on until mid-winter. The flowers start out green, change to white and then become purple. The fall foliage of deep red make this a fun year round plant to watch. They can reach a height of 12 ft but are easily prune able if you want to keep them smaller. The big leaves and tangled branches entice birds to nest. 

Another companion plant that is important to keep in our wild landscape as now it is listed as endangered in New Jersey and threatened in New York is Hypericum prolificum (Shrubby st. johnswort). A practical little plant, around 3 ft tall. It is deciduous but worth having around for its cheery yellow flowers and interesting capsule that stays on the plant though the winter. It is a tough plant, adaptable to many soil conditions and water availability.

You have two native blueberries in your area. Take a look at these links and see if they will work for you. Typically both of these varieties will lose their leaves in winter. Vaccinium pallidum (Blue ridge blueberry) Vaccinium corymbosum (Highbush blueberry)


Vaccinium corymbosum

Hydrangea quercifolia

Hypericum prolificum

Gaylussacia baccata

Mahonia aquifolium






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