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Landscaping for institutions
(faith communities, HOAs, apartment complexes, commercial properties, schools, etc)

Here are some ideas for using native plants on your common property. What all have in common is that they reduce the amount of lawn, since turf grass is a non-native species that provides zero habitat value.

Note: Before you do anything...

  1. Is there a water source nearby? If not, you may need to pay for watering the first season (and longer if you are planting trees or shrubs larger than seedlings).

  2. Who is going to take care of your new landscaping? It is risky to count on other volunteers. For best long-term results, consider sticking to landscaping that your usual maintenance crew can manage without any additional time or skills on their part. Their usual approach is to keep things neat with string trimmers, electric hedge clippers and mulch. (You will need to end their other usual practice of spraying those mulch beds with herbicides and applying pesticides to lawns.) They should be able to handle native trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, ferns, and groundcover (once the groundcover has created a solid mat. Not all groundcovers are like that, so choose carefully). They may be able to manage a few flowers within those mulched beds, as long as those plants have distinctive, tidy foliage that makes it easy to distinguish them from a weed. What they almost certainly cannot manage is a complex pollinator garden or a meadow. 

Beauty takes planning


There is an art to good landscape design.

Click here for basic design tips.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Arlington

For minimal effort and maintenance...

Plant native trees.

Shade trees can reduce cooling costs for your building and provide a tremendous amount of wildlife habitat with minimal effort on your part. Understory trees such as flowering dogwood, redbud, and fringe tree add beauty to your landscape. Trees can be planted to celebrate special occasions, memorials, births, etc. Where people will be chatting, sitting or playing, they will need shade. 

  • Learn all about trees - which to choose, where to find them, how to plant and maintain them - on the Plant NOVA Trees website.

  • Native trees are available to communities at very low cost and often for free!

  • Where no one is using the lawn, such as on slopes or out of the way areas, reforesting is the way to go.


Plant native shrubs.

Shrubs also provide a lot of habitat value; many can fit well within a formal landscaping setting. Popular examples include Virginia sweetspire, viburnums, and winterberry.

  • Choose your native shrubs here.

  • Save on trimming - get shrubs that fit the space when fully grown.

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Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

With just a little more effort…

Add a native groundcover around the base of trees and shrubs.

There are many versatile native groundcovers suitable for this purpose, including Wild Ginger, Green-and-gold, sedges, ferns, and Golden Ragwort. The hands-down winner for an evergreen native that spread steadily while thoroughly and reliably suppressing weeds, in sun or in shade, is Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea).

  • Choose your groundcover here

  • Plan to plant very densely.

  • Grouncovers are most successful in shade. In full sun, the weeds will try to get the upper hand. If you recently planted trees or shrubs, you might want to wait until they are creating shade before adding groundcovers underneath.

Add native ornamental grasses or ferns

Clumps of waving grasses are simple to maintain, as are ferns. The three grasses that are sold for this purpose are Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Grasses look good in containers also. For fern advice, see this page.

Add two or three native flowers

For a pop of color but minimal extra work, the trick is to choose species that stay in one place, do not flop, need no dead-heading or other care, and are so easily recognized just from their foliage that no one will mistake them for a weed. If in doubt, grow them in containers. Popular choices include (in approximate order of bloom time) Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica),  Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata), False Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Joe-Pye Weed 'Little Joe' (Eupatorium dubium.)

Consider putting perennials in large, attactive pots instead of in the ground. Although they will need regular watering, that problem may be easier in some situations than dealing with a garden.

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Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting

Manage stormwater with native plantings.


All states within the Chesapeake watershed are under a federal obligation to reduce the runoff from the impervious surfaces on our properties that destroys our streams and carries the sediment which has smothered the underwater grasses that are the basis of the ecosystem within the Bay. Generous matching grants may be available from the state via the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (depending on your jurisdiction.). 


Rain gardens 

A rain garden is a depression in the landscape that captures run-off and holds it for up to a day or so while it percolates into the ground. This can be a do-it-yourself undertaking if you have strong people to do the digging. To be most effective, a certain amount of engineering is required, with an overflow pipe and replacement of some of the soil with more porous material. Click here for details. 


Bayscaping, Conservation Landscaping

These terms simply refers to replacing lawn with native plantings. It is much less expensive than a rain garden. If you are replacing lawn with a landscaping bed, why not do it in a location that will capture rainwater before it runs off your property?


Vegetated swales

A swale is a berm that slows down the flow of water across the property.

With a dedicated team of skilled gardeners...

Add a pollinator garden.

Even experienced gardeners make mistakes when working with unfamiliar plants. Even if you yourself are an expert, there is a great deal to be said for sticking to "neat-and-tidy" plants such as the ones mentioned above so that your successors do not inherit a situation which they can't handle. An average size garden bed requires about an hour per month of work to keep it looking tidy.

Add a designed meadow.

In Northern Virginia, the tremendous pressure from invasive plants quickly turns attempts at meadows into a mess without several years of very hard work as the native plants get established (and even after that...). Having said that, even a partially native meadow will have a lot more habitat value than an empty lawn. So if you have a large area where trees and shrubs are not allowed, such as a stormwater basin or a septic field, consider creating a meadow. (In the case of stormwater basins, you'll need to consult with your county's Stormwater division first.)

  • Click here for meadow instructions.


Invasive plants control


Invasive plants are defined as non-natives ones that are causing environmental damage. Many of them have been and continue to be used in our landscaping, where their seeds are eaten by birds and carried into our natural areas. It makes no sense to keep or plant something that causes environmental damage.

In a landscaped area, the job is simply to swap those plants out any of the beautiful native alternatives.

In natural areas, it helps to create a priority list and tackle the invasive over several years.

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Reduce chemicals



The whole point of using native plants is to support the ecosystem. That ecosystem depends on insects eating the leaves of the native plants then being eaten themselves by birds and other predators. It would be worse than useless to invite insects onto your property only to kill them with insecticides. Do not be fooled by companies that claim they are using "safe" or "natural" products to kill ticks or adult mosquitoes. If a product kills them, it will also kill the bees, butterflies, fireflies, etc. Learn more on this page.



Maintenance companies keep mulch beds and other areas free of weeds by spraying them with herbicides. They use broad-leaf killer on lawns. Is this what you want? Check your maintenance contract. 


Excess nutrient run-off is a major threat to the Chesapeake Bay. Is your lawn company taking proper precautions? Can you manage your lawn without fertilizer? See this document to find lawn maintenance choices.

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