Nilah Ate the Blog

Illustration, books, and baking… probably

A Trip to FONA Native Plant Sale

After so many years, I’m still getting used to the social media thing. Here I am sitting at home, kicking myself for not taking any photos or videos at the FONA Native Plant Sale today. So alas, you’ll have to imagine it.

Plant tag

It was hosted at the National Arboretum in DC, which was almost a dealbreaker. I hate driving to DC. Then it hit me that the Arboretum probably had its own onsite parking, so off I went.

Looking for native plant sales has become a regular pastime since I moved back to Maryland. Thinking back, I’m not sure how I even learned this side of ecological conservation, the difference between native and non-native and invasive plants. Now that Spring has finally sprung, I’m in nurseries pretty often, too; shopping, sometimes, but being in nurseries and garden centers just calms me. I am always shocked how many still sell aggressive spreaders like nandina, forsythia, English ivy, and how many people happily buy them. I stopped by Tractor Supply Company yesterday and saw Bradford pears among their tree inventory. It seems there’s still a long way to go in educating the public on planting with natives.

bloodroot, sunflowers, anise

And yet, at today’s plant sale, there were so many customers. I got there around 11 am, two hours after opening, and many plants were sold out. People were walking about carrying whole trays of tender greens in quart containers, or pulling carts laden with budding shrubs and trees, fresh out of dormancy. Everyone was bundled in coats, hats, and scarves, as this weekend decided to throw us back into midwinter for one last (hopefully) hurrah.

I went into the event space and directly to the last setup, Hill House Farm. I was too late for Virginia strawberries and a few others I can’t remember, but I was crestfallen at the time. I grabbed the last Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the last Virginia bluebell, the last Raydon’s Favorite Aster. At Nature By Design‘s table I nearly took the last two anise hyssop, then felt bad and left one for whoever might arrive and, like me, wish they’d come an hour sooner.

Phlox, aster

I bought yet another phlox from Goodman Farm. Do I really need any more phlox? How many phlox will I buy before my phlox thirst is sated? At that same table I grabbed Symphyotrichum dumosus, Wood’s Light Blue, because I forgot I picked up the Raydon’s Favorite and thought “Oh yes, I need an aster, any will do!”

At this point, I was at my budget and should have left. But I was high on the thrill of plants. This is something that has come over me since moving back to Maryland, but in retrospect, it’s always been there. I considered myself a burgeoning gardener in my early teen years, only I didn’t have any money or space to do my own growing. My parents didn’t want me “digging up the yard.” But now I’m an adult and I own the yard, and I can dig wherever I want!

Viburnum dentatum

I made a few trips, loading my armfuls of plants in the car then going back to browse, working my way inside out. My last stop was Tree Talk Natives, right by the entrance. I’d had viburnum in the back of my head for a while, but they grow so large and there are so many varieties, I had not yet committed. I was eyeing their selection of arborvitae. I explained to one of the vendors that I had an area that needed a windbreak. The vendor suggested the arrowwood viburnum over the arborvitae. This seemed like as good a weekend as any to just go for it. I also picked up a small winterberry, which I also knew I’d need to buy eventually.


I have a very long list of potential additions for the property. It’s not necessary that I check off every one, or plant them all this year. It’s something I’ll likely pick at little by little over the course of years. I am in early stages of planning with only a vague image in my mind of what I want. I’m hoping for a visually pleasing arrangement, of course, something between manicured and wild, but my larger goal is a broad variety of plants to support the wildlife living here, an assortment of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that provide habitat as well as nuts, berries, and seeds throughout the year.

My property ownership goals aside, it is simply nice to have something to do that takes me away from the computer and outside. It is nice to think in terms of land stewardship, of wildlife and natural processes. It is nice, this time of year, to see leaves slowly unfurling from buds, to listen to the chorus of birds and spring peepers, to dig my hands into soil and feel a part of the world.

Nilah is an author and illustrator from the United States.


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