The road leading out of Hurlock meanders through pastoral farmsteads, the landscape’s defining feature since European settlers started manicuring the Shore’s wilderness. At one such site, until a few years ago, a soybean field stood; now, wetland grasses and other native plants are carefully cultivated, bordered by a thriving pollinator friendly meadow.
Since putting down roots in Dorchester County, Delmarva Native Plants has emerged as a thriving regional source for native upland and wetland flora, crucial to supporting native pollinators and other fauna for conservation. DNP has become a vital local supply source for restorative living shoreline projects, such as Poplar Island (the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project.)
From local provenance seed, DNP grows essential 2-inch plugs of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), salt meadow hay (Spartina patens), and spike grass (Distichlis spicata) in specially created beds. (Additional native plant varieties are available throughout the growing season for all sizes of projects.)
Although both founders hail from New York and the Western Shore, they are dedicated to pursuing and purveying this corner of the Mid-Atlantic’s original botanical offerings as much as possible.
Growing up outside Baltimore in Howard County, DNR co-owner Clark DeLong remembers when farms still dotted the countryside during his childhood. But by the time he’d reached his 20s, they were gone, swallowed up by developers. His business partner, Jillian Parisi, saw similar sprawl consuming the open land of her Long Island hometown.
Earning bachelor’s and master’s Plant Science degrees from the University of Maryland, DeLong had considered a career in landscape architecture or installation. But first he needed to find an environmentally centered way to proceed within the industry.
With a Bachelor of Science degree from Salisbury University, Parisi remained in Maryland, in large part, to help restore the Chesapeake Bay. Along with her fiancé, she actively worked with Talbot County’s landmark Harris Creek oyster sanctuary restoration project.
The two met while working for another nursery, and soon discovered they shared common ground believing that commercial horticulture could be successfully rooted in responsible ecological practice. The pair began taking slow steady steps to germinate their fledgling business.
“We were renting a spot for our first six months in Salisbury, checking every single day trying to see what would pop up,” DeLong recalled. “We got super lucky finding the Hurlock site, in that this is the kind of parcel that usually a farmer will say to another, ‘hey I’m done with this, you want to pick it up?’ But this one decided to list it. And it was just what we were looking for. We wanted shelter, because we can’t deal with (pesticide) spray drift, being right next to another agricultural field would have been really bad. So, finding this sheltered spot for the right price was awesome,” he noted.
DeLong brings a strong passion for plants and a storehouse of knowledge about them. But he also contributes crucial working knowledge gleaned from those he referred to as his role models, individuals from businesses he’s worked for, who successfully operated under environmentally responsible protocols. Rather than being dependent on grants to fund projects, they were able to reinvest their profits.
(Another of DeLong’s role models is his dad, a retired dentist who raised him with a strong outdoor work ethic and “counterculture” environmentally responsible values.)
With sales experience from the nursery, Parisi’s years working with oyster aquaculture also provided insight into which marine contractors were doing work on the water; both were crucial as she undertook rounds of cold calling to introduce Delmarva Native Plants as a viable local source for cultivars crucial to shoring up land to withstand rising tides and the challenges of encroaching climate change.
DeLong noted that not having grown up here, it’s tough to comment on how extensively things have changed. But even his relatively limited residential experience has provided him a sense of perspective.
“When I first came to the Shore in 2014, there were several icy storms. But since then, there really haven’t been any extremely harsh winters; I would have expected at least one,” he mentioned.”
Weather is also a vital factor during late summer and fall, DNR’s crucial seed gathering season.
“So, it’s all on us every year to go and get the seeds to make the whole next year possible, and the fall is crucial. The two main Spartina grasses we grow bloom a couple weeks late in August, then you’re ready to collect seeds, depending on what the weather is like in September and October. You sort of have to just start checking in the fall to make sure that everything is going well, and, knock on wood, that a hurricane doesn’t blow through and just wash it all away; we’ve been very lucky so far that we’ve been bypassed for the last few years,” DeLong noted. (Just a week later, a large tornado touched down a quarter mile away, fortunately leaving the site unscathed.)
“In addition, we work with government groups that have access to space and give permission, or groups who have installed large projects in the past willing to let us come back and reap additional seed,” he added.
“I always have bags with me when I’m out and about, because you never know when you’re going to find something by the roadside and you gotta grab seed before the mowing crew comes through,” he said, smiling.
Most of all, DNP makes sure that each plant they provide is grown from “local provenance seed” of bona fide local ecosystem origin, ensuring maximum ecological benefit.
During their first year in Hurlock in 2018, they erected six high tunnel style greenhouses, putting up the seventh and eighth, and last fall, another two, with more on the way. “I like having a good winter construction project,” DeLong added.
Thanks to the swath of reemerging meadow surrounding the dedicated growing areas, no insecticides are needed. With a veritable banquet right next door, insects and deer have plenty of other goodies to munch on. “The first year a family of foxes showed up; turkeys have visited too,” he mentioned.
While high and low marsh grasses make up the bulk of DNP’s output, a plan to expand and offer additional upland native species is underway. Relatively uncommon offerings of butterfly milkweed, hairy beard tongue, spotted bee balm, seashore mallow, pale purple coneflower and others are being grown in the one-gallon pot sizes generally requested by landscapers and nurseries. Production is expected to ramp up once the currently advertised nursery manager assistant position is filled.
The plant selections represent DeLong’s extensive research aimed at providing varieties closest to those originally grown here. He hopes that doing so will help educate others, from uninformed homeowners to horticulture industry professionals who sometimes unwittingly dispense misleading information. Based on his own retail nursery experience, DeLong has seen that once people understand the benefits native plants provide to the overall ecosystem, they tend to go with those, rather than stick with strictly ornamental varieties.
“Overall, the business is moving towards this, and we’re definitely not the only ones seizing on this trend. But I’m hoping that this idea, that we should be landscape gardening for nature, not just for ourselves or ease of maintenance, will continue to catch on,” he stated.
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Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.