Turning a Suburban Yard into a Haven—Molly McElwee’s Triumph 

| Garden Tours

by Nan Wray ✎

Master gardener and Catonsville resident Molly McElwee’s passion for native plants is apparent the moment her home is in your field of vision. On this late spring day, both her backyard and front garden were full of blooms, butterflies and smiling faces as she happily spoke with Wild Ones members and friends who came for the tour of her property.

She has achieved the holy grail with her front garden: minimal turfgrass and maximum number of native plants, all well-defined and edged so neighbors are drawn in by the floral displays rather than put off by a melange of plants they might resent as being weedy.

McElwee’s property is typical for her neighborhood in its size, approximately 8,000 square feet, but it feels like it could last forever with how she has artfully arranged her meandering chipped pathways under a lush tree canopy. Her joy at creating her garden is apparent with all the decorative garden art that make you pause dream a little as you are catching more of the dreamy green displays of happy plants.

More than 10 years have passed since she began to dig her first garden beds that she would fill with native plants—now numbering in excess of 100 species—and she is still “editing” because she wants to find a spot for just one more plant or tree.

After her Master Gardener training was completed in 2011, she didn’t immediately embark on planting natives. “My push towards natives really started because I needed things to survive in my garden.” she says. “I started on native plants because of the soil here, it’s pure clay.”

Clay is typical of the Piedmont Ecoregion, where Catonsville is, but it is not a hindrance for the native plants that evolved in this area. This is a message that McElwee loves to share with others. “I am passionate about educating other people about native plants.”

Molly and mom Susan Denissen, who inspired a love of gardening in her daughter.

McElwee was enthusiastic about hosting a garden tour for Wild Ones Greater Baltimore, and knows. how to engage people when talking about her garden. She had a rapt audience even on one of the first blazingly hot days of the season.

Part of the joy of creating a native garden is learning about the relationship the plants have with their pollinators, and anticipating which plant you will fall in love with next. “I love Common Boneset, Pussytoes, Button Bush and am developing a big fondness for Spicebush!”

Signs on a green garden gate showing pollinator habitat, including Audubon sign, Humane backyard sign, Wildlife habitat sign and certified butterfly garden sign

It is clear that McElwee’s knowledge and passion is an inspiration for others and she says her garden often triggers conversations with neighbors. “As we go into summer people will sit out on the steps … and there will be butterflies flying around. The garden is a conversation piece!”

To become a Wild Ones member, or give the gift of membership, visit our national site, WildOnes.org. ❀

Photos by Nan Wray and Molly McElwee