UME 4-H program is saving Maryland’s native habitats, one tree at a time

The Nurture Native 4-H team. From left: Esther Bonney, Samantha Rutherford, Abigail Bonney

April 6, 2023
By Laura Wormuth

Invasive species are creeping into yards and landscapes all across Maryland, but one team of University of Maryland 4-H students is taking a stand against non-native plants and working to restore natural habitats, starting in their own community of Charles County.

Led by Extension 4-H educator Amy Lang, the three-member team of Charles County high school 4-Hers – Samantha Rutherford, Esther and Abigail Bonney – received one of 12 grants at the National 4-H Summit for Agri-Science for their ‘Nurture Natives’ project.

Charles County plant giveaway
The Charles County 4-H team gave away 150 native
trees to community members. 

“Bad plants are planted by well-meaning people,” said Esther Bonney, a sophomore who intends to pursue environmental law as a future career. “Invasive species are such a serious issue, and seeing all of the urbanization of what used to be rural Charles County – the native trees being replaced by things like the Bradford Pear tree which are invasive and decrease natural biodiversity – all inspired us to pursue this project.”

With the grant money, the team sponsored a native tree giveaway in La Plata, Md., giving away 150 trees to community members, accompanied by lessons on the importance of bees and other pollinators, and a honey tasting.

“We had different honeys; a clover honey and a wildflower honey. The clover is sweeter and thinner, and the wildflower is opposite – thicker and not as sweet,” said Abigail Bonney, a junior interested in the culinary arts and growing fresh produce. “So I teach why they have a different texture and taste. It was fun to use food to demonstrate the impact of pollinators and why native species matter.”

The team expanded their outreach into schools and summer camps, partnering with Malcolm Elementary in Waldorf, Md., with the 4-H camps and county fair, and with the Charles County Department of Parks and Recreation, to provide educational programs to youth across the region.

“Because of a lack of understanding, there’s less and less native species being planted, and our hope is to try and educate more people,” said Samantha, also a junior, and a member of the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers. “Planting native species helps people reach their own goals and helps the community by prolonging the native environmental structure.”

In addition to their extensive community and youth outreach, the team has also produced a guide to common invasive species sought after by homeowners and their comparable native look-alikes, providing viable alternatives for landscaping. The Nurture Native Guidebook features 12 different invasives, and have been distributed to nurseries around the county.

Charles County 4-H plant giveaway

“In the fight against invasive species, the support of individuals, local organizations, and nurseries is invaluable,” said Esther. 

The Charles County 4-H team has since applied for, and won, a second grant supporting their progress and to bolster their outreach activities. The 4-H Lead to Change Scale for Success award – a highly competitive opportunity with only two or three projects receiving the $5000 funding – will allow the team to print and distribute their Nurture Native Guide to nurseries statewide, and will also be used to purchase 400 more native plants to be given away at the University of Maryland’s annual Maryland Day on April 29, 2023.

The team also intends to expand the guidebook to include more invasive species and their environmentally friendly alternatives, Esther said, and are looking to identify potential partners and sponsors who would like to collaborate on their mission.

“You have an impact. It’s what you choose to do that affects what kind of impact you have,” said Samantha. “Every bottle you throw away, every tree you plant, every action will have a good or bad influence. So if you’re going to choose to do something, choose to do good and make a positive impact on the world.”

Watch a video about the Charles County tree giveaway day below and learn more by visiting their work during Maryland Day on April 29 on the UMD campus.