Gardening with a Sense of Place

Nicole Knudson of Lady Fern’s Native Plants in Norfolk shares the many benefits of gardening in concert with nature

by Beth Hester | May 1, 2023

Nicole Knudson's experience in the natural sciences led to an "organic evolution" that prepared her to open Lady Fern's, a Norfolk nursery dedicated to native species and their benefits.

Photos by Janice Marshall-Pittman

At Lady Fern’s native plant nursery, you can smell spring. Adjacent to Knitting Mill Creek in a diverse and vibrant section of North Colley Avenue, the corner nursery’s cheerful green frontage and gleaming white lattice entryway creates the impression that you’ve arrived at a gardening secret spot.

Owner Nicole Knudson is a Norfolk native whose decades of experience in the areas of biology, zoology, field botany, wildlife management, ecology and horticulture led to what she describes as “an organic evolution” that prepared her to open a native plant retail location and to purchase agriculturally zoned land on the Eastern Shore where high-quality soil could help her expand her inventory of wild and field-grown species.

Looking for “an immersive experience in a natural setting,” Knudsen attended Northland College in Wisconsin, a liberal arts college with a focus on environmental studies college, located near the North Woods and Lake Superior.

“My primary studies were in biology,” she explains, “but when I began taking ecology classes, I learned more about the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of native plants. When I graduated, I had a passion for ecology-centric field research, but good jobs were hard to find with just a B.S. degree.”

Photos by Janice Marshall-Pittman

Photos by Janice Marshall-Pittman

Undeterred, Knudson worked as a field botany assistant for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage where she inventoried rare native plant populations in different habitats throughout the commonwealth, including Virginia’s Coastal Plain.

She earned a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) certification, became a Norfolk Master Gardener and deployed her considerable talent at some of Coastal Virginia’s best public horticultural spaces: Norfolk Botanical Gardens and the Hermitage Museum and Gardens. Along her gardening journey, a happy confluence of circumstances made it possible for her to open Norfolk’s first native plant nursery.

“I felt that I had been given a wonderful opportunity to design a business around my personal and professional interests,” Knudson shares. “I was looking for a home base from which to educate people about the many ecological and aesthetic benefits of gardening with native plants, and to support local organizations working to advance environmental stewardship.”

Among those key benefits of native plants are the ability attract more varieties of wildlife and adapt more readily to local soil conditions and environment—including drought and heat. They also promote healthier ecosystems overall.

“Native plants have natural defenses against pests and disease so the need for pesticides and fertilizers is reduced. When you have native plants in your garden and native grasses along your shoreline, you’re encouraging local biodiversity and supporting local ecosystems which contribute to a healthy watershed. Plus, native gardens provide visual interest year-round. It’s all about having the right plants in the right place.”

As she gives a tour of the nursery, Knudson points out some of her favorite native plants: Seaside Goldenrod, Cardenal Flower, White Yarrow, Broom Sedge, Virginia Bluebells and Mountain Mint.Her advice for people wanting to introduce native plants into their gardenscapes?

Photos by Janice Marshall-Pittman

Photos by Janice Marshall-Pittman

“The mistake I see most often is people taking on too much at once, which can be overwhelming. It’s best to start small and then work in phases,” Knudson advises. Here are her top garden transitioning tips:

  • Find reputable sources of information: the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Flora Project of Virginia, Master Gardeners and Naturalists and the Elizabeth River Project.
  • Evaluate your site’s soil composition and seasonal sun exposure. Note moist and shady areas.
  • Take inventory of existing plants, and remove non-native invasives.
  • Create different “critter zones” using native plants for canopy, understory, shrub and herbaceous sectors.
  • Select varieties of plants that support pollinators.
  • Containerize native plants that are aggressive spreaders so they don’t overpower.
  • Use good design principles. Native plant gardens needn’t look wild or unkempt.

Knudson emphasizes that people with limited space or physical restrictions can enjoy native plants via perennial container gardens, and by creating “mini meadows” in planter boxes. She also recommends picking up copy of the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program’s publication: Native Plants for Southeast Virginia, an inexpensive reference guide that she keeps on hand.

Lady Fern’s Native Plants is located at 4900 Colley Ave. in Norfolk and is open Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. , and Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Learn more at (under “Natives” and “Native Plant Nurseries”) or by calling 757-678-6041 or emailing

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