Archetypes and Successional Gardening

I’m not going to lie. I’ve really been enjoying gardening of late. Not because everything has turned out as planned. Not much has turned out as planned. In fact, my plans often change so I’m not sure I ever really had one. This picture for example shows a path I now use to get to the onion/sweet potato garden. This path came to be because the other path was disruptive of the bird baths I put under the elderberry. Back then the elderberry was alive and the cat birds loved it for it’s berries and foliage. Then it died but the birds had become used to the bird bath being there and so I kept it there and allowed the Virginia creeper and pokeweed to cover the dying elderberry. None of that was planned. I just allowed it to happen.

This part of the garden is between my house and the shop and I call it the woodland even though it’s more like a savanna. In my ecological gardening design class I learned the term for categorizing areas in a landscape is called  an archetype. I consider archetypes as areas that resemble unique natural areas such as a woodland or a forest edge or a meadow, etc. I like it because it helps me think of things in terms of functioning habitats and plant communities. For example, I probably wouldn’t plant prairie type plants in my woodland garden and vice versa.

The woodland area is shaded by the house and some large trees so not only does it have a woodland feel but it also acts like a woodland in that plants that might grow in a woodland grow here. Plants like ferns, violets, black snakeroot and Virginia creeper.

In reality, it is nothing like a woodland in that it isn’t a woods and doesn’t have the properties of a woods that has developed over time. It doesn’t have the rich plant and soil life. Even if I planted a bunch of forest type plants. This land has been heavily disturbed by construction of the shop. The soil has been compacted and most likely plowed and planted many times.

For another thing, in order for a woodland to support a woodland ecosystem it needs to cover a certain amount of space. I’m pretty sure this less than quarter acre city lot just doesn’t cut the bill. But that’s ok. For me it’s just a way to understand where this area might be trying to go. If you get my drift.

In actuality, my whole garden is more like a savanna trying to turn into a forest but going through the incredibly slow and intricate steps of getting there. For now, it’s in the beginnings of secondary succession which means it has lots of weedy plants that seem to want to become a monoculture and if not the invasive kind, aren’t capable of succeeding.

By looking at these pictures, it would seem Virginia creeper is getting the upper hand and it may be but there are other plants that are growing in with it. Plants like white snakeroot, white avens, violets, ferns and sedges. I have no doubt that at some point, the Virginia creeper will give way to other plants that occur later in succession. Like more ferns and sedges and shrubs and trees, etc.

The thing I think we don’t like about the early stages of succession is to us it just looks messy and out of control when in fact it is a necessary step in getting from point A to point B and the more a place gets disturbed the more it goes back to point A, the messy stage.

Here is another archetype in my garden I call the meadow. This is a mostly sunny area with somewhat fertile soil. The perfect scenario for all those messy early stage succession plants. Plants like fleabane, goldenrod, milkweed, wild lettuce and bull thistle love these kind of places. And there is just no real way around it, meadows are just naturally messy. To me they are wonderful but even I get a little blown away on those dry, hot, blindingly sunny days when everything just looks terribly unkempt.

I’ve decided other than making this a traditional style garden, there is just no way the meadow, as a real meadow is ever going to appeal to everyone. But, I’m hoping that maybe I can make it so it doesn’t make people cringe.

I’ve added bright flowers such as this coreopsis.

Hopefully that visual cue tells people this mess is actually a good thing?

And a visual cue, a bee house hanging from the maple branch.

I’m determined to keep the fleabane and milkweed trimmed down to an acceptable height this year. And the small areas of lawn surrounding the meadow mowed.

The area behind the shop is in the path of run off coming from many roofs and impermeable surfaces nearby so I made a swale to direct, catch and filter the water. This is the archetype I call the wetland.

You can see how wet it is by the size of this swamp rose I planted a few years ago. During that time, even with intense deer browsing, it has grown to cover an area of at least 225 square feet.

Because of the moist, fertile soil, this is also an area where weedy plants compete for space and light. Plants like violets, pokeweed, bindweed, wild asters, ground ivy, porcelain berry, Bermuda grass and late flowering thoroughwort.

So, despite the small space of my garden, there are still fairly distinct micro climates with their own unique dynamics. Understanding these variations in addition to the cultural values that surround my garden has made it easier for me to use succession as a valuable tool. So much so, I don’t mind being in point A. And I’m hoping I’m not the only one.