Landscape Restoration the Easy Way

white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) gone to seed.

The other day, I was listening to my favorite podcast. The guest was George Morris, a horticulturist, who’s worked on vast streambank restoration projects in places like rural Wyoming.  When asked about the best method for streambank restoration in rural areas he replied without hesitation, “keep the cows off”. The simplicity of his answer stunned me. That’s it? You mean no bulldozers, landscape fabric or heavy boulders? Well, I guess it kind of makes sense. Less pollution (from the cow) and wear and tear on the land leading to a natural growth of vegetation and strong soil holding roots. Morris explained native plants will eventually come back on their own as the land begins to mend itself and there’s nothing better for controlling soil erosion than the roots of a good shrub or tree.

This idea can be expanded to other forms of landscape restoration. Cows, plows, bulldozers, hoes, tillers all do damage to the land. Take them out of the equation and the land starts the process of mending itself. Things grow. First the weedy, aggressive stuff then more permanent things like shrubs and small trees and finally a mature forest (unless the landscape is a desert or prairie of course).

I realize my previous posts about what comes up are really just about the landscape mending itself after being disturbed on a pretty large scale by me and my predecessors. Plants in my garden that self sow such as wild grape, white avens, pokeweed, fleabane, black cherry, white ash, oak, violet, Virginia creeper, honeyvine milkweed, eastern red cedar and all the other common weeds are just the start of a landscape returning to its natural state, that of a forest. By allowing that to happen I’m making land restoration easier on myself, nature and the environment as a whole.

This doesn’t mean I’m being sloppy and it’s not without effort. It means learning how to identify seedlings and being able to decide which are useful and which are non-useful. Non-useful plants are plants that can be invasive, in the wrong place or just plain messy. Useful plants are plants that may be good for wildlife, pretty, in a good location, shade providers, ground cover, etc. In some areas, I’m careful not to put down so much mulch I’m preventing useful self sowers from coming up and in other areas I put down large amounts of mulch to kill sod and out of control weeds. Sometimes it means complementing the self sowers with plants or seeds from a nursery. It also means thinking hard about how these self sowers are going to grow over time and how they will affect their surroundings. Overall, I try and keep the whole thing somewhat aesthetically pleasing which isn’t an easy task when everyone’s taste is vastly different.

It’s doubtful my garden will ever make Better Homes and Gardens but I do my best to maintain a sort of ordered wildness. It’s all a very delicate balance meeting the demands of the land, my neighbors, myself and the environment well beyond my garden, but sometimes the answer is as easy as just leaving the land alone.


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