Looking at plants as communities from a design point of view is cool but it’s also cool to look at plants as they fit into natural communities. I’ve often wondered what kind of natural community my garden belonged to before it was timbered, farmed and then developed. I know it was forest but is there more to a forest than one would think? The answer is yes, there is more and I’ve recently discovered a website that explains just such a place known as Rock Creek Park, not more than a mile away from my garden. The website, acollaboration between NatureServe and the Research Learning Alliance of the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, examines 8 different natural communities within Rock Creek Park, the oldest and largest urban national park in the U.S.
As I read about some of these communities it occurred to me my own garden may have been one of them at one time. It seems natural communities develop over time due to natural and unnatural forces. These forces such as rain, wind, sun, human development among others form small pockets of distinct areas with distinct landforms, soil, plants and animals. And underneath it all is the bedrock, often the main compositional ingredient.
The other day I went walking in Rock Creek Park to see if I could find and see the difference between some of these communities and I have to say while it was a bit of a challenge, I did notice a few.
The most wide ranging one is the Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest. It can usually be found on rolling landscapes of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. It also has a wide range of vegetation such as American beech, red, white, black and scarlet oak, Christmas fern, sweetgum, red maple, blackgum, flowering dogwood, American holly, pawpaw and mapleleaf viburnum. It has a well-drained and mesic soil. I have a pretty good idea my garden was once part of this community.
A very different community is the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest. It usually lies along floodplains of small streams such as Rock Creek. The rich soil here, made up of sediment that gets carried down the creek from upstream, supports plants like the tuliptree, red maple, box-elder, American sycamore and American hornbeam. Because the soil is often disturbed by flooding and human use, it also can be a haven for non-native plants as well as many other native plants. I heard lots of birds with unique, buzzy noises here. I’m guessing they were smaller warblers and such.
Another community I walked through was the Oak Beech Heath Forest. It usually can be found on steep slopes above streams and rivers where acidic and often rocky soil is perfect for plants such as mountain laurel, American beech, chestnut and white oak as well as blueberry and black huckleberry.
Although it takes a bit of exploring to get the idea, the website has a wealth of information about geology and ecology that I can apply to many things about my garden. In fact, I’ve found I’ve started looking at plants in a new way. Not as plants but as parts of communities, something that may be a big step towards ecological improvement. Not just for me but for all of us.
I read this article that got me thinking about the design of my garden. After getting over my obsession with cramming as many vegetables in as little space as possible and realizing if I planted trees it would take a very long time for them ever to make a forest, I planted some trees, also known to many designers as the bones of the garden. They are the focal points, the ones that appear as a skeleton (unless they’re evergreens) in winter. But most are only a few feet tall and not too skeletony yet which leaves the rest of the herbaceous (or often called forbs) to tell the tale. Forbs consist of flowers, grasses, sedges and rushes.
But what is the tale I’m trying to tell? Besides growing food for myself, creating habitat for other life forms and eliminating my lawn as much as possible, what am I trying to achieve from an aesthetic viewpoint because aesthetics is something I’ve been putting on the back burner for quite some time. I guess I thought the native plants would somehow take care of that naturally. I kept telling myself it just takes time. Things will fill in next year and maybe they will or maybe they won’t and meanwhile my garden looks more like an overgrown vacant lot than the High Line.
In the article, Margaret Roach, who writes the popular garden blog, A Way to Garden, interviewed landscape designer, Thomas Rainer and confirmed my suspicions. In the wild, native plants form communities that look pretty good. Places like Dolly Sods in West Virginia and Yellowstone National Park and my own favorite, Merchants Millpond in North Carolina, but other places like my garden, not so good. Why is that I wondered? What am I doing wrong?
Well, Rainer points out plants are not meant to be planted as individuals but as members of an ecosystem where they work with other plants to form communities. Rainer says,
In the wild, every square inch of soil is covered with a mosaic of interlocking plants, but in our gardens, we arrange plants as individual objects in a sea of mulch. We place them in solitary confinement.
This was a profound concept. I’d known it but somehow never really got it until I read the part about switchgrass, a plant that’s abundant in my garden but somehow never looks right. I think messy would be the term.
Rainer says switchgrass doesn’t grow all together in the wild. It grows in tufts scattered amongst other more colonizing plants such as Pennsylvania Sedge (if I have it right). The point being because it doesn’t naturally grow like a groundcover it looks ridiculous if planted that way. And yes, as I looked out at the dotted line formed by tufts of switchgrass along the berm of my swale, it did indeed look ridiculous. And it looked even more ridiculous when during a heavy rain, it flopped like it was having a bad hair day. Yes, something had to be done with the switchgrass.
Rainer seemed to suggest that in natural environments, plants grow according to different levels. Lower level plants tend to pop up here and there amongst higher level plants made up of more colonizing ground covers. This is how I understood it anyway (I’ll read the article again just to make sure).
So, what were my lower level plants and what were my higher level ground covers? Well, that’s easy. Lower level plants are switchgrass, wild bergamot, hairy mountain mint, sneezeweed, white snakeroot, milkweed, coneflower, rudbeckia and great blue lobelia. But what were the higher level plants, the colonizing ground covers? I guess that would have to be my old friends, the violets and Virginia creeper, the natural ground cover in my garden. But couldn’t shrubs and trees also be higher level colonizing ground covers? Swamp rose and elderberry come to mind.
At any rate, it all got me to thinking not just about plant communities but about my garden and me. Sure, my garden provides me with food and habitat for other life but does it provide me with joy? Yes and no was the answer. My garden, it seemed needed some unnatural natural beauty. The dotted line of switchgrass needed to go. Borders needed to be defined. Bare soil needed to be covered. Paths needed definition. Plants needed combinations that work as communities and that mysterious cinderblock wall that failed to conceal the car needed to be concealed from me.
Yes, the cinderblock wall that I keep telling myself doesn’t bother me does indeed bother the heck out of me. First of all, it’s ugly. Second of all it doesn’t even provide privacy. The swamp rose should eventually hide the car but the wall, that wall. Then I had an idea. An idea that nearly blew me away. Elderberry. It grows from a foot to 12’ in 3 years and it blocks everything out. I happen to have a young seedling growing in the driveway. Because it can be short lived, I’d plant an American holly behind it that would grow slowly over time.
I would lose more space for vegetables but so what? This was my master plan. My husband is not so enthused but I know better. This was the community my garden was telling me to make all along.
If done right, growing native plants from seed is way cheaper than buying native plants from a nursery. A pack of seeds usually costs around $2.50 plus shipping. From that pack, I should get at least 5 plants and most likely more whereas one plant from a nursery will run at least $5.00. The price per seed will drop even more when purchased in bulk and sometimes, I’ll collect my own seeds for free.
It’s less risky. Losing a $2.50 pack of seeds is a lot easier to bare than losing a $5.00 plant especially if it’s more than one.
Gardening becomes more about management than maintenance. The popular gardening blog, Garden Rant recently had a post about the use of the term management as opposed to maintenance and why it’s the wave of the future in gardening. What it means is instead of the gardener trying to adhere to a garden design, the garden begins to design itself. It’s kind of hard to explain but growing native plants from seed forces me to acknowledge and allow what happens to happen. In this case, easier done than said.
It’s a good way to experiment. I like to buy about 10 different types of seed packets at a time and see what works. If the plant turns out to be too tall or not exactly in the right place, I can usually move it. I don’t feel that sense of fear that I do with plants I’ve bought.
It allows me to take notice of plants I didn’t plant. Because I’m constantly looking for the seedlings from the seeds I plant, I also notice the ones I didn’t. I identify them and many times decide I like them. The common violet is a good example. It works great as a ground cover as well a being ecologically functional.
Now, the how.
First, I figure out what seeds I can get that are native to my area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a good publication about this. I’ve become used to buying my seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota. With a plant finder section and maps showing the native range in the U.S. of each plant they sell, their website makes it ridiculously easy to order seeds of plants native to my area. In addition, they produce a gorgeous seed catalog featuring the most popular and easy to grow plants and helpful information for beginner growers. Of course because they are in Minnesota their seeds aren’t exactly pure natives to my area but I guess that’s the drawback. I’ve decided based on some research they are pure enough.
In addition to figuring out what plants are native to my area, I will also need to match plants that will grow in the conditions of my garden. For the most part my garden has partial shade with a moist, clay loam soil. Some areas are sloped and drier while others in depressions are wetter. These kind of things and anything else that may be significant are important to take note of when selecting the right seeds to grow.
When I started my seed search, I realized seeds require varying conditions in order to germinate. Some will not germinate until their tough outer skin is worn down through the digestive system of a bird but this process can be replicated by rubbing the seeds with sandpaper. Other seeds are very tiny and need light to germinate.
Many kinds of native plant seeds need a period of stratification which means they need a certain period of time in cold ground before germinating. Prairie Moon Nursery has good information about the stratification times their seeds need as well as instructions for doing it. They often recommend sowing seed in fall so they can naturally stratify over winter. Seeds can also be stratified indoors by mixing them with damp sand and storing the mixture in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for the required time. Stratified seeds I’ve had luck with are: early sunflower, nodding onion, black eyed Susan and great blue lobelia.
Luckily, there are quite a few seeds that don’t need stratification. A list of those in my area can be found here. So far, I’ve had great luck with switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, mountain mint and sneezeweed.
Once plants reach a certain maturity there’s a good chance they’ll spread or bunch or branch out and begin to fill up space on their own. Some plants, such as common milkweed can be aggressive so it’s a good idea to be wary of that when ordering seeds. Usually nurseries will say something about that in the plant description part.
Everyone says it’s a good idea to start small and they’re so right. Believe me. I learned the hard way. Once upon a time, I had this vision of a beautiful wildflower garden in the spring. I just knew it was going to happen. One day in the fall, I walked around my garden sprinkling seeds everywhere. Well, I was sorely disappointed in the spring when there were no wildflowers because I didn’t properly prepare the site and start small enough to get a handle on what was even happening. A space roughly 3’ x 3’ is a good size to start with a seed packet and in my opinion the more seeds the better chance of success.
To plant seeds directly in the ground, the site needs to be fairly weed free. To prepare areas with grass, I cover the area with cardboard held down with a few rocks and then put some kind of mulch on top of it and leave it there for about 6 months. That kills most of the weeds too. When that’s done, I put the old cardboard in the compost (it’s a great brown source if you don’t have a lot of dead leaves). For most seeds*, I rough up just the top inch of earth with a garden rake or fork, sprinkle the seeds over the area and rake them in gently. I press down on the area with my hand or walk over it lightly. Then, I wait. Sometimes it will take a month to see anything and when I do it sometimes takes another month to be able to identify the seedlings as the ones I planted. Usually, I just look for anything that looks different from the ordinary weeds. Once I know the difference, I pull the weeds from time to time as well as keeping the area from drying out. It takes patience and sometimes I’ll wait almost a whole season (or what seems like eternity) to see the tiny seedlings. But then, there they are. One and then another. It’s hard to explain my rapture at the sight and after all that, you can be sure I’m going to take care of these babies. But usually I don’t have to. They tend to take care of themselves. So far, I’ve been successful except for the time when I planted into a layer of very dry compost. They need good contact with real soil.
If I plant seeds in the fall, I cover the area with some kind of light mulch such as leaves or straw just to keep the ground somewhat covered until spring when I rake the mulch from the area so the seeds can grow.
If you’re not in a rush, growing native plants from seed isn’t really as hard as it sounds. It just takes some research, preparation and patience. The rest is up to nature.
*Some seeds that require light to germinate should be covered with little or no soil.
What better thing to do in winter when you’re not completely overwhelmed with a wild garden than to strategize about how to make it not so wild. Let me clarify. To say my garden is weedy would be an understatement. Yes, I know every gardener thinks they have the weediest but no, seriously, mine’s the weediest. When I became blessed with the management of this piece of land some seven years ago, it was rampant with just about every kind of weed imaginable. I won’t name them because that would take forever. I guess had I been more sensible I wouldn’t have decided to have a garden let alone a pretty big one but I did. So, here I am reactively dealing.
Weeds have always kind of fascinated me. When I was around eight, I dug up dandelions, put them in pots and tried to sell them in front of my house. I didn’t understand why people just laughed. Always a bit on the odd side myself, I’ve always kind of identified with them and their ability to consistently annoy with their persistent and awkward presence. Of course like native plants, weeds can’t be precisely defined. They are basically just plants one person but usually a large group of people don’t want.
I hope weeds have helped me build character. I realize they are here and as my Aunt Cherie used to say, “I’ll die and leave em.” Or, as the old saying goes, “if you can’t beat em, join em,” because weeds are kind of like a noose that keeps getting tighter the more you pull to break free.
I’ve come to realize weeds are usually double edged swords in that they usually have some useful qualities as well as annoying ones and all weeds help to control soil erosion. Many weeds also have nutritional and medicinal purposes. As it turns out, those dandelions I was potting so long ago are nutritional and medicinal power houses, rich in vitamins and antioxidants.
The one characteristic of all weeds is they are tough and aggressive plants whose job it seems is to cover recently disturbed ground until the more permanent stuff such as shrubs, grasses and trees can take root. In other words, unless they are invasive, weeds seem to be part of a ecologically strategic process.
So, we come to that word, invasive. The one no matter how hard we gardeners try, just can’t avoid coming across again and again. The word that may be as annoying as weeds. The word that describes so many old garden favorites. That darn inconvenient truth that these plants, through no fault of their own were moved by humans to places where they have no competition and support very little or nothing. Unfortunately for the ecosystem, invasive plants are here to stay. I have nothing against these plants. They are important to an ecosystem somewhere, just not in my garden and not in my watershed. And so, with a weary heart, I try to do my part and prevent these plants from spreading. Is it fair for me to lower these legendary plants to the class of weed? Regardless of my perceptions, I feel I must do what I can to prevent these wonderful, extraordinary plants from doing harm to other wonderful, extraordinary plants.
The invasive plants I’m in the process of removing:
English ivy: I think everyone knows this one. It is pretty good at growing in forested areas where it displaces native plants and kills trees. I pull ivy in early spring when it’s easy to spot the vines. As the vines don’t seem to die quickly after being pulled, I dispose of them in the trash.
Tree of Heaven, Asian Bush Honeysuckleand White Mulberry : These woodies are known for displacing native plants among other things but mostly displacing native plants. I had quite a few white mulberries entangled with the chain link fence that bordered my garden. Over time I dug them out. Not an easy task and much easier when the trees are no bigger than two feet rather than twenty. To dig them up, I first used a grub hoe to loosen the dirt around the roots, then a shovel to remove the dirt, then loppers to cut the roots and finally the grub hoe again to yank out any remaining roots leading to that final yank when the whole mass breaks loose. For larger tap roots, I use an axe or have my husband use a chainsaw (yes, I’m one of those who don’t do well with power tools). I suppose I could have just kept cutting them back and I do for some I have yet to get to.
Porcelain Berry: This vine forms thick layers over trees and shrubs robbing them of light, water and nutrients. It is easily confused with wild grape and one way to tell the difference is its flower clusters as well as its blue and purple berries stick straight up. The best way to remove porcelain berry is to cut the vines at the bottom before they set fruit. If possible I try to pull them up by the roots as well as cutting them.
The next list of weeds aren’t on any major invasive plant list but because they do damage and I find them ugly they’re on my hit list.
Bermudagrass: I ended up writing so much about this plant I gave it its own post.
Bindweed: This extremely fast growing vine in the morning glory family strangles plants and does a wonderful job of spreading itself all over hedges. I’m pretty sure the type of bindweed I have is hedge bindweed and it is easily confused with a similar looking vine in the milkweed family called honeyvine, except it has large white, morning glory like flowers. With roots that can go down over 12 feet deep, digging them up is not a good option. Mostly, I just keep pulling the vines at the base when I find them especially before it flowers in late summer. It made itself pretty comfortable growing on a chain link fence surrounding my garden where it must have been establishing itself since the beginning of time. After taking down the chain link fence, I’ve been careful not to put any other trellis type objects in its path as well as making sure I can pass the mower over the area from time to time as well. It thrives especially well in heat and flowers just at that time when the mosquitoes are at their worst making this plant a close tie for first place as being the most annoying.
Ground Ivy (also known as Creeping Charlie): This plant in the mint family, does a very good job of covering ground. It’s rhizomatic roots form dense mats and will cover large areas especially when they are moist and shady. I’ve kind of given up doing battle with this one, preferring to let it act as a ground cover since it doesn’t seem to do too much harm to existing plants and even though I’m not really in love with how it looks, I can live with it. Of course I make sure to keep areas where I’m growing seeds clear of it. If I find time in the spring when the ground is nice and damp, I’ll drag a bow rake over it and pull like heck. Slowly, with a lot of effort, the entire mat will pull up leaving nice fresh bare soil that I’d better fill in with something else or that Creeping Charlie will just creep right back.
And all the other weeds: Well, they are just child’s play compared with the others. Some, such as pokeweed and white snakeroot are native and have ecological and (I feel) aesthetic value so I let them stay. Others such as yellow nutsedge, American burnweed, broadleaf plantain, goosegrass and ragweed, I pull. And others, such as common milkweed and sneezeweed, I plant, inconspicuously of course. After all, they’re just weeds.
So, as old weeds become new garden favorites and old garden favorites become new weeds, I wonder if my garden isn’t becoming wilder instead of more orderly. Maybe weeds are just reminders of our own imperfections such as our incessant need for order and control. They seem to follow us wherever we go, mocking us, maybe Mother Nature’s form of a joke except I’m not the one getting the last laugh and the only thing I do know is I’ll die and leave em.