Garden Design, Plant Communities and Cinderblock

This little elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis) is meant for great things.

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.

Dotted line of switchgrass lines the berm of  swale in background.

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.

Imagine this in front of wall.

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.

 

Nothing is Wrong in the World

earth-intelligence

How surely gravity’s law
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward
the heart of the world.
Each thing—
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Written by R.M. Rilke (ca. 1900), I found this poem along Sligo Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia River and Chesapeake Bay. I laid awake most of last night as I often do these days. I was thinking all kinds of, what’s the word, profound thoughts but I think this poem sums the gist of them up perfectly although I could add something foreboding at the end. It turns out the writer and I have Hungarian roots in common but like most Americans, my roots are from many places.

I’m really too tired to explore the topic of earth’s intelligence. All I know is it’s smarter than all our human brains combined and indescribably powerful. No matter how we try, we can’t beat it. How did we evolve to even want to?

Yesterday was way too warm for February but I guess this is the new norm. Tomorrow will be cold again. I was happy to get out and do some puttering around in the garden. My turquoise blue sweatshirt clashing violently with the brown of winter. We filled plastic bowls with water for the birds and put a corn cob on the contraption (a board with a nail through it) my dad made to feed the squirrels. They come, usually starting with one then followed by more. It’s funny to watch them as each takes a turn carefully biting the kernel from the cob, then holding it in its paws to snack on. Each time we come near, they run into the wood pile and watch for us to pass. The squirrels are messy eaters and the pieces they leave are just the right size for white throated sparrows and a cardinal who wait impatiently nearby.

One of the squirrels we call stub tail for obvious reasons. We think she’s a she because I saw her gathering leaves and figured only females would make a nest. I could be wrong but I’m too lazy to Google it. My husband likes to joke about her being overweight which is probably just an illusion due to her shortened tail but I tell him corn is probably squirrel junk food. “She’s an American squirrel”, we sing to the tune of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song American Girl.

Yes, life in my garden is good on this warm day. Good in an eerie, foreboding kind of way. Or maybe that’s just the Eastern European roots in me. The ones I can’t quite put down in the earth no matter how hard I try.

Winter

winter

I have such a love hate relationship with winter. Today was a somewhat cold day or what might be considered cold these days, cold, crisp and windy with dramatic purple and gray clouds. It was one of those days when I don’t want to go out but after I finally muster up a run just before the sun goes down, I realize just how awesome it is. The crisp air fills my lungs. The darkness, a blanket of intimacy closes comfortably in. Just me and the trees and the creek and the animals. After my run I’m warm. The blood runs through my veins. I slowly walk around my darkening garden accounting for everything I’ve planted. I see that it’s all there waiting for spring and the last robin’s chirp closes the day. It is times like these that I truly feel alive with hope.

Form Follows Function

dont-ask

 

I take it back, that last title, I mean. There really isn’t anything easy about landscape restoration. In fact, there isn’t anything easy about gardening at all. It’s not hard because it’s back breaking work and a constant struggle against weeds and pests or what to plant where or how much to water. Gardening is hard because it is gray. There is no one recipe for the perfect garden. No garden of Eden. And that is for me I think, part of the fascination. While there is much science in gardening, gardening is not a science.

After the election, I began to feel like it’s ridiculous to even be talking about gardening. It just seems so frivolous, so petty when there are so many crazy things happening in the world but I can’t seem to help myself. I’m obsessed. I think it’s because gardening is simply all I’ve got. If we could all just get our hands in some dirt we’d be fine. Breathe in the air. Listen to the birds. Feel the sun. Heal ourselves from the bottom up. Look over our fences and greet our neighbors on the other side. What are they growing? Do they like hot peppers?

But alas, I am directing my husband through rush hour traffic using the Google traffic map and the neighbors probably don’t appreciate my garden. I shudder to think how my neighbor feels about the white snakeroot deadheads snaking their way onto his driveway or my use of layered cardboard and dead leaves as mulch that I confidently assure my husband will be the last time.

I’m not your average gardener, you see. If there were a word to describe my gardening style it would probably be eccentric, extreme or more likely, sloppy. The desired function of my garden is to supply myself with food and wildlife and wildlife with food and shelter. Secondary to that is beauty and order. I can’t stand spending money which is probably why I like to grow from seed and use cardboard and leaves as mulch instead of wood chips.

I should probably cater more towards my neighbor’s taste. After all, it’s the neighborly thing to do but that would most likely entail no garden at all. Only sod. Plain old, ordinary, sod. God. I’d shoot myself. Maybe I could tone down the wilderness a bit. I plan to once things start to fill in but for now…

Maybe my neighbor doesn’t hate it too much. After all, we put a nice fence in recently. He made a point to say how nice it looked. It was the first time he’d said something to us, well my husband, not me, in at least a year. “Fences make good neighbors,” as my mom loves to say.

In some other life, I had a neighbor similar to this. He also was the yard type. I had him all figured out, you see. The type who could never have enough power tools and a mower that made a terrible grinding noise every time it went over a rock. He never stopped or moved the rock so he didn’t hit it the next time, just kept on going over the same one. He set his mower so low it scalped any uneven ground. I guess his strategy was he wouldn’t have to mow as often. He liked to mow when the ground was wet. Never mind that the mower would break down every ten feet. When he was finished his yard belonged in an art gallery on Fifth Avenue. I saw him use his leaf blower on the last colorful leaves of fall still clinging to the branch of a tree. I guess he was trying to hurry up the fall process so he could move on to the next season already. Several times during the summer he’d walk the perimeter of his rectangular lot, spray canister in hand, happily dousing Roundup on anything in its path. Sometimes he’d get carried away and the greens in my adjacent garden beds would turn an eerie white.

He used to try and be neighborly. He’d offer me power tools as tokens of peace. When he saw me cutting down a tree with a hand saw, he offered a chain saw. When he saw me turning my sod with a shovel, he offered me a rototiller. With each gift offering, I always declined saying doing it by hand was my workout. Finally, he didn’t offer anymore. It was a little sad now that I think about it.

My neighbor had a certain strategy to his yard work. I don’t think it was so much about efficiency as it was about ritual. Despite his industriously efficient methods, I believe yard work was actually something he enjoyed. He was a fidgety man. He needed to keep moving and what better way to do it than spending equal amounts of time behind each power tool. He didn’t want to think. He wanted to do.

It was not always this way. There was talk in the neighborhood that at one time an old lady lived in my neighbor’s house and had a beautiful garden filled with Thai peppers and lemongrass. A handsome pear tree was all that remained of the mysterious garden. Each year its fruit would slowly disappear, carried away by squirrels, crows and other critters. No one knew how the lady was related to my neighbor or what became of her.

My neighbor was not without his own small garden. Each year a car load of large tropical plants would appear. He would line them up like soldiers along the side of the house, their only maintenance, a thorough watering each morning. There they would stay until fall when they would be put back in the car and taken to some unknown location until spring.

While his yard was sparse in the way of herbaceous plants, he didn’t seem to mind a canopy of trees. A mature silver maple, dogwood and a few white mulberry trees lined the edge of his property. An old cedar grew out from the foundation of his house. I’m not sure if he appreciated the presence of these trees but they were there nevertheless, much to the relief of many birds, insects and animals.

Despite our drastic differences, somehow, my neighbor and I had developed an understanding. In fact, I realized I almost preferred him to a neighbor more like myself who would always be awkwardly there requiring constant polite conversation or even worse someone with an impeccable yard, the kind with the solid, perfectly edged wood chip mulch islands dotted evenly with garden center shrubs and the all too obvious home security system marker. The kind of neighbor who would always be looking down at me making me feel like a sloppy heel. My neighbor and I were equal in our imperfections. We had our flaws and we knew it and I think that’s what inspired our mutual understanding. The strange thing was that it actually gave me freedom. I didn’t feel the need to impress him so there was no need to live up to any standards. I didn’t feel the need to have an impeccable yard. As long as I kept things out of his area, I could experiment. I could take time to grow native plants from seed, use cardboard and leaves as mulch, make a rain garden, grow unusual cover crops. Out of the the awkward function, came a beautiful form, a garden where the earth gave back her treasures and I helped them grow into something bountiful. Maybe it wasn’t perfect. Maybe it wasn’t helping our property values but it was in its way harmonious, however imperfect, perfect in its imperfection, a fine balance between a mower and a grower.