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.
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.
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.