Let the Workhorse Plants Work

Grow little plant, grow.

Ok, let’s face it, growing some perennial plants (like native ones) from seed takes time. Lots of it and lots of patience too. Meanwhile the garden looks, well, let’s just say it’s not going to make Fine Gardening anytime soon. While I can use my imagination to visualize what’s to come, most people just see an empty spot of dirt. What if there was a way to speed that process up a bit. Get a bit more immediate satisfaction. I think all my trials and tribulations have finally gotten me to a realization. What if instead of only planting slow growing plants, I let certain plants, sometimes known as workhorse plants, help me out along the way. Plants like annuals, volunteers and hardy herbs that grow quickly, often plant themselves, fill in empty spaces and protect the soil while the slower growing perennials take their good old time.

I’ve so often snubbed annuals thinking they were for beginner gardeners who just wanted something to grow but hey, isn’t that what I want? Let’s face it, patience comes a lot easier with something quick and pretty to distract me from my waiting. I also was worried they might be invasive or become aggressive but as ecologist, Chris Helzer says in a recent post about non-native plants,

A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

The natural process of succession starts with more aggressive shorter living plants that gradually give way to slower growing longer living plants. Allowing some shorter living annuals, herbs and fast growing native plants to cover certain areas will pave the way for those slow growing, longer living plants. Many of these quick growing plants also provide valuable ecological services while the tiny slow growers aren’t. Lemon balm, basil, sage, parsley, dill, wild marjoram, violets, white snakeroot, mint and even yes, ground ivy are a few examples.

Lemon balm, a perennial, creates a lovely, dense mound and turns red in fall. It also pops up pretty much everywhere but is easy to pull when young.
While not my favorite, ground ivy does an exceptional job of covering this pathway.
Wild marjoram, also a perennial, covers this bank between establishing purple coneflower and butterfly weed.
This native pokeweed grows like wild fire reaching heights of 7 feet or more so I let it block out the cinder block wall while the holly takes it’s time in the foreground.
Native violets voluntarily cover the bank of this swale while slower natives get established.

A great example of implementing this concept is in my front yard garden where I want to plant an edge of native flowers and grasses that hide my sometimes pretty unattractive vegetable garden from people passing by. I’m also planning on an island in the center to provide a permanent point of interest. Instead of just planting the natives, I’ll plant annuals. I’m thinking about a heavy layer of basil, marigolds, zinnias and/or coreopsis. Then, I’ll add slower growing plants in a strip behind them where their tininess will be hidden by the front layer of annuals. This will not only keep weeds down but it will quickly add that beautiful border.

Next year that crazy layer of homemade mulch and cardboard will be a thick layer of annuals with a layer of slower growing plants behind.

The fact that some plants are a little (and I mean a little) more aggressive isn’t so much a concern because they are so much easier and less disruptive to remove (especially in the early stages) than other more aggressive or invasive plants. And because these plants do an excellent job of covering ground they will suppress as well as hide the less respectable weeds. In short, hopefully my garden will be more beautiful, bountiful and ecological in a shorter amount of time and with a lot less effort.

I really have nothing against weeds but for some reason these beauties just scream weed.

Growing Native Plants from Seed

native-seeds

First of all, the why.

  • 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.

Just because I order from one place doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally excellent places to order seeds. Ernst Seeds in Pennsylvania, Prairie Nursery  in Wisconsin and Roundstone Native Seed  in Kentucky are a few.

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.

Making Peace with Weeds

sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale

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 Honeysuckle and 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.

 

Landscape Restoration the Easy Way

winter-snakeroot
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.