Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wild Garden

Poke plant

Gardening, like housework, expands to meet the time available for it. What to do if your gardening dreams are bigger than your time budget allows?

Back when I first moved to Brangus Lane, I had big plans: I'd have a big market garden with vegetables, dozens if not hundreds of fruit trees, an orderly woodlot, and a nice planting of ornamental plants around the house. I didn't really understand that people who have such ambitious gardening goals usually have to hire help or use a lot of machines, or both. I've watched my neighbors go through this same awakening to the impossibility of their gardening fantasies.

This summer I decided to make food a priority. Plus, I decided I would work in the garden for about an hour and a half a day, in the morning, and in the afternoon I would work on other projects. I found out that even with 90 minutes of food gardening a day, the food garden is pretty weedy and barely under control. I also found out that if I totally neglect the yard around the house, the grass can grow about 2 feet tall, so thick that the meter reader is afraid to walk to the meter for fear of stepping on a snake. The giant ragweed got, well, giant. Big clumps of grass grew between the daylilies and irises in the flower beds. People who visited me said things like, "Things sure are growed up around here, ain't they. Well, we've had a lot of rain." They were trying to be nice.

In early August I planted my fall garden and started watering the kale, turnips, and lettuce plantings every day to get them to germinate. There really wasn't that much else to do in the food garden, so I tackled the jungle that had grown up around the house. I mowed with a sickle, and weed-ate. I pulled a lot of weeds and either composted them or used them as mulch on the asparagus bed. (For the record: I didn't see, much less get bitten by, a single snake.)

I also found out about a book called Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, by a Dutch horticulturist named Piet Oudolf. Oudolf is the inventor of the "New Wave" planting style in Europe. (It sounds like a school of film criticism, but it's more about grass.) He uses a lot of ornamental grasses and easy-care, durable perennials, and a few shrubs, in his plantings. You can see his own garden here. Lovely, isn't it?

I got the book on inter-library loan at our public library and spent two weeks loving it and making notes from it. It turns out that many of the plants that Oudolf uses are plants that do very well in my garden: peonies, phlox, rudbeckias, daylilies, aquilegias, monardas, violas, siberian iris, and hostas for example. But I learned about a lot of other plants that would probably do well here, and I found many of them in the catalog of Sunlight Gardens near Knoxville, Tennessee: amsonia, anemones, asters, various species of grasses, many species of clematis, hydrangeas, penstemon, and perovskia for example. Some of my neighbors are growing these plants successfully.

I also started thinking about the "weeds" that volunteer in my garden. Some of them are quite ornamental, and if they were expensive specimens in a nursery catalog, people would probably buy them. I love poke weed for example. It's edible in spring, and has beautiful white flowers in mid-summer and bright purple berries in fall. Sometimes it has white flowers, purple fruit and red stems all at one time. Its habit is gracefully arching.

This brings me to a point of Piet Oudolf's philosophy: look at the whole plant, not just its sex organs. Does it look good structurally in the garden? If we are honest about this, some plants do not have very good structure, although they may have beautiful flowers: the David Austin roses come to mind. The bushes of those roses are spindly and ugly, and weeds grow rampantly in that space.

Other great wildflower volunteers in my garden are ageratum and ironweed, and a beautiful pea family plant that I have not yet identified but plan to keep.

Wild ageratum

Unidentified pea family wildflower

I also started re-thinking the "invasive" plant question. Oudolf puts these plants in a special chapter in his book. In my garden, I eliminated Iris pseudacorus because I thought it was too invasive. But I put it back today. I found some growing in a compost pile and I decided to let it go back in the garden. If I don't water it too much and prune it back a little every summer, it might be fine. The same goes for the wild daylily, hemerocallis fulva. I have been trying to dig it out, but maybe I'll just be grateful for its toughness.

Some annuals and biennials reseed themselves "playfully," as Oudolf says, in my garden. One of them is Dame's Rocket, or Hesperis matronalis. Oudolf doesn't mention this plant; maybe it doesn't grow well in the Netherlands. Another self-seeder is Money Plant, or Lunaria biennis. I remember thinking this plant was really cool when I was a child because of the "silver dollars" it makes; now I like it because it seeds itself in shade.

He points out too that the biennial brassicas that we grow in our food gardens can naturalize in the flower garden. I have done this before with kale and turnip greens: they do look beautiful when they bloom all yellow in the spring, especially next to the purple hesperis. And, you can eat them during the winter.

In addition to alerting me to the great tough plants already in my garden, and more that could be in my garden, Oudolf's book pointed out the problems with some of the plants I've been subconsciously frustrated with for years. I love roses and bearded irises, but I struggle with them: the roses because they become weedy and are hard to weed because of the thorns; and the bearded irises because they don't bloom reliably and compete poorly with weeds. Oudolf suggests realism about these plants if you insist on growing them. I will probably keep the roses that do reasonably well, but I won't buy any more probably. Ditto with bearded irises. Instead, I plant to expand the Siberian irises. They do very well, compete with weeds, don't need coddling, and are easy to divide and propagate. I only have one color though. More, more!

Oudolf's choice of plants is not just based on how tough they are; it's also based on how "natural" the plant looks. In the natural garden, it looks odd to have something very formal looking, such as tulips standing in a row like soldiers. Good, because tulips are expensive and don't usually come back. He thinks that most astilbes for sale in nurseries are also too formal looking and come in garish colors. Fine. But when he started maligning double-flowering peonies, I got a little mad: mine do so well! And they remind me of my grandmother, who grew the same ones! They can live for a hundred years! But I have to admit: the single-flowered ones would probably not end up face down in the dirt after a rain. So if I buy more peonies, it will be single-flowered ones. Maybe even...tree peonies?

What about plants that look wild and natural, but aren't? An example is the zinnia, especially the single-flowered type. They grow tall and lanky like wild sunflowers, but they don't seem to re-seed themselves easily in my garden. I'm wondering if it's worth the trouble to plant them myself every spring. Probably.

Oudolf does not talk much about the care of the natural garden in this book. I imagine that even if you use tough plants, there is still some stuff to do: weeding out the things you really don't want, for example, and mowing the paths. But looking at the garden this way makes you realize that some things you thought you didn't want might be okay after all, like the poke weed and the regular orange daylily. Doesn't ragweed have an interesting form? Well, maybe not. It's just...big.

I even started looking differently at the grass that grows in my beds: is it not "ornamental"? It may not have a spectacular seed head, but the rest of its body is okay. It's soft and pleasant to touch and to lie down on. Maybe I will just mow paths through it, so I can get around, and decide to love it. It's a gift; I didn't plant it; it just came to live with me.

Maybe I could persuade those wild sunflowers, hydrangeas, and trilliums that I see on my walks to come live with me too.

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