I'm baring it all today and showing you what HQ looks like from a bird's eye advantage -- or a bee's eye advantage. This is obviously where a lot of my experimentation takes place; when I look at these drone images I see not only a personal landscape I didn't think looked like this, but also the many changes I'd like to make. I also see how crazy I might appear to neighbors. In any case, I believe employing drone footage on future garden designs may be a useful tool for myself and clients as we imagine a new landscape paradigm.
I'd say this is a pretty typical newer subdivision. I'm assuming most folks sink all of their money into the home and landscaping isn't part of the budget, or any sort of landscaping is seen as high maintenance. Of course we all know the benefit nature has to learning as well as mental and physical health, not to mention increases in property value (I once read a study that showed for each caliper inch of a front yard tree one could add $1,000 to the price of a home -- but sure, that sounds crazy, even though street trees alone increase neighborhood desirability). Have I mentioned how woody plants can decrease home energy use?
My back property line is city limits and behind are small acreage lots. In the top right corner you can see a bit of a pond as well as a thin woodland that stretches along a good chunk of our development. This is a significant wildlife corridor and bird flyway. I'm careful not to use any fertilizers so nothing gets washed into the pond or street, and the majority of rainfall stays on our lot due to plant density and placement. I've tried to pull that wilder area out into the neighborhood in my small way, extending habitat just a bit.
I manage the front yard more intently than the back, thinning aggressive species, cutting back tall ones in early summer, adding new flowers in summer and fall where gaps have developed, et cetera. While the space will certainly look wild to the lawn-only crowd (and at least 50% of neighbors have lawn up to the foundation wall), I'm still trying to create drifts and massing, as well as tiers or levels that we expect in traditional garden design. What do you think? Do suburban gardens like this matter? Can we evolve attitudes and help nature recover or adapt to a world of extinction and climate change? I hope the many people walking their dogs and babies will excitedly see the rabbit hunkering in the little bluestem, the goldfinch plucking seeds from flower heads, butterflies circling and settling on aster, and clouds of pollinators above goldenrod. But I also know many will see something that needs to be mowed, a place that harbors pests, and a homeowner who doesn't care. You already know of this year's weed inspection. Below are some more images I hope you enjoy. Prairie up!
We're wrapping up fall installs and taking a moment to appreciate what's going on at headquarters, a place that in many ways is a proving and testing ground for client spaces. So, let's take a quick trip through the fall colors and snow (the third earliest snow of over one inch on record).
Recently, someone told me I should stop being so "political" about gardens because gardens aren't "political." I think the term was used as a way to shield themselves from some uncomfortable ideas about our role on a planet we're eroding quickly, and how responsibility for it might begin in a very personal space -- our home gardens. So I came up with the following thoughts:
Gardens aren't political statements? Sure they are. If gardens are art -- and that's how we talk about them 99% of the time (sigh) -- art has a long, lively tradition of being "political." And make no mistake, by "political" we mean thinking critically about our culture in whatever way we can: moral, ethical, socioeconomic, disrupting the status quo of systems of power, et cetera. Being "political" makes us uncomfortable, since it calls us out and asks us to look at ourselves and the world in a radical new way that stretches and challenges us. Gardens are revolutions in a time of mass extinction -- they are no longer simply pretty little paintings to stroll through. Being made uncomfortable, angry, and even despondent is the first step to waking from our human supremacism and speaking the language of life again.
And then I connected the above, in my head anyway, to something else I wrote a few days earlier:
Gardens full of native plants are acts of social justice, empathy, and then compassion for other species we've put on the brink, as well as fostering the physical and psychological health of our own species. Gardens are a resistance to a culture of narcissism and hubris. Gardens are more than art, more than beauty for us. Urban gardens, especially, are a rewilding (not a restoring) of the broken bonds between us all, an open conversation held again where we begin to remember the languages we've lost, ignored, or betrayed. When we speak leafcutter bee or bobwhite quail, we remember the chorus and our own language is enriched. Without the voices of the animate world in our daily lives, our existence is a pale, sick shadow.
Finally for kicks, here's a Tweet I tossed out yesterday:
If climate change and mass extinction aren't the first subjects we're addressing in garden design and horticulture, then these fields are a waste of time and perhaps shouldn't exist.
So there you go -- pretend this is a page from my book, or at least the second edition. What do you think? If you'd rather simply look at an image that may illustrate the above, then how about...
Do you get notices from county weed control or dirty looks from neighbors -- or your spouse? Why does your garden look messy, wild, haphazard, or even incoherent? Do you want to give up and revert to hosta, daylily or -- gasp -- lawn? I think the number one reason a landscape may appear messy is plant selection and placement that's well-intentioned but not well researched. Let me break it down for you like Vanilla Ice:
1) Mature Size
Yeah, we all look at the plant tag and hopefully consult several reputable print and online sources, but mistakes happen either through impatience (I want a big plant now so I'll buy the bigger pot) or bad evidence (plant tags might list the mature size at 10 years old and in a different region with different site conditions -- but what does it look like at 20 years in your city in your yard?).
And then what if you choose an adaptable plant, one that can take dry / wet / shady / sunny? It will absolutely grow differently in one set of circumstances even if it does fine in another... several sedge species come to mind that are bigger and bushier in wet sun and loamy soil, yet thinner and short in dry conditions. Trees certainly do this, too. And that all makes sense, right? Flowering plants tend to bloom more with additional sun; even if it's a shade plant more ambient light or a brief period of direct light will alter that plant's growth characteristics.
There are lots of native plant species with large ranges across the U.S. -- little bluestem and black-eyed susan for example. But Nebraska is different than Pennsylvania or Oregon or Georgia, which is why there are genetic differences in local plant populations that help them evolve to do well in that place. Keep in mind, that place isn't just geographical, but site specific from soil to drainage to wind to rainfall to herbivore use.
How many times do you really, REALLY think about how or if that new plant is going to spread or not? Will it self sow like crazy or lightly? If it self sows do seedlings struggle in a thick bed with lush plant layers? How fast do seeds germinate? Or does it spread by runners, and if so, will it spread a lot slower in clay (dry or moist) than in loam or silt? Will it spread just in its immediate area or will you have 100 new children in a year all over the neighborhood?
Maybe you need to use less of one plant and more of another, depending on how they spread. Less black-eyed susan and little bluestem, more butterfly weed and rattlesnake master. If this feels complicated that's because IT IS, but the first step to uncomplicated plant decisions is to learn what to look for, and we're doing that right now.
So you've got an aggressive plant that sends out runners -- if it's planted among other species that also run, will they all keep each other in check? Maybe. But unless you have a large area to plant I wouldn't risk the experiment. It's better, especially in smaller urban gardens, to choose plants that are more behaved clumpers or that lightly self sow nearby, as seedlings are easy to remove. Having a collection of behaved clumpers helps you maintain a "clean" or "designed" appearance for longer, as things aren't getting too out of control that you can't stay on top of it.
I mentioned two more behaved native plants above, but others can work too: prairie alumroot, pale purple coneflower, blazingstars (if in a thick bed), aromatic aster, and definitely not giant blue hyssop / anise hyssop. Nope.
Once you decide on using all or mostly clumping plants, the next step is to consider their mature size in your site conditions. Choosing a majority of plants with similar heights at least can give your garden the appearance of tidiness many look for when walking by and judging you (sarcasm -- sort of). It's ok if they spread out a little and fill in, heck, you want that so the ground is covered which helps in fighting weeds and reducing the need for wood mulch. Maybe you include a few species that shoot up twice the height of the majority around them just to add some architectural flare. If you are planting in clay soil it's more likely your native prairie plants are adapted to do well in such "harsh" soil, whereas if you put them in rich loam tilled to death they might grow gangly with a short lifespan. Nothing helps keep an aggressive plant in check like clay soil and a lack of rain.
4) Edit / Kill Your Darlings
Some call this "management" or "maintenance," some "murder." In this case murder is totally cool. Rip out seedlings if there are too many. Take out a few specimens if they are overwhelming the space. Do you really need 15 of that one flower or will 5 look more put together and still provide a beacon for pollinators? The balance between aesthetic design for humans and ecological design for the site and wildlife can be tricky and precarious, but we still have to strive for it in highly populated urban areas where human and animal cultures mingle. Just remember that no matter how much editing you perform, you're still doing well by nature when you have designed and managed wildness using native plants.
5) Copy Nature
Finally, visit a local "wild" area near you that approximates your landscape and site conditions, whether that's a prairie, woodland, desert, or lakeside. Let your eye wander over the space until it settles and focuses in on a particular vista or area. Is the space "weedy" and "messy?" What provides coherence that makes you find it pleasing, comforting, exciting, welcoming? What plants are used, how are they grouped, what plant communities are they a part of it, how are they layered among each other? This will begin to give you some clue about how plants work together, what wildlife will recognize and use, and how to tap into nature's design while perhaps bumping it up a notch in a man-made ornamental landscape (for example, that meadow might have just a few butterfly weed among sideoats grama, but maybe in your landscape you could double the flower number).
Next time you plan a new garden bed make sure to do your diligent research -- it will save you time, headache, and some maintenance issues. And hey, hiring an expert to help you doesn't hurt either, and might even save you money and stress over time.
If you enjoy spreading wood mulch every year in your landscape, then by all means ignore this post. If you enjoy pushing heavy wheel barrows and carefully navigating plant stems and branches without breaking anything, move along. However, if you're into less maintenance, more wildlife, and more environmental sustainability, then follow me into cultivated wildness.
Wood mulch has nothing on plants!
1) Wood mulch is touted as a way to improve soil and conserve soil moisture. It's true, it does these things, and can be valuable around newly-planted trees as well as an initial, one-time application at planting time for perennials. Soil organisms digest and incorporate wood mulch, building the upper layer over time, and mulch is great for saying "keep away" around tree trunks.
But thick layers of plant communities shade the soil with their leaves, which cool it down and robs sunlight from weed seedlings. Plant roots also rob water and nutrients from weed seedlings while amending soil naturally over time. Take prairie grasses -- 1/3 of their roots die each year, adding organic material. Many plants have evolved to punch down into clay and open up air and water passageways, while plants with fibrous roots can build up sandy and rocky soil so it holds more water over time.
2) When you cut down the garden in spring with a hedge trimmer, string trimmer, or mower, all that dead plant material becomes a mulch layer providing a lot of the nutrients that plants need -- that's why trees drop their leaves over their root zone, after all. Give the plants back to themselves!
3) Leaving plants up for winter helps them gather leaves around their bases, insulating them from winter cold, adding organic matter over winter and spring, and provides shelter for overwintering insects. The more plant layers and plant diversity you have, the more life you'll have thriving in your landscape.
Wood mulch is beneficial, yes, but doesn't hold a candle to more plants. If you can't afford a lot of plants, try to choose those that spread by seed or runners (wild geranium, purple poppy mallow, zigzag goldenod, solomon's seal, blue mistflower, etc). Consider planting just the ornamental flower layers with forbs and shrubs, then sow in a grass or sedge groundcover; we love to suggest sideoats grama for this purpose if you're working toward a stylized meadow look. Additionally, there are local and regional nurseries and growers that offer smaller plants for a smaller price, so you can buy more at once time. Some day, we hope the industry sells trays of plugs at nurseries to consumers planning larger beds.
What should you shoot for then when it comes to the number of plants in an area? Let's keep it simple. Say you have 10 square feet -- you could plant this with one shrub or three gallon-sized perennials. Or, you could plant ten or more smaller perennials. Some of these smaller perennials may be ground covers, some mid height plants, and one or two taller architectural plants. The point is to both layer vertically and cover the ground horizontally. Remember that any bare patches of soil might be good habitat for the 75% of our 4,000 native bee species that nest in the ground.
Finally, look at the numbers and tally up how much money you spend on wood mulch each year. Is it around $200? In three years that's $600 -- money you could have put into more plants, which means more habitat and less work for you as that habitat grows.
This was my second time. The first was about four years ago when our front lawn was taller than six inches and had a few dozen dandelion seed heads in it. Three months after that notice I tore out most of the yard and put in large prairie garden beds. No one has reported the space since, oddly enough.
On May 23 of this year we received another warning -- this time a bright orange sign staked into the middle of the front yard -- notifying us we had to cut down the back meadow (just weeks before a local garden tour). This designed space began in 2015 because I refused to water a lawn we never used, that burned hard every July and August, and was becoming patchy; it's also become a wonderful proving ground for my business. You can read more about the 2,000 foot meadow planting here.
After sending a plant list to the local weed superintendent, he was gracious enough to meet at my home to discuss the issue. Here's how it went, what we both learned, and what you need to take away as we move to more sustainable wildlife landscapes in urban areas.
At first we were both in our ideological corners. I was being quoted ordinance about vermin, snakes, and fire, while I was quoting stats about snakes eating mice, native bee decline, and the low burn temperature and quick burn time of prairie grasses. I planned to approach our talk as calmly as possible, but after pacing for a solid hour beforehand I'd worked myself up. So, the first lesson is don't pace for an hour beforehand.
But after awhile we settled into a very productive and friendly half-hour conversation I was thankful for. We taught each other and, I believe, pledged to work together here and around town. One of the largest sticking points centered on cutting down plant material in fall so as not to be a fire hazard. Since every garden I design is planned to be aesthetically pleasing in winter -- not to mention a haven for birds and overwintering insects -- I kept coming back to how we needed to find a solution to have the garden standing. Heck, in spring I leave 12-18" of stubble for nesting bees. Eventually, I heard "hey, if no one complains in winter I won't come knocking on your door."
As we walked around I was able to provide the Latin and common names to over 90% of the plants (I should have had coffee because I can hit 100% just fine). And as I discussed plant communities, how the space was designed, what the intention was and how it would continue to develop, the superintendent noted that it was clear I knew what I was doing. He even said both my front and back gardens could serve as an example of what and how to design effectively and avoid the hassle or stress such meetings produce. The other inspector that came along mentioned that as we face climate change, these types of lawn alternatives will have to become more prevalent -- I'm sure not only for aesthetics but as a practical purpose to help combat the invasive exotics their department diligently patrol. Open ground is an invitation to real weeds.
It was a wonderful, energizing conversation and I felt like there was room for future collaboration, especially as we noted some struggling public spaces around town that had recently been planted but were filling up with weeds. The super also asked me what I tell people at my talks about designing a space all species can be comfortable with, and I'll tell you what we agreed on and what I say everywhere I can:
1) It can help to hire a professional to get you started. That can be a landscape plan, a consult, or a coach that keeps coming back to help you progress. You can install a design yourself or have the professional do it for you then modify on your own, but having good bones is critical -- especially in front yards (my backyard has a wood fence and faces acres of dense red cedars, but I still got in trouble).
2) Plant in masses and groups and tiers. These are traditional design strategies that we're all accustomed to, and so they help folks see that a landscape has intention. Grouping plants also serves as a larger beacon for pollinators flying overhead, so design with 3, 5, or 7 of a kind. Have tall plants in the back or middle with shorter plants toward the front. Don't just toss out a bag of seed or let the lawn go to see what comes up. Convert the space quickly or do it one piece at a time over years.
3) Always have something in bloom. People like flowers and flowers show intention -- plus bloom succession is critical for pollinators.
4) Have a mowed edge around beds that abut sidewalks, driveways, or property lines. In lieu or combination with that strategy is placing low plants along the edges. For example, I have nothing that gets taller than 2 feet within 4-6 feet of the sidewalk. Hey, people don't like to be touched by plants they don't know.
5) Have a sign that says what you are doing and why. The super mentioned signs significantly mitigate their workload. Something as simple as "This is a low-maintenance, native plant pollinator garden."
6) Show human use by including a sitting area, bench, or mowed pathway through the space. Using sculpture or fountains also helps create visual foils so it's easier to interpret the space and focus on what might at first seem chaotic wildness (even if plants are grouped and tiered -- anything that isn't lawn up to the foundation walls is suspect).
7) Native plant pollinator gardens don't have to look like meadows. They can be more simple and modern looking, or formal and angular. There is a middle way, too, a place where we can all meet in the landscape.
8) Talk to your neighbors. Tell them what you're doing. Invite them over for drinks. Knock on doors and calmly / warmly ask if they'd like to talk about it or see it. Don't accuse anyone of anything or act like you're better then them. Educate. Teach. Welcome. Even if you're a passionate activist who believes the sixth mass extinction is here and our over-manicured lawns are creating an ethical crisis that will consume us all (ahem), hold back and just listen. We can still have constructive and friendly conversations regardless of what is modeled for us online and in the news.
So there you go. Rest assured, there are ways to design a space that not only passes weed control inspection, but that can model where we need to go. Lush, layered gardens using interlinked plant communities lower air temps, clean that air, sequester carbon, reduce runoff into storm drains, provide valuable habitat, combat invasive weeds, and increase home values while making us psychologically and physically healthier.
If you're interested in the above ideas, A New Garden Ethic is a superb place to start. Then, explore the suggested book list in the back for even more guidance and encouragement on design, native plant benefits, ecosystem gardening with science, and environmental philosophy.
Additionally, in my research leading up to the on-site meeting, I gathered some helpful links debunking common weed ordinance concerns (pests, fire, etc), as well as legal precedents from around the country if your case goes to court.
As Natural Landscaping Takes Root We Must Weed Out Bad Laws (25 years old, so there is surely more legal precedent to find)
Weed Laws and Ordinances (lots of links)
Sourcebook of Natural Landscaping for Local Officials (incredible treasure trove of why, how, and where)
It's amazing to me that we've been struggling with the same issue for decades now -- even when "natural" garden design was once the default landscape mode long before lawns came into vogue just after mid century. But what we see is what we accept, and what we see is what we assume is good. The prevalence of highly-managed lawn, and wood mulch as a design aesthetic in its own right, is harming a push toward sustainable design -- we need more public examples of what we can do, even if those examples require more intensive management to withstand scrutiny.
One final note -- the super said it's important for folks to know landscapes like mine are also high maintenance like lawn. I'm not sure. I mow the back meadow in spring and am done. The front 400 foot garden and the older 1,500 foot main garden I simply use a hedge trimmer on and leave the detritus as natural mulch (another ordinance no no, even if it's what more and more large public gardens do). Obviously, if you try to take on more than you can chew from the outset then you can get overwhelmed, give up, and let the weeds come in. But for me, I honestly spend one day a year in spring doing the majority of my work. With tight-knit plant communities (layers of plants on 12 inch centers or closer), my big job is cataloging wildlife and observing plant growth -- with the occasional yanking of a tree seedling, musk thistle, or bush honeysuckle.
It's cool if you love your hosta and daylily collection, however their value to pollinators is minimal even if they are easier than bindweed to grow (oh, bindweed, you scoundrel). Neither plant is a host for butterfly or moth larvae, so we won't be making new pollinators, and the nectar is primarily accessible and suitable to long-tongued generalist adult insects only (think bumble bees).
What could we use instead that would help more pollinators and still be simple to grow? This is assuming you don't care so much how the plant looks in comparison to a hosta or daylily (no apples to apples here), but simply how it acts and how easy it is to cultivate. So for hosta we're looking at plants that thrive in dry shade, and for daylily plants that enjoy medium to dry sun. Plus, if you use all 5 suggested plants for each replacement, you're getting a bigger bloom succession and helping far more adult pollinators.
You'll find all of the below perennials featured more in depth in our plant profiles.
Calico Aster (Syhphyotrichum lateriflorum)
-- dry to dappled shade
-- about 2' wide and 2-3' tall (more moisture means bigger plant)
-- early fall white flower with yellow center that turns pink (turning pink tells pollinators the flower is empty)
-- all asters are highly prized pollen and nectar sources
Zigzag Goldenod (Solidago flexicaulis)
-- dry to moist, shade to part sun (more sun, more moisture)
-- 2-3' and tall depending on moisture, slowly spreads
-- early to mid fall, richly-scented blooms
-- incredible adult pollinator diversity
Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
-- dry to medium soils in shade
-- 2' tall and spreading slowly
-- mid to late spring blooms prized by queen bumble bees
-- smooth foliage like hosta
Early Meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum(
-- dry to medium soils in shade
-- 2' tall by 12-18" wide
-- wiry stems with airy blooms mid spring with delicate leaves the size of dimes
-- plant in masses for best effect
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
-- dry to medium soil in shade to sun (more sun, more moisture)
-- 1' tall and slowly spreading for a superb groundcover among taller plants
-- late spring blooms with some rebloom in summer
-- pollen accessible to variety of insects
Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis & B. minor)
-- dry to medium soils in full sun
-- 3-4' tall and 2-3' wide and 2x2' for minor (there are even more species than the above!)
-- mid spring bloom with large jet black seed pods in winter
-- host plant for sulphurs and prized by queen butterflies
Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
-- dry to medium soils in full to part sun
-- 2-3' tall and 1' wide
-- early to mid summer bloom
-- a coneflower that has pollen, vs. many of the hybrids out now
Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
-- slightly moist to slightly dry soil in full to part sun
-- 3-4' tall and 1-2' wide
-- mid summer bloom
-- highly attractive to adult insects
Smooth Aster (Syphyotrichum laeve)
-- medium to dry soils in full to part sun
-- 2-3' tall and 1-2' wide
-- early to mid fall bloom
-- smooth foliage and gobs of insects
Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
-- medium to dry soils in full sun
--1-2' tall and 2-3' wide (shrub-like appearance)
-- mid to late fall bloom, tons of flowers
-- one of the last food sources for migrating and late-season insects
There are many garden practices that are so widely believed and preached that they become de facto blanket statements for what makes a successful garden no matter where you live. From fertilizing to mulching to soil amendments, it may be that you're doing too much when you don't have to do hardly anything.
Let's take amending soil. There's this idea that there is only one good garden bed -- one composed of loose, crumbly, earthy-smelling black gold. When we're talking ornamental gardening nothing could be further from the truth (however, vegetable gardens do usually require a "perfect" bed). Even if you stop to think critically about where you find this information, you should start hearing some alarm bells. It's companies, businesses, and products that need you to buy more. Hardware stores get truckloads of bagged topsoil and amendments each spring and stack them up in the parking lots enticing you. Landscapers increase their bottom line by offering additional improvements in the form of soil conditioners, top soil, wood mulch, fertilizer, etc. But most often you don't need all of that. Here's why amending soil isn't as big of a deal as you think.
1) The perfect or ideal soil is the soil you have right now. Unless your land is poisoned or there are drainage issues undermining a structure, amending soil is often an expensive and back-breaking practice for homeowners (soil tests can tell you a lot, by the way). There are a plethora of plants from around the world -- and of course lots of native plants, too -- that will thrive in sandy, gravelly, rocky, loamy, mushy, or clay soils. In fact, by plethora we mean hundreds available to you right now in the nursery trade. A garden designer or landscaper worth their salt will know these plants and be able to match them to you site. And amended garden areas aren't usually that big or deep; what does a plant think when it hits the native soil beyond its perfect little princess zone? "Uh, no thanks, I'll just stay right here." In the case of perennials this may inhibit their drought tolerance, and for large trees it will increase their likelihood of falling over in a windstorm because they didn't root out far enough to anchor in.
2) Matching plants to site often means less maintenance and less plant death over time. The goal in any thriving garden is to have healthy plants. Traditional landscaping says that to do this you need to enrich the soil, add fertilizer, and apply lots of wood mulch. Now, there's nothing bad about a one-time topdressing of compost (an inch) and a layer of mulch (usually an inch or two is plenty, especially for clay soils). These additions will naturally improve soil over time from the top down. But plant roots do that, too. Take native prairie grasses, which lose up to 1/3 of their roots every year. Those dead roots amend soil naturally as they break down and soil organisms digest them, while opening pathways of air and water. The plants that do the best are the plants that evolved to thrive in your site conditions -- from sun to drainage to soil.
3) Matching plants to one another. There's more to know about plants than the soil, light, and moisture levels they evolved in. There's also the art of designing plant communities. A plant community is one with balance where plants naturally support and even compete with another over time to create a healthy and ecologically-sound landscape. Simply put, when we match plants to one another we increase the plant's ability to be healthy. For example, planting taprooted plants among fibrous-rooted plants means no one is competing for resources at the same level. Or using behaved clumpers together (play nice, kids, and everyone will get a turn) or aggressive thugs together (butting heads means everyone keeps the other in check and no one wins out but they all work together for a common good -- or how government is supposed to work).
4) Planting tightly means more soil building and less work long term. Our gardens are designed by planting material 12" on center. Generally, we'll use a base layer -- a grass or sedge -- that forms a living green mulch so you never have to use wood mulch again. Then we build the garden layers. First, we'll add some spreading groundcovers like wild geranium or purple poppy mallow to fill in the gaps. Second, we'll build up to the intermediate layer by using plants that get 2-4' tall. Often, this second layer will compose plants of various foliage types, and we'll use some plants with thicker foliage to help shade the soil, which contributes to out competing weeds and conserving moisture (plus it looks good to us and wildlife using the space). Finally, plants are left standing all winter; they'll gather wind-blown leaves which will fertilize and build soil naturally from the top down like compost. And in spring, when the plants are cut down, they are placed back on the garden bed to provide the nutrients plants need while acting as a temporary mulch.
All of these practices -- from matching plants to the soil and site and to one another, layering of the root zone and top growth, and leaving spring cuttings in place -- is all the the soil amending you'll ever need to do. And the only thing it will cost you is the price of plants, which you were in for anyway, and rethinking traditional high-maintenance practices. Do you see prairies and woodlands bring soil amendments, fertilizers, and wood mulch in bags and dump trucks? What can we learn from nature about creating resilient and sustainable landscapes that look pretty to us and wildlife?
Drive around town and 99% of what you'll see are landscape beds made to need more investment and with little wildlife value. The spaces require herbicides, annual wood mulch applications, and provide little in the way of habitat. Not to mention the environmental impacts of herbicide and mulch production, transportation, and the minimal water infiltration and air-cleaning these sparsely-planted beds achieve.
When folks drive around town and see these "professional" landscapes, they'll probably tend to think this is how their home landscape should look, too -- after all, it's how the big guys do it.
Here are two landscape bed examples that could use some re-imagining as a way to inspire their communities to garden smarter:
You'll notice the first example does at least have a few plants, but even this number is about 10% of what it should be. You can see how rainwater, in part from the sidewalk, has washed mulch away -- meaning it will need to be reapplied probably several times a year. The planting certainly won't help shade out or compete against weeds, and hopefully you agree it just isn't pretty even if everything was leafed out. Where are the layers, the different textures and colors? These plants were doomed the minute they were put in the ground -- spread too far apart in a bed that will fight climatic conditions and lose. What is an alternative? A mix of native sedge and then forbs that stay relatively tidy, like prairie alumroot, pale purple coneflower, lead plant, butterflyweed, dotted blazing star, nodding onion, and aromatic aster -- a solid layer of plants placed on 12" centers.
This second bed perhaps has trickier issues, being an island in a strip mall parking lot. You can see the landscape company simply put down as much mulch as the bed could hold in hopes of suppressing weeds -- which won't work at all because plenty of weeds germinate and do fine in thick mulch like this. But the larger issues this sort of bed faces is people walking through it and doing damage. What could we do? Perhaps a ground layer of sedge and wild geranium to add spring and summer blooms. At least the ground will be covered and you won't need annual mulch and as many weed control treatments. You wouldn't want to put shrubs in here that would block sight lines or scratch cars. Perhaps a stone pathway through the middle from left to right would also alleviate trampling of new plants.
If businesses added up how much they spend on landscape maintenance over the course of 1-2 years, I wonder how it would compare to a one-time planting with the right plants in the right configuration. Do you have a parking area, business frontage, or neighborhood entrance you'd want grown more sustainably and beautifully? We'd like to see it, and certainly to help design a more wildlife and people-friendly space. Keep in mind there are studies out there that show business beautification in the form of plants can increases consumer spending -- although I hope our goal would also be to provide for pollinators and clean air and water. Plants do so much for us!
When I'm working on a garden -- once I know the lay of the land and what my clients prefer -- I'll create a super long plant list. Maybe it'll have 30-40 plants and I'll end up using half. The point is, you want to have more paint than what the canvas can hold, because in the moment of creation you don't know what you'd like to use until you put the brush to that one spot. Of course, the size of those plant lists depends on the size of the garden.
As for the plants themselves, color, size, texture, and shape matter. So does when the plants bloom. But that's only half the story in designing a low-maintenance, sustainable garden for wildlife where we don't want to use fertilizer or mulch, and we want to keep irrigation to a minimum. The other half is matching plants to each other in how they grow above AND below ground, as well as how they reproduce. You wouldn't put an aggressive self sower in a small garden, and you wouldn't place a tame clumper among more energetic growers. Let's see if I can break it down for you in order of design process when looking at plants:
Sometimes I'll jumble up that order a bit depending on what I'm going for and the garden site itself, but at some point ALL of this is coming together, colliding, mingling, and exploding in my head and on the plan.
Let's look at a simple example. Take a small 100' bed in clay soil and sun, a plant list might look like this:
The Carex is our living green mulch and will be placed on a grid on 12" centers. Since the fastest spreader here is the aster, and it's the largest plant, we'll use just one (it'll have gobs and gobs of flowers). The heuchera needs larger massing both for the leaves, which will contrast nicely with everything else, and has slightly inconspicuous flowers -- a group of 5 at least. As for the Baptisia and Asclepias a group of three for each. We could add Liatris aspera for late summer bloom (it has a corm, like a bulb), which would be a single plant, or one alone with two together elsewhere. Given the wiry form of Echinacea, and its ability to self sow a bit, we may just do a clump of 3, or even another clump of 2-3.
The taproot plants will dig down below the fibrous plants, so there won't be as much resource competition. And the clumping, thick, fibrous-rooted nature of the sedge should help slow down the self sowers (coneflower) and the root runner (aster).
So that's a little insight into how I think about garden plants when I have the base plan drawn up and go into the nitty gritty. Of course, besides all this practical and aesthetic stuff, I'm also thinking about wildlife. What is the plant a host to, what will it attract and support from egg to wing, and in what amounts and in what diversity? But that's another post.
I live on the edge of town abutting small acreages and not more than a mile from the prairie at Pioneers Park. The advantage of this location is easy access to the interstate and a close drive to a lovely urban grassland. The disadvantages include these guys:
I'd be better able to manage them if I could burn my gardens, aka, my entire lot. They not only pop up in the back meadow and garden beds, but also the front beds and in the lawn. Over the last year I've pulled well over 100 seedlings of this native yet very aggressive tree. It's managed in prairies by burning, and even one lone specimen in several hundred acres will cause grassland birds to nest elsewhere. It's a water hog. It shades out prairie plants. Birds love the berries and poop them out all over the place. Folks out east rave over their use in gardens and folks out west listen in suspended disbelief with jaw agape looking for the nearest exit.
Tell me what this plant is (like you don't know) and you'll win a free invisible Tesla sedan.
If you follow me on Twitter you know I really let it fly there. Basically, I'm condensing larger ideas from my book and talks and really getting to the heart of a concept. Here's a collection of recent tweets that will likely turn into a longer piece at some point.
We have a been hammered with the idea there is only one "good" garden soil, and that if you want to have success then your landscape should feature something like a rich, crumbly loam akin to potting soil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Amending soil for the average homeowner isn't just out of the budget, it's out of their body's ability to work the soil or have the time to do so. And you know what? You don't need to change your soil 95% of the time; the only real reason to do so is if a soil test shows some severe contamination or you're trying to improve drainage around a basement wall. But even if there's contaminated soil, depending on what it might be, one might be able to use plants to help remediate it (indiangrass and sunflowers are good examples that clean soil, removing lead and even radiation).
Choosing the right plant for the right place is how one gardens successfully -- every time. Changing the site to fit what you want to grow is like trying to change your spouse to be the perfect mate... in the end, you'll have wasted a lot of time and energy while you'll eventually give up on the relationship altogether. So fall in love with clay soil.
Clay has the smallest particle size of soil ingredients, which include sand and silt. It has a very high water-holding ability, and is a fantastic nutrient holder, as well. A lot of our clay soils organize themselves in layers or fine sheets that are negatively charged; plant nutrients are positively charged, and so are attracted to the the soil levels and "stick" like opposite ends of a magnet. This is why clay soil is often a very rich soil to work in, even though we'd assume that's not the case.
Now, let's say someone wants to put prairie plants in a garden bed because they know they are native to them, are purported to be less maintenance, and will support pollinators. They might know they have clay and figure it needs to be improved, so they come along and till in compost. What the tiller will do is destroy those wonderful layers of clay that hold nutrients while killing soil life. Sure, the new soil might appear better to us -- and it's certainly easier to dig -- but it's now no longer fit for lots of of those prairie plants.
Take pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, a mainstay in prairie garden design. It's deep taproot is designed to punch through clay soil, which also makes it pretty drought tolerant. When you put it in a loamy bed this coneflower grows too fast, gets too tall, flops over, and has a much shorter lifespan. Why? You gave it a far too rich soil and it went bonkers. It's not evolved for that kind of soil. And now you have more maintenance because you've got to replace the plant. Many prairie forbs like pale purple coneflower have evolved these strong taproots for a purpose, just as the more fibrous roots of grasses and sedges. Together, all these plants reach into clay soil and slowly amend it naturally, adding nutrients while opening up spaces for water and air to penetrate. In fact, up to 1/3 of prairie grass roots die each year, and as they decompose they enrich the soil. This is why farming is so successful in the upper Midwest and eastern Plains.
So love your clay. If it's too hard to dig into, try using smaller 3" pots or plugs instead of massive and pricey one gallon pots. Consider a mix of sowing grasses and forbs with some potted plants. I like to create designs with forbs then come in and sow a groundcover of grasses -- which speeds up planting, saves my back, and costs less (plus that means no wood mulch). You could also sow a cover crop of annual native grasses and forbs, even biennial forbs like Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) and Ratibida columnifera (mexican hat coneflower), to help prep the soil for a year or two. Otherwise, at planting time, a thin layer of 1/2" to 1" of compost doesn't hurt to add some organic matter if tests show the soil could use some.
When I meet a client who drops their head in their landscape sighing "I have clay soil, I know there isn't much we can do," I love to smile and say, "actually, because you have clay, we can do so much more."
Say it with me. Love your clay. Plant for it, not against it. Use nature to your advantage. Learn to be one with the force.
To learn more about sustainable wildlife gardening, check out some 200 articles or try one of these 5 online classes.
So many of us know the importance of pollinating insects, and indeed of insects in general which are the base of the terrestrial food chain. We've read about bees and butterflies that are struggling and realize that our small gardens, in their minor way, can collectively play a larger role in supporting the wildlife whose homes we share. When we see an insect foraging on a plant we purchased we are happy and feel fulfilled -- we are doing something good, and it is fantastic to feel good about that.
So often, though, someone will say they saw pollinators on a plant -- which could be anything from a lavender to rattlesnake master to milkweed or daffodil. And then it's an open and closed case as that plant's presence is justified in the landscape as being ecologically important because something was using it. In the case of plants we especially find beautiful or unique, whether native or not, we rush to validate our preferences when it seems nature corroborates how we feel about a specimen. There's psychology at play here, something I discuss in my book A New Garden Ethic, about protecting ourselves in a world of mass extinction and preserving a sense of stability or safety in how we perceive the world. And that is what's partly at play in the defense of plants when an insect is seen using them. Of course it's an adult insect we're talking about here, not larvae eating leaves or other parts of the plant (without larvae there can be no adults, after all). Further, we're not often sure what kind of insect it is, and this is important to consider. Some questions we can ask about our backyard observations include:
1) Is this a native or exotic insect species? If exotic, is it pushing out natives? What role do those native insects play in the ecosystem compared to the exotic and what may or may not be lost as they are supplanted?
2) Is this a generalist or specialist species? Specialists are critical to the ecosystem and losing just one has a cascade effect that influences how well plants are being pollinated. Generalists, like bumble bees, will forage on just about anything. Also take honey bees: not only are they an exotic species that crowd out native bees and spread disease, they steal forage from native bees that native ecosystems (plants, etc) depend upon. That is partly due to their sheer volume, colony size, and range of several miles. A good number of native bees have a flight range of only a few blocks.
3) How is that adult pollinator using the plant? Is it foraging for nectar (fuel for itself) or pollen (essential food for its young)? What parts of the plant is it using (it's not just about the flower)? Is there evidence that any insect larvae are using the plant? Here we're commonly thinking butterfly and moth caterpillars, but also beetle larvae and much more will use the plant.
These are hard questions to answer, and if you can answer them you're now a bona fide backyard biologist who should be recording what you see to track how the climate and environment are changing. But simply, until we can answer these questions to some degree, our plants may not be as beneficial as we assume when we "see a pollinator" using it. It may very well be that the plant primarily supports insect species that are doing harm to other species, creating an unseen cascade effect that ripples out beyond the garden altering how nearby spaces function. If we can begin to understand that a garden is not its own self-contained place, but part of a larger whole, perhaps we will begin to ask harder, more honest, and more critical questions about what's using our garden and how we can improve the habitat so it's as pretty for wildlife as it is for us.
A growing voice in garden circles dotes on dandelions for pollinators, particularly as they are claimed as some of the first flowers to bloom in spring. This refers to the exotic dandelion Taraxacum officinale, not one of the native species we have like Nothocolais cuspidata. While early-spring insect species will use dandelion -- especially generalist species and European honey bees who evolved with the flower -- in some cases it is not the most nutritious option when it comes to pollen. For example, the earlier-blooming and native pussy willow’s pollen protein count is 40%, whereas dandelion is only at 14%. Nutritious pollen is what leads to healthier bees, which in turn leads to healthier environments (without pollen bee larvae would starve). In addition, many specialist bees have evolved relationships with specific native plants, timing their life cycles for when pollen is available from those plants. Specialists are incredibly crucial to keeping the pollinator system in balance, and when we lose even one such species pollination rates for plants suffer.
What can we do? As we alter landscapes we lose ecological function. Consider that 99% of the tallgrass prairie has been eradicated, yet so much of the wildlife that depend on the plants found within that ecosystem still exist in the same geographical area -- even in cities. Let's revive wildness and use native plants.
According to bee expert Heather Holm, there are a plethora of native plants that either bloom at the same time as dandelion or weeks earlier. These plants have ranges in the Midwest and northeast, and the list includes the following:
Trees & Shrubs
Native willows, Salix spp.
Red maple, Acer rubrum
Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa
Native currants or gooseberries, Ribies spp.
American plum, Prunus americana
Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana
Native viburnum, Viburnum spp.
Native dogwood, Cornus spp.
Serviceberry, Amelanchier spp.
Prairie smoke, Geum triflorum
Pussytoes, Antennaria neglecta
Golden Alexanders, Zizia spp.
Wild lupine, Lupinus perennis
Pasque flower, Anemone patens
Marsh marigold, Caltha palustris
Woodland Perennials / Ephemerals
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria
Native violets, Viola spp.
Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium reptans
Large-flowered bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora
Wild geranium, Geranium maculatum
Bishop's cap, Mitella diphylla
Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
To learn more about sustainable wildlife gardening, check out some 200 articles or try one of these 5 online classes.
Traditional landscapers, some nurseries, and plenty of ads for big box stores and petrochemical companies want you to be spending as much time outside as possible -- and not counting butterflies or playing with your kids. Your landscape requires lots of constant upkeep and inputs, like soil conditioners, wood mulch, and fertilizer. That's just the price of home ownership. Grab a drink and let's bust these maintenance myths.
1) Amending Soil
There is no perfect garden soil. Repeat. There is no perfect garden soil. There is no ideal to strive for -- and that ideal certainly is not rich-smelling, loamy, dark black soil that crumbles in your hand like cake. The typical thinking goes that if you have clay, sandy loam, or gravelly sand, then you MUST bring in lots of topsoil and compost to make it good, otherwise nothing will grow and you'll fail. You'll need to till that in, too, destroying soil structure and harming soil life. Sounds like a lot of work and money to me. Now, sure, there are situations when soil needs to be remediated (someone dumped gallons of oil, drainage issues need to be fixed), but buying bags of topsoil at big store x or y is not the answer to successful gardening. Researching what plants will do well in the conditions you have is the answer. Right plant, right place. Let's say you "amend" the soil one foot down, what happens when the plant's roots reach the native soil? It freaks out. It might decide to stay in the babied soil, never fully establishing, and never becoming drought tolerant or resilient because it's constantly in a state of being pampered. Which brings us to....
2) Mulch Mulch Mulch
Wood mulch also keeps plants in a state of perpetual establishment. Commonly we'll place a flower here, than 2 feet away another flower, etc until what we have are large gaps between plants -- gaps that don't exist in nature. Those gaps will need to be mulched every year or two because, as we all know, bare soil invites erosion, weed seedlings, etc. Or you could simply use more plants, and layer those plants, letting them do the work of not only amending soil for free over time as their roots move into the soil, but also out competing weed seedlings and shading the soil, thus conserving soil moisture. Mulch does help new trees establish, but maybe you could also just plant a thick, layered garden under the tree's drip line. No more mulch. No more spreading mulch. No more carrying mulch. No more buying mulch. Use your mulch allowance on more plants and make the long term investment for beauty, resilience, and wildlife habitat.
Before planting it's smart to get a soil test done -- in the very least it will tell you pH, organic matter percentage, and other nutrient levels. Now, contrary to conventional wisdom, these numbers aren't necessarily here to tell you what to add to "improve" the soil. No, for you mavericks these numbers are here to tell you what plants to match to the site. Doing this will greatly improve your chances of long term success. Why keep adding fertilizers year after year to maintain a plant's life support when clearly it doesn't like where it is? Yank it out and find something that doesn't tug at your purse strings. Besides, that fertilizer is produced with intensive industrial processes that contribute to climate change and pollution, and when they run off our landscapes they cause real problems for waterways (looking at you, commercials that insist on 4 lawn fertilizer applications a year -- two is plenty, unless the company needs to move more product).
Do gardens require work? You bet. They always will, like replacing and adding plants, because we're putting in something that wasn't here on its own. But there's gardening nature's way -- matching plants with the site, creating self-supporting plant communities, fostering biodiversity -- and there's the other way which keeps us from getting in tune with our local environment by forcing in costly management.
If you want to learn more about how to research the right plants for your landscape, and to design a more sustainable / low maintenance space, try this handy online class on starting your native plant garden. You'll discover the most informative websites and books, strategies for research and plant lists, and be walked through a sample design for a small pollinator garden.
There are a few ways to convert your landscape into planting beds. Two of the most commonly suggested are sheet mulching and solarizing -- both of which can do more harm than good. Why? Let's look at both, and then eventually some suggestions for better ways.
Basically you beg friends and neighbors for as much cardboard as you can and place it over lawn or other plants you want smothered. This is followed by a good watering to soak the cardboard well, then perhaps a layer of soil or compost -- several inches or more. Some will also top this with a few inches of wood mulch or just use mulch. The goal here is to create a plantable area without having to remove current vegetation. But what's wrong here? It limits air and water transfer between the soil (its organisms and any tree / shrub roots which need to breathe). Read more at this link, or if you like termites, this one.
In this method you're putting either black or clear plastic over an area, secured around the edges by bricks or stones, and baking the plants to death that you don't want. Usually you'll solarize over a few months in summer when it's the hottest out. But solarization doesn't just bake plants -- it bakes the soil, in effect sterilizing it. Or more to the point, killing organisms in the soil you probably want. Usually this method is used to kill soil pathogens and pests that growers and those in agriculture don't want -- so why would you use it in your garden if what you want is to promote healthy soil? And promoting healthy soil is good gardening 101.
What else could you do? Read on.
If you've got lawn nothing beats renting a sodcutter. If you can't manage this machine bribe your beefy neighbor. What's wonderful is you get a clean, relatively smooth, ready-to-go surface in one morning. And the rolled up sod makes stupendous compost -- just the best black gold.
You'll Hate Me For This
The ends can often justify the means. As much as we vilify glyphosate and Monsanto (rightly so given how much of our nation's ag fields are doused in cancer-causing toxins), Roundup III is a fantastic, cheap grass and weed killer that targets only foliage -- it's not a formulation that's systemic in the soil. You may only need one application and the ground is safe to plant after 3-4 days (I've done it). If you're still reading and you go this route, follow the directions. Spray in the late evening in calm wind when the temperature is right. READ THE DIRECTIONS. The dead grass makes a nice mulch to plant into, as well. This method is probably best for a large area. If you want to seed, rake away the dead grass for a fairly clean surface.
Direct Planting Into Lawn
If you've got a patchy lawn area, and / or one you seldom if ever water and fertilize, you already may have a great garden bed. In spring when the grass is actively growing scalp it. Two weeks later when it's recovering scalp it again. Stress it hard. Suck those nutrients and energy out of the roots it was using to put on new growth. Then dethatch the lawn well with a hand or power rake. Go ahead and rip grass roots out of the soil as during this process you are creating places for planting and seed germination. Sow seeds if you're going for a wild meadow look, combine seeding with planting potted material to ease your budget, or go just with potted plants / plugs (making sure to plant on 8-12" centers to compete against the lawn). I might suggest sowing an aggressive native species like Rudbeckia hirta or Ratbida columnifera, as these plants do a stellar job shading out various lawn grasses and, by the end of year two, have petered out extensively since they work more on a biennial schedule. Then you can go back in and garden or plant some more as you design and tweak the space.
There is no such thing as a no maintenance landscape, unless you literally just let it go and stay inside binge-watching the latest TV drama. Even if you have hundreds of acres you’re probably going to need to manage it in some way for how you and wildlife use the land, and the same goes for garden beds around your house. Let’s explore some strategies to help you make the best decisions as you plan your gardening goals.
1) Matching plants to the site
At the very top of creating a landscape that requires less work than many traditional designs is carefully matching plants to your garden areas. This means going beyond the limited information plant tags provide and consulting with several reliable online and print sources. What soil will it do well in? How big does the plant get in your specific soil, light, and moisture levels? How does it spread and in what time frame? If you’re gardening with plants native to your location you’re already one step ahead of the game, as they will be more adapted to your climate and weather if you site them correctly at home. Of course, you’ll also not want to use a shrub that gets large too close to a structure, or something that will weep or flop near a sidewalk. You’d be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t – how often we don’t take into account what a plant will do in 5 to 10 years, so plan ahead.
2) Matching plants to one another
When you’re doing research on matching plants to your site conditions, you’ll also want to learn how they play with others. You wouldn’t want to place an aggressive species next to a behaved clumping plant, or one that gets super tall next to a more modest specimen. Thinking about roots is key, too: placing a grass with a fibrous and shallow root zone along with a milkweed or coneflower with a deep taproot is smart design, as neither will be competing for the same soil resources (the same rule applies for bulbs). And then there are plants which add fertilizer to the soil in the form of nitrogen, so planting them near other plants you know are heavy feeders is a good idea. Such free-fertilizer plants include Baptisia spp, Dalea spp, Lespedeza spp, and Cassia / Senna spp.
3) Designing in layers
Do you like fertilizing and mulching? If so, stop reading now. Otherwise, let the plants do that work for you just as they do in nature. For most herbaceous perennials, annuals, grasses, and sedges you can ignore plant spacing suggestions and place them 10-12” apart. The closer the better so they knit together sooner, which will impede weeds starting in year one. As the close-knit plants shade out weed seedlings they also shade the soil, which conserves soil moisture – this is what we call green mulch, or plants as the living mulch. We can take it further and design our gardens in layers that will further inhibit weeds and cool the soil. Start with a majority number of groundcover or shorter plants about one foot tall (50-60%), then have some groups of taller 2-4 foot plants (30-40%), followed by even smaller groups of 5-8 foot plants including small shrubs and trees (10-20%). These layers reduce maintenance like weeding, watering, and fertilizing while also providing ample wildlife habitat.
4) Leave spring cuttings on the ground
Hopefully you wait until early to mid spring to cut down your garden, as this not only helps plants overwinter in colder areas, but provides shelter and hibernating spaces for birds and beneficial insects like butterflies, spiders, bees, and beetles. When you do cut down the garden in spring leave all that detritus on the ground where it falls. These stems provide all the nutrients plants will need, and in a month or so new plant growth will cover up the seeming mess. Come winter, soil organisms will have decomposed the vast majority of these cuttings adding a new layer of fertile soil to your beds. Ah, nature!
5) Let plants teach you
As gardeners we design. We put specific plants in specific places because we want them there. And sometimes, if we’re lucky and have done our research, the plants will thrive where we put them. But sometimes they will die, and often they will move. Don’t be dismayed if they move to a place you wish they weren’t, because what the plant is doing is teaching you what it really wants and needs – and you ought to pay attention and be humble about it. Success in gardening can often mean being a sort of plant whisperer who isn’t a helicopter parent. In other words let the plants find their way in the world, then help them thrive in that world they’ve chosen. In fact, if you really what to have some fun, plan your garden in anticipation of plants moving, dying, and overall ebbing and flowing. Each year the design will change and excite you in new ways. Choose species that self sow to varying degrees or spread a bit by runners, and use species like black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that tend to be short lived in the garden, giving way to more mature species as the years progress.
To learn more about sustainable wildlife gardening, check out some 200 articles or try one of these 5 online classes.
It's a very common occurrence -- I show up to a new client's home, the landscape is nothing but thick shade and dry soil, and they feel hopeless anything will grow. Maybe others have even told them as much. There are many, many native plants that will do well in shade and various moisture levels, but I'll focus on just a quick list of forbs and sedges for medium to dry shade (clay, clay-loam, sandy clay loam).
Wild Geranium -- Geranium maculatum -- tends to be a low-mounding or groundcover, blooms in spring to summer, fall color is good
Wild Columbine -- Aquilegia canadensis -- spring bloom, wiry stems and open foliage, will self sow to peak up among groundcovers
Sprengel's Sedge -- Carex sprengelii -- about 2' tall when in bloom each spring, greens up early for a grass-like appearance
Ivory Sedge -- Carex eburnea -- low mounding and super soft groundcover that slowly spreads its clump
Early Meadow Rue -- Thalictrum dioicum -- cool, tiny, round leaves with 2-4' spikes of orange-ish / yellow-ish blooms
Poke Milkweed -- Asclepias exaltata -- 3-5' tall with cream to white bloom sin early to mid summer
Calico Aster -- Symphyotrichum lateriflorum -- tons and tons of white blooms with centers that turn from yellow to pink, about 2-3' tall & wide
Zigzag Goldenrod -- Solidago flexicaulis -- highly fragrant creeper reaching about 3' tall with thick, serrated leaves
Read more about each of these plants via their plant profile articles, and explore other pieces on gardening in shade.
I want to share these words by Derrick Jensen, and I'd like you to think about gardening and horticulture when you read them. Reflect on how we privilege ourselves in garden design over other species through the plants we choose and how we use them. Jensen's words are at the core of my own book, and address not only extinction but racism, classism, and sexism -- the violence we perpetuate to maintain inequality and create the illusion of freedom among the privileged few (the few being humans on the planet, among one example).
"In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities. Truth must at all costs be avoided. When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defenses and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party. We try to stay out of harm’s way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed to what we have done to the world and to ourselves, exposed as the hollow people we have become. And so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.
As is true for most children, when I was young I heard the world speak. Stars sang. Stones had preferences. Trees had bad days. Toads held lively discussions, crowed over a good day’s catch. Like static on a radio, schooling and other forms of socialization began to interfere with my perception of the animate world, and for a number of years I almost believed that only humans spoke. The gap between what I experienced and what I almost believed confused me deeply. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand the personal, political, social, ecological, and economic implications of living in a silenced world.
The silencing is central to the workings of our culture. The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories."
from A Language Older Than Words
Benjamin Vogt's blog on prairie gardening in Nebraska. With a healthy dose of landscape ethics and a dash of memoir.
In a time of climate change and mass extinction how & for whom we garden matters more than ever.
"This book is about so much more than gardening."
The Deep Middle
Gardening & writing in the prairie echo
Sign up for our newsletter!