A New Vocabulary for Gardening: The Natural Habitat Garden

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“…enlarge Earth’s diminished domain by growing native plant gardens modeled on nature’s original communities.”

Ken Druse, from The Natural Habitat Garden 1994

Are you as conflicted as I sometimes feel, when choosing new plants for your garden? Do you also spend winter hours dreaming over nursery catalogs? Maybe we share a tendency to fall for certain beautiful and interesting plants,  while not considering the ‘bigger picture.’

What bigger picture is that, you wonder?

Why, our planet and its diminishing species, of course. While I’ve never been an ardent native plant enthusiast, living and working in this forest garden continues nudging me in that direction.51JXBNCTQ7L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m reading Ken Druse and Margaret Roach’s beautiful book, now more than a dozen years old, called The Natural Habitat Garden.   Building on his earlier The Natural Garden and The Natural Shade Garden, Druse invites us to not only create a beautiful garden for ourselves, but also to restore the appropriate plant community for our site by taking into consideration what would grow here naturally were it still undisturbed.

By restoring the natural habitat in at least some part of our garden, we ‘welcome the entire food chain’ and help to offset the alarming loss of habit, across the planet, destroyed by population growth and development.

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Naturalist and garden writer Ken Druse’s vision for creating gardens is so much more comprehensive than most of us stop to consider. We are deciding what color of Petunia to plant in our baskets this spring. He is hoping to enlist back yard gardeners to help save the planet through the ecosystems they construct.

In the first few pages he advises, “Enlarge Earth’s diminished domain by growing native plant gardens modeled on nature’s original communities.” Then goes on to observe, “Assembling plants from all corners of the world does not create a self-sufficient ecologically appropriate community.”

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Berries have formed on 'The Devil's Walking Stick,' Aralia spinosa

Berries have formed on ‘The Devil’s Walking Stick,’ Aralia spinosa, which is multiplying now in our garden.

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His concern extends not only to native plants and the many species of animals they support, but also to the resources required to support plants in our garden. As water for irrigation becomes more scarce, Druse reminds us that indigenous vegetation won’t require supplemental watering.

When a plant grows in its native soil, the nutrients it needs are already present. He reminds us that most of the fertilizers and insecticides many gardeners use are based in petro-chemicals. They poison our gardens, and the very fragile life of our planet as they accumulate in soil, water, and biomass.

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The cardinals love sitting in this hazelnut tree.

The cardinals love sitting in this hazelnut tree, which grows prolifically with no special care.

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I have no argument with Druse’s reasoning. And the gorgeous photos which illustrate the habitat gardens he visits certainly demonstrate the profound beauty possible in such settings. Sections of the book explore various habitats including woodlands, wetlands, grass lands, and ‘drylands.’ His photographs feature hundreds of native plant species.

A new vocabulary shapes this wider perception of gardening. Traditional perennial beds and non-native trees and shrubs are ‘Plant Collections’ and ‘Collector Plants’. We are reminded that most of these are relatively sterile and do little to attract, shelter, or feed wildlife.

Habitat gardens are ‘Re-wilded spots,’ “ essential to the planet’s future.” He encourages us to surround our properties with a “Biohedge” of mixed native species.

I like that term, and will remember to throw it into conversations with my gardening friends and neighbors! We already have a dense ‘biohedge’ around all sides of our garden. The birds love it, too.

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We have a mix of native and non-native shrubs in our 'bio-hedges.' Here, Asian Camellias grow alongside native Dogwood.

We have a mix of native and non-native shrubs in our ‘bio-hedges.’ Here, Asian Camellias grow alongside native Dogwood.  Native hardwood trees form the canopy of the garden.

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Druse makes clear that many of the plants we may find already growing near our home aren’t natives. Invasive species, like  autumn olive, kudzu and mimosa  were brought here at some point in the past. And because they aren’t native flora, they edge out other species and take over. After making an inventory of the plants already in the garden, he advises cutting out and digging out invasive ‘thugs.’

Sometimes the best gardening happens when we remove inappropriate plants, and keep plant communities in balance through mowing, pruning, dividing, and in some cases, even burning.

The last few pages of the book are devoted to the idea of  ‘conservation through propagation.’   He asks that we remain mindful of volunteer seedlings of native plants as we move through our gardens.  We are encouraged to propagate desirable native plants to increase their numbers.

Collecting and propagating seed, buying from native plant sales, and even taking cuttings of native plants help preserve these precious native species and increase their presence in our gardens.

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Native Wax Myrtle self-seeds easily in our garden.

Native Wax Myrtle self-seeds easily in our garden.

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“Don’t fight the site,” is another principle Druse emphasizes again and again. Our approach from the beginning, with this garden, has largely been in harmony with this principle. Fighting this site proves both expensive and frustrating.

One of the things we love most about our very wild forest garden is the wildlife. A spring fed pond lies at the bottom of our hill.  Its clean water attracts many species of ducks, geese, hawks, owls, turtles, frogs, toads, probably snakes, small mammals, and of course many many different song birds. We have such a diverse collection of berries and seeds growing in the yard that there is plenty of food for birds to forage year round.

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That doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in my English roses, Begonias, herbs,  Caladiums and other non-native plants. Only that I’ve felt the paradigm shift in my own awareness of what plants we should grow here, and what we should not purchase and plant.

And I’ve honed an awareness of what can be grown near the house, largely in pots; and what is best to plant in the wilder areas away from the house. I’m also looking more closely not only at what is native to North America, but also at what is indigenous to coastal Virginia.

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Native Mountain Laurel in our garden

Native Mountain Laurel in our garden, grows along the banks of rivers and creeks, and in  Virginia forests.

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Druse is correct in observing that plant selection should be based on more considerations than simply hardiness zones. Creating a beautiful garden is only one of a garden steward’s goals. We can also help to restore the ecosystem, providing safe haven for many species of both plants and animals.

Knowing that we are not alone in our efforts; that thousands of other gardeners have also awakened to this more enlightened style of gardening, allows us to join our efforts with theirs to have a meaningful impact on our community.

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Sarracenia flava, propagated by our local nursery.

Sarracenia flava, propagated by Forest Lane Botanicals in York County.

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This aesthetic of habitat creation and management through gardening spreads from person to person, garden to garden. Together, we can work to heal our beautiful planet, and in doing so perhaps also heal ourselves.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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