A “Post Wild World”?

July 27, 2015 Parkway 029

Jamestown Island, July 2015

~

Are we gardening in a ‘Post Wild World’? 

Friends invited me to a gathering of area gardeners today. We enjoyed hearing a presentation by landscape architect and newly published author Thomas Rainer,  who shared his philosophy of garden design while promoting his new bookPlanting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, published by Timber Press this past October.

~

This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden.

This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden, with the native trees of our ‘forest’ all around it.

~

Yes, urban and suburban development claims ever more of our planet each passing year, with devastating consequences for the environment.  This has been true through my entire life, and probably yours, too.

I jumped on this bandwagon back in the 1970’s, and read any number of excellent books about designing gardens based on nature and using native plants, published by Rodale Press back in the 1980’s.  I internalized these principles long ago.  And still, it pleased me to hear a young landscape architect presenting these well worn principles with a certain freshness and flair.

~

Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

Native Hibiscus fill our garden each summer. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month.

~

Rainer summarized his concept as integrating ornamental horticulture with greater use of native North American plants.  He showed many examples of integrated plantings of grasses, perennials and woody plants contained within formal landscape frameworks, such as hardscape, hedges, lawns and permeable pathways.  So far, so good.

~

Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

~

With skillful use of photos, Rainer demonstrated to us “The irrepressible spirit of plants.” 

Or, as all true gardeners know, wild plants (including what we label weeds) want to grow, with tenacious enthusiasm, everywhere there is a bare patch of Earth.  We examined diversity of species, layering, inter-cropping, and succession in various wild settings; including his neighbor’s ‘hellstrip’ between his unkempt yard and the street.

~

Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densly matted ground cover.

Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densely matted ground cover; here with Sedum angelina.

~

With much laughter, we also examined photos of various urban and suburban garden installations dotted with puny plants separated by feet of thick mulch.  The point being, that plants tend to grow better in dense communities, as opposed to widely spaced apart in poorly prepared and deeply mulched beds.

~

September 30, 2015 Parkway 079

~

Rainer discussed the relative amount of care required by these plantings, and made his point that much of the lushest growth in nature is actually self-sown and grown in what we would agree are stressful conditions.  Crowding, temperature extremes, dry climate and thin soil don’t deter plants growing in the environment to which they are adapted.

It is when we, as gardeners decide to create a generic planting bed, and plant without regard to a plant’s specific requirements, that the results are less than plush.

~

Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon

The Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon, April 2015

~

If you’ve been gardening for more than a few years, you’ve likely experienced these truths yourself; the hard way.

Rainer’s book is lovely and filled with inspiring photos.  You might want to add it to your library, particularly if you are a beginning gardener or one trying to break out of the suburban mold of,  “Wall to wall carpet lawn and meatball shrub foundation plantings.”  It is all in one’s aesthetic and level of ecological awareness, of course.

Many of our neighbors at today’s presentation live in communities with strict rules about which plants one may or may not plant in one’s garden.  Several of our more regulated neighborhoods in Williamsburg enforce the well groomed lawn and evergreen shrub scheme to achieve a look of refined uniformity.  I heard these ladies murmuring to one another from time to time…..

~

Our front garden in mid-April

Our front garden in mid-April

~

And Rainer’s advice on planning ‘layers’ of plants and covering the ground with living ‘green mulch’ to smother weeds was all sound.  He showed numerous examples of working with ground cover plants and colorful native perennials.  I wish he had also mentioned some of the marvelous native shrubs and small trees which add color and  life to the landscape.   These good ‘bones’ give the landscape character while providing food and habitat for the birds and pollinators who animate a native landscape.

Although he showed us a few of his suburban projects, most of Rainer’s work appears to have been designs for public spaces.  He showed us beautiful installations; in city median strips, parks, and around public buildings.  And so when he finished to genuinely enthusiastic applause and invited questions, the trouble began.

~

There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

~

And the trouble began because he was speaking to an embattled group of Williamsburg gardeners who manage gardens amidst the realities of a ‘wild world’, which comes right up to our doorsteps.  We aren’t gardening in a safe and sanitized city.  We garden in the woods, backed up to National Park lands, marshes, rivers, creeks, and open fields full of real wild life.

And like so many newbie ‘experts,’ Rainer wasn’t prepared with the answers his audience needed to translate his theoretical ideas into practical reality.

~

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won't be nibbled by deer.... although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week....

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won’t be nibbled by deer…. although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week….

~

“We have a lot of deer.  Will the plants you’ve described survive deer?” ….. This question, followed by a beat of embarrassed silence, and a generality leaning towards, ‘probably not.’  Rainer sympathized by admitting he had lost a newly planted perennial bed to voles and rabbits colonizing his own Northern Virginia suburban garden.  But he wasn’t prepared to discuss the common plants impervious to deer. 

~

May apples with Vinca cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

May apples with ivy and  Vinca minor cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

~

“We have a lot of trees.  How do we plant these dense plantings of perennials and ground cover under mature trees?”  Rainer’s answer about purchasing plugs and small potted perennials was spot on.  But when he described boring holes with an auger for said plugs, he lost much of his audience.

~

Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators.

Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators in bloom, and birds feast on the seed heads weeks later.

~

He also said little about restoring the ecological balance and supporting birds and pollinator species through plant choices.  Perhaps this message was implied;  but not emphasized nearly enough.

There were lots of nice photos of nectar rich Echinacea, Salvia and Liatris throughout his slides; but not enough discussion of habitat creation and planting for a succession of nectar rich bloom.

~

Herbs mixed with perennials help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

Herbs, mixed with perennials, help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

~

Someone touched on this, but from the ‘dark side.’   Her question was about chiggers, those terrible tiny insects which attack one’s skin beginning here each May.  She wanted to know whether these densely planted, diverse natural plantings would harbor insects.  Well, of course they might.  Chiggers, and ticks, too.

Sadly, Rainer’s best answer was to keep the plantings beds some distance away from the house…..  He never mentioned using herbs to repel insects from our planting beds and from around our homes.  Doesn’t everyone keep a pot of scented Pelargoniums near their porch?

~

This variegated geranium is also worth saving. It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

This variegated Pelargonium bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

~

I left unsatisfied, and without an autographed copy of Rainer’s book under my arm.  I suspect I could find much of his message in those good old Rodale Press books I studied when I was young, and still turn to today.

~

October in our garden and the butterflies cover our Lantana.

October in our garden, when the butterflies cover the Lantana.

~

My gardening sister and I went for a coffee after the talk, and realized we had much the same impression of Rainer and his presentation.  She reminisced about the gardens her father planted full of strawberries and flowers, fruit trees and tomatoes.  But that was half a century and half a world away now….

Hers is a family of gardeners.  Her sister is currently installing Xeriscapes for clients in California and working with several schools to manage their teaching gardens.

~

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia 'China Pink' grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grow in front of our Edgeworthia in partial shade.  Black Eyed Susans will bloom later in the summer.  Here, Creeping Jenny grows in to cover the mulch as foliage from spring bulbs dies back to the ground.  All of these plants are either poisonous or so distasteful, the deer ignore them.

~

She and I commiserate regularly, sharing plants, problems and solutions as we discover them.  We’ve both come to a sort of peace with our own very wild gardens.   Having learned that squirrels are as greedy in stealing our tomatoes as the deer are in munching flower buds, we have found ways to foil both.

~

March 20 2015 fresh 003

~

But unlike Rainer, we’ve also learned that wildlife gardening doesn’t have to attract every wild animal in the neighborhood.  We’ve gotten smarter about what we plant and what we don’t.   We have learned to use poisonous plants to good effect, even to repel voles with Daffodils, Hellebores, and other plants with poisonous roots.  We mix all sorts of Alliums into our pots and beds to discourage inquiring rabbits and deer.

We’ve learned to build slightly raised beds over and around tree roots, and to welcome the many ‘native’ plants already encroaching on our gardens.

Through trial, research, flashes of inspiration and a lot of errors, we’ve been gardening and finding satisfaction in our wild forest gardens.  Nothing is ‘post wild’ here, and no augers on electric drills for us, thank you very much….

~

April 9, 2015 planting 001

~

Woodland Gnome 2016

~

October 17, 2014 light 019

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

Please visit and follow Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues to see all new posts since January 8, 2021.

A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 779 other followers

Follow Forest Garden on WordPress.com

Topics of Interest