Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Big Experiment in My Garden

Willow oak (Quercus phellos) in early December

This year I've tried to lighten up my gardening load. The years just keep on coming but the body can't do what it used to, know what I mean? So, among other things, I have been rethinking my goals around the relatively new "woodland" garden. I installed this area in 2015. It had been a shady area with plants along its back edges and a motley look of St. Augustine grass and weeds. Here's what it looks like today:

View of the woodland garden from the pathway near the deck

From this view you can get an idea of the size. It's bounded on two sides by the fence, on the left by a concrete patio, and an S-shaped edging barrier in front. My idea originally was to plant shade-loving perennials and spring ephemerals. Sounds like a nice idea, right? But then I got to thinking about how much work it would take to find the right plants and keep them alive, and all the money I would spend.

Long view of the woodland area from the back corner. The small yellow plant to the right is a native witch hazel.

For a while I was happy with just letting the fall leaves build up. But alas, some very undesirable weeds also showed up. And since there is a bird bath and lots of trees, the birds dropping invasive Chinese privet seeds didn't help. Who wants to spend time weeding and not planting fun things?

Close up view of woodland area

I continued to plant the edges as I expanded the old alleyway garden. The alleyway garden really was an alley at one time many years ago. That means it's full of gravel, broken asphalt, and assorted weird things that escaped the old garbage cans that used to live there. We tackled the area in the back corner when we first moved here. After being an alley it had become a dog pen. So we had to remove mounds of torn up dog cushions and other gross things.

Latest alleyway plantings and self-sowings - 'Goldsturm' rudbeckia on the left, Nasella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) on top center left, a couple of varieties of columbine at top, and various Carex species that planted themselves as well as "weeds"

The alleyway is both a challenge and a delight to plant. The challenge is finding small enough specimens that can be planted in a couple inches of soil amongst rocks. The delight is watching what does well. Mostly it's been ferns, columbines, small phlox varieties, and daffodils. But while I've been very slowly expanding this area, I noticed what started to happen in the other half of the alleyway.

Looking west from the compost pile down the unplanted alleyway

The western, unplanted half of the alleyway started to do its own thing with respect to plants. First, up popped loads of spiderwort, Tradescantia sp. Yes, it can be a pest here! Then some of my white iris migrated up the hill to the alleyway. Then various Carex species appeared. And of course, an assortment of more "traditional" weeds including sweet autumn clematis. And my ever-present, ever-cursed Liriope spicata. Some escapees from the compost pile also took up residence - rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'). So I figured I oughta help out and this fall I scattered more black-eyed Susan seeds as well as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

View looking east down the alleyway of the more planted side (and my compost pile)

This led me to decide to start letting the larger part of the woodland garden do its own thing, too. I've planted a few native shrubs like witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and smooth withe-rod viburnum (V. nudum). There are some daffodils that I didn't have any other place to plant. I moved lots of Southern wood fern under the oak tree since I didn't care if it went wild. There have been some interesting and different species of carex showing up. I haven't identified them all with any level of confidence yet so will hold off on naming them. But there are ones that are bluish with wide leaves and others that have skinny, green leaves.

Unidentified Carex species with skinny leaves

I'm really liking the clumping varieties but have found one kind (that I think is a carex) that is a runner and looks pretty invasive. So I'm removing that. I've also found some small grasses. You might ask why I would leave a random collection of grasses and carex about. I will grant you that it doesn't look that tidy. But I've been very influenced by Doug Tallamy's book 'Bringing Nature Home', and Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher's book 'Garden Revolution, How Our Landscapes Can be a Source of Environmental Change'. The 'Garden Revolution' book especially argues for leaving in place (or planting) small grasses and other plants that will feed the early spring pollinators and foraging birds. I hope I'm doing our planet at least a little bit of good. I do know that it can use all the help it can get these days.

Now if I can just identify all these new plants that are growing without my help, that'll make my year!

This post was written by Jean McWeeney for my blog Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog. Copyright 2017. Please contact me for permission to copy, reproduce, scrape, etc.


  1. To my "gardening for nature eyes, your garden looks great! The unknown Carex are cool and not being tidy works for me. Speaking of carex, I wish I could id them...they seem impossibly difficultto tell apart.

  2. I find the plants that are called garden plants but also called thugs work best in a situation like yours. Also, as you've discovered, rampant self-sowers. You are always going to get invasive seedlings like Chinese privet, but if the area is packed with more desirable "weeds" (thugs, volunteers, etc) the invasive seedlings will be few and hopefully can be pulled out when small. But I think you're headed in the right direction!

  3. Lovely post! I, too, want to ease up on chores and I'm delighted to have self-care carex and others popping up where they wish. It's not hipster tidy but it's pleasant, natural, and inviting to wildlife--just like your garden. Applause!

  4. Love Carexes! So many kinds do well in dryish shade. Sounds like you are on the right track.

  5. I think it looks great and the less work, the better! I am trying to downsize too with mixed results!

  6. I agree with Gail - your garden looks wonderful! The plants that nature sows always end up being so much happier than those we coddle so this sounds like a winning strategy.

  7. I agree with Gail, too! A wonderfully naturalistic garden serves so many purposes, it seems to me, from supporting nature to encouraging the spirit of the gardener. But editing is always part of keeping it “natural” - we’ve found, nudging their edges, moving them around to better spots, and doing a bit of tidying, as necessary!


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