by Candy Venning
Stark, highly controlled gardens, as ideals of perfect dominance over nature, leave me cold. Show me a wild and woolly, happy place, a lush backyard oasis with caterpillars and butterflies, singing birds and buzzin bumblebees to elicit gushy praise. Still, as much as I deplore invasive species (still sold at every garden centre) and adore native plants (that those birds and bees need) I hardly expect everyone to rip up their lawn, toss the boxwoods and ditch the concept of design and order. The good news is, there’s a place where both sides can cooperate and gently move forward while supporting the environment and your aesthetic needs.
Plants have homelands, just like people or origins if you prefer – the closer that plant is to its preferred habitat the better it will grow, the less vulnerable to pests and diseases, less maintenance, pruning, watering, it will require. It’s an easy first step to incorporate Coneflowers, and Liatris for sun or Sensitive ferns and Bloodroot for shade. Adding a little ‘wildscaping’ to the garden is of enduring benefit for the local fauna and of course your own joyous state of mind at seeing the butterflies, hummingbirds or big fuzzy bees. Fresh water, less machinery, less mowing and blowing, a branch filled pile of ‘debris’ for native bees and even a dedicated compost pile if you can swing it. Some favorite annuals to have for all summer colour include Canna lily (attracts hummingbirds)– use it in pots or beds (great for filling a blank sunny spot), tall Nicotiana for its evening scent which attracts Sphinx moths and hummingbirds, Single flowered Dahlias (as opposed to the doubles – whenever the insects can get to the nectar you have a winner) plus lovely, scented, Alyssum and dangling fuschias in baskets, again great for Hummingbirds.
Though not as glamourous, soil is of the utmost importance as it’s an entire ecosystem on its own. Creatures are at work breaking down leaves and debris so that a shady woodland garden is able to support lush ferns, trilliums and even native orchids. To amend our soil we sometimes add manure in the spring or fall but always sweep or ‘leave the leaves’ in the perennial beds. The leaves act as mulch to keep out weeds and add ‘sponginess’ with the ability to hold water and assist in times of drought. Turning the soil (as many landscape maintenance companies do) is actually detrimental to the complex system as it disturbs the roots of perennials and bulbs, and kills off those highly beneficial nematodes, fungi, and insects as well as turning ‘spongy’ to dusty, causing dryness and erosion. Relax and allow worms and water to percolate the nutrients from leaves or compost into the soil for you and never buy a bag of soil again.
A lawn is the homeowner’s version of a meadow – it’s traditional sure, BUT you could be the first on your block to grow an actual flowering meadow! Suitable on a large lot with paths mown through, what an absolute enchantment, you’ll be chasing birds off your once-was-a-lawn all year. Still love your grass? consider overseeding with innovative and dependable alternative, Eco-lawn. Drought tolerant, shade tolerant, requires no fertilizing and can be mown like regular grass or left un-mown for a free-flowing ‘carpet effect’. (More info on their homepage www.wildflowerfarm.com) Perhaps you’d like to rescue yourself from the tyranny of fixing, storing, buying, gassing and starting a mower as well as repairing burnout patches from dog pee? Good news! Many smaller gardens don’t need grass at all. Children and puppies will still frolic with a small patio or low deck incorporating mulch or gravel pathways, plus some interesting shrubs and groundcovers. (as a kid I never liked grass, I lost my smaller toys in it, got a wet butt sitting on it and was never sure where some animal had left a ‘surprise’ aka poop)
So don’t bag and toss your leaves, consider reducing or eliminating the lawn, never mind turning the soil. Plant some natives this year or up your annual game then count the benefits of your ‘lacklabour’ rewards towards a more ecological garden.