Pondering Land Use

– Posted in: Book reviews, Habitat gardening, Native/Invasive

Image of surveyor's map of our acreageQuestion: What do you do with fifteen acres? Answer: That’s a good question! My family and I have been working on the answer for over fifteen years. This probably won’t surprise you, but we seldom come up with the same answer. I wanted the area immediately around the house to be devoted to ornamental landscaping. We also had to decide about the location of poultry and livestock, the vegetable garden, and various play areas for the children. What, if anything, were we going to do with the field, and how were we going to maintain it? Did we want a pond? Where should it go? And what about the woods?

Our woods are young as such things go. Our locality was settled in the mid-nineteenth century and presumably the trees were all cut to make pasture at that time. The further away from the house one goes (meaning, the further up the hill) the older the trees are, but I don’t think we have any trees from before the time of settlement still growing. If I had to guess, I’d say about ten acres of our property are wooded.

Ten acres . . . if you’re a passionate gardening, you immediately start thinking about the possibilities, until you realize there are too many possibilities. Before you can narrow them down to a comprehensible number, you have to understand yourself, what you treasure about life and the land that is in your care, what you are willing to put your time and money into. And you take those things that you understand about yourself, and use them to help narrow down your options. Not that this is a very conscious or straightforward process, at least, it hasn’t been that way for me. No, it’s been more like a series of dimly perceived ideas gradually making themselves known, each notion complementing and modifying what came before. And, of course, it’s an ongoing process, an unfinished thought structure.

Paths were the first thing I realized were important to me. I love the sense of a journey, of rounding a curve or turning a corner and not knowing what you’ll find. The timid part of me loves seeing a path, and knowing I’m not lost or alone, since obviously the path goes somewhere and someone had to have walked it before me. Where the paths would go pretty much took care of itself. By the time we got a brush cutter capable of clearing and maintaining paths in the woods, many feet had been following the paths of least resistance, and I mostly had to make the de facto paths official by tying flagging tape (that bright orange plastic ribbon) around trees along the path. While part animal trail and part seasonal rivulets, another part was explicitly picked out to lead through a grove of witch hazels.

By the time I got the paths picked out, I realized that the further I got from the house, the less civilized and more natural I wanted my surroundings to be. At first I did not appreciate that there was a difference between natural and naturalistic. I read The Woodland Garden by Robert Gillmore, and I realized he advocated a very groomed woodland. The effect was closer to a public park than a forest. It wasn’t until I read his book, however, that I realized that was not what I wanted for the woods on our property. It was beautiful, but too civilized, naturalistic–but not at all natural.

When I walked through the woods, I wanted it to look wild, even if I had a hand in helping it grow. But I also realized that there was way too much land for me to truly cultivate it all, and I decided to concentrate my “gardening” to the part closest to the house, which became known as the Secret Garden. At first I just planted any plant I had extra of. Usually these were wimpy divisions of perennials that I couldn’t bear to throw on the compost pile. Most of them didn’t last the season, though a clump of Pulmonaria took root and is thriving. Then I started growing native plant look-alikes. For example, I knew a wild clematis (Clematis virginiana, Virgin’s Bower) grew on my neighbor’s property down the road. So I planted Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis maximowicziana), a similarly white-flowered but more floriferous vine. The Sweet Autumn Clematis eventually died, and I later discovered some Virgin’s Bower in the Secret Garden, not too far from where the “store-bought” vines had grown.

For a long time, I was pretty ambivalent about native plants. I knew some common garden plants were native to this country and were easy to grow. Asters and goldenrod (Solidago spp.), for example. Around here, people call them weeds, and I have to confess, for every aster I’ve deliberately planted, I’ve pulled out dozens more. And then there were the exquisite, yet difficult to grow wildflowers, such as Ladies’ Slippers and Trailing Arbutus, native plants that you would surely kill if you ever attempted them. So it seemed like the choice was between weeds and prima-donnas, between damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t.

Also, I was leery of the native plant evangelists proclaiming salvation by restored ecosystem alone. I didn’t want to become one of them. I wasn’t about to give up my daffodils and peonies, my lilacs and Oriental lilies, for the sake of the cause. I think that’s why I was afraid to read Noah’s Garden : Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara Stein. When it first came out you couldn’t open a magazine without reading a review of it. She made quite a few converts, but I was afraid she’d persuade me I needed to forswear all my non-native plants, and then where would I be? Several years after it was published I screwed up my courage and cracked it open, and discovered a gardener like me, living on some acreage and wondering how to best manage it. Without ever being dogmatic or doctrinaire, she persuaded me that growing native plants to create or restore habitats had many benefits. By growing in habitats I mean, not planting natives willy-nilly, but growing native plants with the same plants they would naturally associate with in the wild, in an environment similar to the type they would grow in.

You’d have to read the book to grasp all her points. I know I liked the idea of helping native birds to thrive, of creating corridors of habitat to enable wildlife to prosper. But really, restoring the land to the condition it was in before anyone “owned” it appealed to the romantic in me. And limiting myself to native plants in the wilder areas of our property solved the “too many possibilities” problem. It gave me a framework within which to conduct research and to dream.

I came up with a three-tiered approach. Around the house, the cultivated gardens contain plants from all over the world, arranged in the more traditional concept of a garden. Further from the house, in the Secret Garden, the plants are all native, grown, hopefully, in conditions that please them, but I’m more concerned with a pleasing arrangement than obsessing about correct habitat. Beyond the Secret Garden, in the woods proper, I’m going to attempt to mimic the original habit and ecology. I say mimic, because having been cleared of trees and utilized as pasture for decades, if not centuries, the soil is not what it once was.

Frankly, after reading Noah’s Garden and its sequel, Planting Noah’s Garden : Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology, as well as many other books on this topic, I got derailed by other events in my life, and “what to do with the woods” was left on the back burner, simmering. Susan Harris’ frustration with a garden speaker’s message got me thinking about these things again, as well as the upcoming native plant seminar in Syracuse. But what’s really reawakened my interest in the larger landscape around me is the fact that my stationary bicycle broke, and I’ve been walking the paths as often as I can to offset the calories I’m no longer pedaling away. Native plants, exotics, invasives, habitat restoration, naturalistic planting: confusion and misunderstandings abound, and it’s no wonder, because just as the natural world is a complex web of relationships, so any solution will be complex and multifaceted. Actually, I don’t think there’s a single solution that can be prescribed for all gardeners everywhere. We all are learning as we go, trying to repair what damage we can and avoid doing any further harm, at the same time enhancing the land around us in accordance with our taste and values. That’s what I love about gardening: the opportunity to wrap your mind around a concept, and throw your back into it as well!

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Jan May 27, 2008, 1:37 am

If I have that big area of land then I would do the same as with you. I would put up an ornamental place, make it all green, develop it well and come up with a business out of it.

Kathy Purdy November 28, 2007, 7:12 am

edenZ3, that would be easier to do if the flora was natural, that is, native. When the plants are not only alien (meaning not native) but invasive, taking over, it’s really not smart to sit by and do nothing.

edenZ3 November 28, 2007, 5:33 am

Other than the area directly surrounding your home, leave the majority of it natural…don’t mess with it. Let the natural flora and fauna be.

windyridge November 27, 2007, 11:04 pm

This was an excellent post. I have a few acres not under pasture or woods and was so overwhelmed with the possibilities I didn’t do anything at all! The native plants idea is a start.

Rundy March 29, 2006, 11:17 am

Re: Bill’s comments about deer.

We have plenty of deer in this area but they haven’t yet bothered any of our gardens. I think that while we have a vigorous deer population there is also plenty of land in this area for them to forage on and we still have enough of a hunting populace to keep the deer population from spiraling out of control. The deer may find our garden delights more tasty but they are still sufficently people shy, and have enough to eat elsewhere, that they don’t venture that close to our house.

The only problem I can remember us having with deer is one or two springs they nibbled off some branches on some of my young trees.

What we do have a big problem with is rabbits and voles. A good cat does wonders for both of those problems, but right now we don’t have a cat . . .

Talitha Purdy March 27, 2006, 4:15 pm

What can I say? Speaking of different perceptions, the potted rosemary that you said does “fine”, I remember being kicked of the steps mulitple times–to no damage to the plant, true, but several broken terra cotta pots. One of them broke, if I remember right, about 15 minutes after you potted it up in a brand new, just-bought, terra cotta pot. You’ve since switched to a plastic pot, with less casualities, but I think the steps situation is just a reflection of the larger picture. I can think of many other plant casualties around the house (wasn’t there a double-blood root and a bike not too long ago?), and your recactions have been from mild to, um, less than mild. Not that it really matters, but a certain other person does have a reason for thinking otherwise.

Kathy Purdy March 26, 2006, 9:28 am

See, Bill, you can live with a person and not realize that the two of you have a different perception of what is going on. In general, I don’t put prized flowers by the main entrance. Last year, I bought a Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ to go in a nearby flower bed. But I found it at Lowes long before the last frost, and I knew it was tender. So, for the time being, I potted it up and put it on the steps, where I usually put my (potted) rosemary, which does fine there. Little did I know how brittle the salvia stems were. Not only were several broken off by passersby, but I broke off the rest of them trying to finally plant it in the ground! And it took the whole d–n summer for it to recover, just in time to get knocked down by frost!

But for the most part, I don’t think I have anything planted around the doorway that I am not expecting to have damage. Sure, I am disappointed when it does get damaged, but (from my perspective) my disappointment is mild. A certain other person seems to think otherwise. What can I say?

bill March 26, 2006, 8:51 am

Talitha has a good point I think. We have had lots of accidents of grandkids running and falling onto prised flowers or thorny rosebushes, followed by discussions of, why would you put flowers where kids are going to play?

Are you plagued by wildlife though? Most of our flowers and vegetables have to be secured from the deer. I am not sure I could have a secret garden unless it consisted entirely of things they won’t eat or molest (and apparantly not much falls into that category).

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2006, 4:01 pm

When there are no longer small children wanting to play on a lawn, I will certainly consider moving the vegetable garden there. And once we move the vegetable garden down to the house, we can plant swaths of poppies where the vegetables used to be. We do have some fragrant plants by the porch, and have had more that I planted that died or weren’t as fragrant as I thought, or they are fragrant but the fragrance doesn’t carry.

Talitha Purdy March 25, 2006, 3:29 pm

You mentioned you and “your family” all having different answers, and that’s true. My gardening plans would certainly be different.

I’d plant almost all the ground around the house as vegetable and herb gardens, for easy tending and harvesting; I’d put fragrant (very important, that part) ornamental flowers around the porch for scents drifting into the house and balmy summer evenings on the porch; As much of the of the feild that I would put into garden I would plant en masse–huge swaths of poppies, especially, and also flowering bulbs.

As far as the Secret Garden and the woods, I haven’t much thought. Our main area of contention is that you want down by the house to be pretty, and don’t care so much about the vegetables and herbs. I’d put a higher emphasis on the vegetables, particularly since vegetables need more work to get them to actually produce well, and hauling everything up the hill is such chore. I’d prefer my ornamentals to be more prolific than arranged, and to make leisurely walks more enjoyable (walking up the hill is enjoyable; hauling water, compost and manure up said hill is a good deal more difficult and time consuming).

To me, one can’t be too attached to any plants by the house, as they are all subject to kids and their various forms of entertainment–bikes, balls, running, tripping, etc.–so I don’t think I’d be so inclined to plant my most prized plant so near to the house. Which I suppose is not directly tied to your post, but the number of times you’ve lost beautiful blooms to “some careless kid” makes me think of the old adage of not having any china (or at least putting it in a less accessible place) till your kids are grown. (And since Deirdre’s still three, I think you’ve got a while.) At the very least, don’t put anything prized on, or by, the front steps! I think any “expensive” or “rare” plants ought to have their own special place, set apart from around the house and it’s mayhem, a more secluded place where rules about not tripping over the almost-ready-to-bloom lily can be more reasonably enforced.

Anyway, those are my terribly un-romanitic, dreadfully practical thoughts on garden space.

susan harris March 25, 2006, 6:45 am

Kathy, the wooded valley I’m on the edge of is still a mess – we’re at the stage of trying to liberate trees from the vines strangling them. Groundcovers like ivy and five-leaf akebia and creeping euonymous are a thick mat covering the whole valley. There’s also still some multiflora rose. The old refrigerators and tires are gone, at least. I’ve planted bottlebrush buckeye and some canadian hemlock amongst the ivy but that’s about it so far, native plant-wise. Susan

Kathy Purdy March 24, 2006, 11:18 pm

Bill, as a longtime reader of your blog (well, in blog-years, at least), I already knew you favored native plants.

Laurie, I just happened to leave out the fact that our poultry yard lies between the house and the Secret Garden, and yes, sometimes the chickens do escape.

Susan, I know your property isn’t as big, but there’s a wooded area that the whole neighborhood seems to share. Have you or the others planted natives there?

susan harris March 24, 2006, 10:37 am

Wonderful post, Kathy, which I totally agree with and I follow the same garden-to-naturalness progression on my own garden, though it’s tiny by comparison. “Here, here” especially to your conclusion that the enviroment’s a complicated place. The more I learn, the more I see there are factors I’ve never considered and need to learn more about.
And thanks again for your blog directory – you’re helping create and serve a terrific community. Susan

Laurie Gano March 23, 2006, 7:10 pm

Well, you stated very well the philosophy of moderation. I like the 3 stages of gardens you describe. I am stuck with a very definite boundary between garden and pasture. Right now, 42 cows and calves are wandering around the fence looking in and waiting for for someone to leave a gate open.I have native plants and exotics living together inside that fence. I love them all and hope I can make a compromise and still have a coherent design. Maybe…

bill March 23, 2006, 6:54 pm

I am a big advocate of native plants. In fact I have been active in the local chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas for over ten years and maintain their website for them.

I also have read both of Sara Stein’s books and heartily reccommend them.

There are indeed some native plant enthusisiasts who go further than you or I would like, but most of them like me manage to work old roses and irises and other favorites in to the garden too.