Question: 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!