Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Wild Garden

Doesn't everyone have some corner of their yard that resists all attempts to tame and control? Like an unruly child, my 'wild garden' requires constant vigilance, and while it stubbornly demands my attention with threats of truly returning to the wild, I have yet to coax it into submission, even after 15 years at Owl Hollow.

I spent a good part of yesterday pulling out thorny brambles that had a field day last summer as they spread throughout this wild garden of mine, a 20 x 40 foot fenced-in plot on the north side of the house. It's always the last priority, after mowing, weeding and tending to other perennial beds and general yard work. And last year, for the first time, I didn't touch it at all. My experience with Lyme Disease (twice) has made me very cautious about tangling with overgrown areas that brush against your arms or sides, or gets in your hair.

But... this seemed like a good time to do battle with the brambles, as they're just starting to leaf out. Wait much longer and they'll be too much to handle.

Even wearing a double set of work gloves didn't prevent me from absorbing an invisible pricker in my finger, right at the get go. Still, I worked on, systematically trimming back the long, arcing branches, then using a shovel to bring the bramble up from the soil, then yanking it free at the roots with my (gloved) hands.

As I worked, the builder who did such a nice job with my sun room last year made a surprise appearance after being a no-show this past weekend, so since he was working in the same area as me, we chatted as we worked. I'm paying him to reposition the outlet pipe from my sump pump to allow for better drainage. I also asked him to block off two old, below-grade window wells with cinder blocks and cement.

Back to the wild garden. I have a host of nice plants in there, but it all gets so overgrown with weeds each summer it just gets beyond me. I'm thinking I might be better off to plant grass in and around what's there now, and just plan on maintaining it by mowing. Ironically, there was a beautiful bed of grass there when I bought the place, but I set about to dig it all up immediately because I had the naive notion that, already fenced in, it lent itself to becoming a picturesque, idyllic garden.

Here's what's growing there now: 5 high bush blueberry, 3 "dwarf" cherry trees (now in bloom and about 10 feet high), a large willow shrub that needs shaping, a spreading gooseberry, a rapidly growing mulberry tree (a volunteer from a few years ago), lady's mantle, bleeding heart, columbine, hostas, astilbe, Jacob's ladder and wild oats that are showing signs of becoming invasive. Most anything I plant there seems to thrive, maybe a little too much.

Years ago, I laid a rectangular brick walkway about 2 feet wide, planting shade-loving perennials outside the walkway. They enjoyed the shade cast by the house and 2-story high rhododendrons. On the inside of the walkway went the cherry trees, a bird bath and assortment of other things over the years, including some asparagus that I believe has finally been wiped out by the ever-expanding willow. However, the waist-high picket fence doesn't deter deer or woodchucks and, being on the north side, not all portions of the spot get as much sunlight as would be desirable.

It just seems like one invasive or another gets in there and tries to take over. For a while, the black-eyed Susies were really spreading, though I didn't mind that too much. Last year, the brambles made their move and I see now, too, that the vinca, which I accidentally transplanted when I moved a sedum from elsewhere, has taken over an incredible expanse of land in a very short time. Complicating matters is the large bed of adjacent, mature pachysandra which regularly creeps into the fenced area in its own quest for expansion. I've tried sinking tin flashing along the fence line, the kind used on roofs, by digging a trench about 6 inches deep and burying the flashing as a barrier against the spreading pachysandra, but it hasn't worked.

Elsewhere in the yard, I regularly battle the ugly garlic mustard with the tiny white flowers, along with the ever-present Asiatic bittersweet. I'd hate to see either make a foothold in my wild garden. As for the wild oats, well, they look nice, but they're a mess to clean up in spring, as all the dead foliage needs to be raked up and hauled out of there. And they may provide attractive
shelter for mice, something I'd like to discourage since one side of the wild garden lies just six feet from the foundation of the house (and yes, I do get mice in the basement each winter).

If anyone has any suggestions for how to tame this wild garden, I'd be glad to hear it. I'm looking for a lower maintenance way to grow this garden. I'd love something manicured and "tidy," though experience tells me that may be unrealistic.


  1. Oh my, I could have written this post, right down to Lyme Disease (horrid bout) making me too cautious to go out into my wild areas. I think your sunny plot is too encouraging for wild invasives. I'd try making a mini woodland, plant trees closely and densely, and just mow everything down until they establish. Then manage it with understory shade plants, it could look neat and tidy, see Debsgarden's woodland garden.

  2. oops, double posted comments......

  3. I wouldn't try to tame it any more than what you are doing now. Keep the invasives in check, clean up a little here and there ... but not too much, and enjoy. Wild areas act as nice contrasts to more manicured locales, but both are good for the eyes and the sole.

  4. Thanks for your comments and suggestions! For now, I suspect I'll have no more time (or energy) to do much more than what Joene said.

    We shall see.