Unnatural Acts

Gardening is an unnatural act.

Yes, dear reader, you heard that right. Here we are, lovers of nature, birds, bees, green stuff, and what do we do? We go outside and dig it up, turn the tiny world of our gardens upside down, and start interfering every which way. Adding fertilizer, pulling weeds, plunking in plants where no god ever intended them, pulling weeds, scaring off bunnies and woodchucks (as though we could), pulling weeds, fencing things in and staking stems up and deadheading flowers, pulling weeds, and then before anything can go properly to seed as Nature intended, we go out and . . . pick it!

If my garden were totally natural, I’d have it knee-high, even chin-high in mostly those things I just called weeds. My yard would resemble the homesteads that proper suburbanites and homeowner associations tsk over if they lie down the block, or fulminate about if they abut the offending properties.

Urban garden allowed to go natural, with milkweed plants (large broad leaves growing at intervals along tall stem, topped with clusters of pinkish flowers) amid uncut grasses and other plants

Are we natural yet?

But here’s what I’ve had to wrap my head around the past year or so: if you want your garden to provided habitat for wildlife, you must let things grow. The “No Mow May” movement (leaving your mower in the shed till June), intended to leave ample eats for pollinators and their babies, represents only a leading edge of a wider movement.

Learning to let go

Maybe I could have ignored that trend had I not signed up for a class offered for Native Plant Trust’s native plants certificate program. The class, Slow Gardening, sounded like a perfect introduction to reducing my gardening tasks. Little did I dream that it would challenge me to eliminate most of the tasks entirely. No-dig is in. Planting right amid last year’s dead stuff has taken the gardening world by storm.

That’s a hard prospect for me to face. Sure, I have wholeheartedly bought into the Leave It Lie approach to fall cleanup. My yard already spends a good part of the year looking disgracefully unkempt compared to neighbors’ pristine properties.

Bookshelf full of used paperback books, with white label on front of shelf reading "Catholic guilt."

Guilt is my forte. I learned from the best.
Funny shelving category at San Francisco’s Kayo Books: CATHOLIC GUILT
by gruntzooki, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

But in early summer 2022, after I finished the spring cleanup of all that leave-it-lie detritus, got most of the more aggressive weeds pulled, planted a few native groundcovers and laid down a lot of (undyed, mind you!) bark mulch, what happened? Visitors exclaimed at how neat everything looked, and I felt guilty.

Yes, here I sit caught between two principles. On one hand, the ethics of encouraging nature. On the other, the aesthetics of caring how things look. At this point the ethics, assisted by a healthy dollop of inertia on my part, are winning. Nobody has complimented the neatness this year.

Armageddon in the garden

I have cleaned up a bit since late spring, but it seems the major task has been uprooting non-native perennials that have gotten too pushy for the garden’s good. Looking at you, bearded irises! Do you have any idea how much one weentsy little iris rhizome can multiply itself in the space of a few years? No, take that guess and multiply by at least three.

As I recall, I put at most six of those suckers into my front island bed back in, oh, maybe 2018. One each for six different hues of bloom: white, deep red, deep purple, a light purple, a two-toned lavender and white. And something called “blush” but that looks to me like a white that’s been wiping up spilled café au lots-of-lait.

Bearded irises in bloom, in a medley of colors (white, purple, peachy-beige, lavender) atop green spear-like leaves. Lawn, small tree, and a strip of roadway visible behind the irises.

The imperium of irises

They’d make, I thought, a zesty, tasteful display before the daisies and yarrow and coreopsis and cardinal flowers and baptisia and blazing star liatris burst forth. But by this spring, the irises, waxing plentiful and glorious, had taken over half of the cardinal flowers’ little lair. They’d disappeared one of the liatris entirely, and overhung the daisies and yarrow on one side and the baptisia on the other. And they’d just about eaten one of the balloon flower plants.

Armageddon 2.0

The balloon flowers were already on the To Expunge list, but most of those irises just had to go. They did not go quietly. They clung tightly to each other in vast and tightly entangled rhizomes. It took first a trenching tool, then a spade, then an attack with my sharp new hori hori knife, all accompanied by a fair share of grunting and cussing, before I got even the first clump out.

It took two days of early morning sneak attacks to remove most of those imperialist offenders. One clump remained until its lavender and white flowers finished blooming. Then it went too: the liatris desperately needed help by then. Twenty iris plants have gone to an avid gardener friend who has space for them. (I foiled her attempt to get me to take some of her hybrid lupines in exchange—because, read on.) Several others lay drying/dying on the edge of the driveway until I removed them to a more private open-air mausoleum.

Black and white photo of the top of an apparently very old tombstone, with a carved relief of a devilish winged angel holding a scythe; only the top line of incised text beneath is visible: Here lies buried the Body...

I don’t ask where the bodies are buried.
here lies buried the body
by Rosino is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Somehow I can’t bring myself to throw a plant away. Even an imperialist interloper of a plant. I’ve done it, but every time I feel bad about it for years afterward. I would not have made a good guillotine operator.

Sometimes I deputize. My lawn guy removed the two hibiscuses and two butterfly bushes and hauled them away. I didn’t ask where he put the bodies. Maybe they live a happy life in some garden Elysium up the road.

The cast of actors

Why am I purging these plants? Because I want to make room for more native plants.

This is no longer merely theoretical. I have, unfortunately, been visiting garden stores since mid-spring. A local one featured foamflowers in its weekly two-for-one sale some weeks back. I went for two and came home with six, because the more you buy the more money you save. This came after I went to the local all-native-plants nursery when it opened for the season at the end of April, looking for multiple plugs (tiny seedlings) of shade-loving groundcovers. I found none of those but others called my name, and I brought home:

  • Two creeping junipers;

    A woodland poppy in early spring, with a label posted behind it. A few bright yellow flowers show atop green, delicately lobed foliage; in the background is a peg with label for the plant "Stylophorum diphyllum/ wood poppy/ PAPAVERACEAE/ Midwest to Southeast US," with a carpet of light brown dead oak leaves.

    Wood poppy at Native Plant Trust’s Garden in the Woods
    24 April 2023

  • Two native sundial lupines (see above reference), because they feed the rare Karner Blue butterfly;
  • Two trailing arbutus, because it’s the Massachusetts state flower, and rare;
  • Two red columbines, because the ones I already had are so pretty;
  • Three wood poppies, to keep the foamflowers company in the shade;
  • Two blue wood asters, because I’m a glutton for punishment;
  • And four more foamflowers, because, well, in for a penny, in for a dime.

That is not the end of the list of plants sitting for weeks in my garage and on my deck, waiting for me to get them into the ground. Some still wait. I hear loud Ahem!s every time I step outside, and I imagine that those already on deck wailed in despair when I brought home a couple of blue star flowers, several more moss phlox, and two more foxglove beardtongue.

The challenge ahead

Photo tipped on diagonal, showing an outdoor line of people at a garden store, some with plants in their arms and others pulling wagons loaded up with plants.

It’s an illness, and I’m not the only sufferer.

It’s gotten as dangerous for me to go browsing in a plant nursery as it is fatal for me to meander through a bookstore. I can’t say whether plants or books are better. On the one hand, plants will grow, look pretty, and smell sweet. On the other hand, you never have to water or deadhead a book. Much less plant it.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Not that I am past praying for. I have managed to get two bee balm plants into new homes where the butterfly bushes had been evicted, and installed a baby Carolina lupine (not really lupine) to keep a teenage one company. And I very gingerly plunked a new little prickly-pear cactus in the middle of the sunny-dry bed alongside the garage.

Plants in a strip of garden bed next to a white clapboard wall with cement foundation. Some plants are already in the ground; others still in their pots awaiting planting. Tools are lined up along the left side of the bed, and an emptied carboard flat sits towards the front, just past a white drainspout.

Progress in the making

But there is so much more to do. The flesh is willing but the spirit is weak. First it was too doggone cold at 7 in the morning before the sun hit the front beds and glared me indoors. Now even when we aren’t getting a daily inch of rain, it’s too hot and muggy. Moreover, once the sun has vacated the beds out back late in the day, the mosquitoes and gnats come out in force.

Slowly, slowly, I will get it done.

A short explanation

A number of people have asked me recently what’s so great about native plants.

(Or why I’ve gotten so passionate about them, but that’s a different type of question that might take years of psychotherapy to untangle.)

I can understand their perplexity. The native plants don’t usually figure as superstars. Their bloom times run relatively short. They mostly sport understated, modest, ladylike blossoms. A far cry from the flamboyant heads of peonies and oriental poppies and, yes, bearded irises that liven up my spring garden. Think the difference between a crewcut and Big Hair.

Approx. 10 large, strikingly pink peony flowers atop lush deep green foliage; a small gray stone statue rises among them at the right.

Big Hair
Rebecca with Peonies” by kkmarais,
licensed under CC BY 2.0.

And I have to admit that many of the native plants do look uncomfortably like the weeds you find growing in the fields and the woods. Because guess what? They are those very weeds!

But let’s stick with the general question: what’s so great about these weeds? Here’s the simple version of answer.

A Monarch butterfly caterpillar, vividly striped in yellow, white, and black, on a milkweed leaf that is nearly completely consumed; the bare central rib of an already eaten leaf is in foreground, and a large partly eaten leaf is in the background, slightly out of focus.

Monarch Caterpillar”
by Bistrosavage, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Native plants are a part of the local ecosystem. They have evolved to work with each other and with native fauna—anything from tiny nematodes in the soil to the deer in the woods and the wascal wabbits under my deck—in a self-sustaining circle of life. Some of the fauna, especially smaller ones like butterflies and bees, have evolved as “specialists,” which, whether as adults or as larvae, can feed on only one or a few species of plants. Without those plants, the pollinators perish.

Case in point: I recently stopped myself just before yanking out the tall weeds bobbing up around a couple of evergreens. Why? I suddenly recognized them. Those “weeds” were milkweed: the only plant the monarch butterfly caterpillar can feed on!

The agony of backyard ecology

When you look at it this way, the point is not merely to root out all the ice plants or ox-eye daisies or burning bushes and replace them with rose verbena or Virginia mountain mint or viburnum. The point is to try, in our own little gardens, to do what we can to restore the local ecosystems that have been devastated by “development.”

Which brings us to the hard part for me. In trying to reconstruct an ecosystem, I’m laying out a lot of money and a good deal of sweat equity to raise plants destined to be eaten—and not by me.

Several different kinds of plants in temporary pots on three shelves of a wire shelf unit outdoors, waiting to be planted

2023 bug banquet #1

I’m talking about the bug banquet, the cornucopia for very hungry caterpillars that will chomp away at the Golden Alexander—caterpillars that will, having consumed enough Golden Alexander, turn into magnificent black swallowtail butterflies. Or the less glorious beetles that will fill a leafscape with tiny holes, or larvae that scrape away everything but a skeleton of green veins. Or the aphids, duly transported to their pastures of greenery—my flowering hyssop!—by industrious farmer ants who milk them once the aphids turn all that yummy plant sap into honeydew.

And I have to countenance all of this because something that eats something that eats something else will benefit in that great round of life and death and life again.

Approx. 10 plants in temporary pots, most of them foamflowers, atop a glass table outdoors, prior to planting

2023 bug banquet #2

Mind you, I make an exception for Thumper under the deck. He’s welcome to the clover in the lawn, or all the dandelions he can find. But if he comes after the asters or the coneflowers, he is going to get a very unpleasant mouthful of cayenne pepper, with which I have powdered the leaves. That’s the stopgap, while I work on my aim with a slingshot.

Against nature?

But back to the unnatural act of gardening, possibly the last unnatural act that Ron De Santis hasn’t gotten around to banning yet.

Even if I replace all the non-native plants with natives—which I’m too attached to the aforementioned peonies and poppies to do—gardening with native plants still counts as gardening, which just ain’t natural. If you don’t believe me, plant a bunch of milkweed and Joe Pye weed and sneezeweed (notice that common syllable in their names?) and walk away from it for a year. Come back and see what has happened.

You might spot some of those six-footer Joe Pye heads jutting above the rest, but good luck finding any of the actual plants amidst everything else that has taken up residence.

And if you walk away for five years, upon your return you may encounter a clutch of young white pines or feisty oak and maple saplings beginning to loom above the weedy mass.

Nope. We gardeners keep interfering, freezing nature in a particular state or at least trying to slow it down.

In my little bailiwick, while I try building this tiny ecosystem, I’m the gatekeeper deciding who gets admitted. I’m the bouncer going after the gatecrashers and ejecting them, when I get to it.

So far, I manage to live with that.

Meanwhile, your turn!

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Have you already heard about the native plants movement? If so, where/how did you hear about it? Are you growing (on purpose) any native plants in your garden?
  2. Do you have any questions about native plants that you’d like me to address in future posts?
  3. What are you behind on in your garden, right now?

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10 Responses to Unnatural Acts

  1. Judy Somberg says:

    Love this post! Personally I am not so happy about nurturing the wonderful cutter bees who are chomping on my two year old redbud. But the redbud survived last year and has more leaves for them to devour this year.

    • Hecate says:

      Thanks, Judy!

      I hope your redbud will hold up, and maybe the cutter bees will find some other delicious things to chomp up before next year. It does seem a bit tough for such a young tree, though. You’d think they’d find some of the more mature redbuds in the neighborhood to round out the diet. Or other species’ leaves, if they’re not specialist eaters.

      The more I read about providing backyard banquets for all kinds of critters, the more I start worrying that I still need work on my orientation. The book I’m reading now (We Are the ARK) has me feeling guilty about resenting my rabbits, for example.

  2. Leslie Swartz says:

    Can I assume Siberian irises are not native? What a pity- they’re so charming, though elusive in my garden. Balloon flowers are gorgeous as I write. Also a pity. I’m happy to feed birds (the Concord grapes are all theirs) and butterflies but not the woodchuck dynasty that has conquered my neighborhood, or the wildly propagating turkeys and bunnies. How to balance?

    Now that I’ve weeded a bit, it’s raining. The weeds will win!

    Thank you!!

    • Hecate says:

      Yep, Leslie, I’m afraid they’re not native. We do have some lovely native irises, but they’re not as flamboyant as the Dutch or Siberian ones. And most of them seem to prefer growing in wet, even boggy, areas–which unfortunately I do not have.

      Unlike you, I’m not plagued by woodchucks at the moment, or turkeys (Heaven forfend!). But the bunnies make their mark here, as do the chipmunks. In a more balanced environment, foxes or coyotes or even bull snakes would keep the rodents in check. Dogs might, but my sister reports that her gigantic labrador retriever, although he chases the bunnies, doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the marauders who eat nearly everything she plants. As for turkeys (or deer), who knows? I imagine at times that they are conspiring to gradually reclaim the environment that “development” shoved them out of.

      And the weeds of course are in cahoots with them. Nobody called them weeds until we came along. I’m starting a slow campaign to learn the names of everything I pull out. So far, I know Creeping Jenny and not much else (since learning how important their flowers are for early pollinators, I don’t pull dandelions, whose names I’ve known for a long time).

  3. Emily Lackey says:

    Love this contemplation of chaos vs. order. It reminds me of beauty a bit… how impossible it is to let it go in a world that values perfection!

    • Hecate says:

      Yes, Em, we’d probably do much better in a world (society) that treasured every being on its own terms, and celebrated the crazy zigzaggy connections among them all.

  4. Teague Skye says:

    Hmmmmmmmm. We think meemzie had the secret to all of this in her story about maizee, the idealistic corn plant…

  5. Hillary says:

    I am not at all sure why we call it gardening…it’s really weeding. I love the native plants but culling them is still sometimes called for! Lovely post on how “gardening” becomes an addiction.

    • Hecate says:

      It sure seems like it mostly turns into weeding, Hillary! I’m hoping that my long-term plan (should I get a bit more proactive about executing it) of planting lots of native groundcover will solve a lot of the weeding side of things, but first I have to pull out the weeds to make room for the groundcover. And hoping I don’t discover only after the fact that I just pulled out some kind of free native groundcover and replaced it with a $$$ native groundcover.
      But you do have to wonder. Was the Garden of Eden maybe a mis-hearing of Garden of Weedin’?

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