You know the story. We bought our house in 2001 on 7000 square feet of land. In the next three years, I pulled out everything in the back except for two oak trees (Quercus alba) and two wild black cherry trees (Prunus serotina). Then I researched the native plants that grow in my area of New England where light and moisture conditions are similar to my backyard. Then I found places I could buy these plants or seeds legally (“transplanting” them from parks is not legal) and proceeded to create a replica of the native plant community that would have existed prior to the introduction of invasive non-native species by humans. Now, when I walk through New England’s wild areas, I see many of the same trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that I have in my backyard – and vice versa.
Despite the title of this post, I don’t like to use the term ‘garden’ for my yard – it is more of a landscape, with some minimal human interventions, but mostly a wild area. I would like it to look like you are taking a walk in the woods.
Creating a native plant community has been a joy and a struggle. Some non-native invasives insist on trying to take over, and some of the natives spread in ways that Mary (my patient and long suffering spouse) finds “too messy.” But there are times – like late May and early June – when the natives show their true colors. This June evening, Mary and I took a walk through the backyard and I took some photos with my iPhone 5 (which, frustratingly, was having difficulty with bright whites and yellows). Here is my list:
1. The Path. Besides the fence and the house, the only obvious human intervention is a winding path, culminating in a small circular “room” with a chair and a statute of St. Francis of Assisi (thanks, Mom!). One of the first pieces of advice I got about creating a native plant community was to make it look like it was done on purpose. A path serves this purpose as well as allowing us to access the yard without stepping on plants. The first couple of years, I tried to keep the path clear of weeds by putting down wood chips, but that became expensive and time-consuming, so I let the plants grow and I just mow them. I also mow a path through the large patch of Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) (a grasslike, shade-tolerant woodland plant), which is shown below.
2. Maple-Leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). I bought two very small plants and planted them in 2004 in dry, shady sites near the fence. Since then, they have flourished. After the white racemes of flowers come dark blue berries that last into the winter, when the birds and critters finally decide to eat them.
3. Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia). We have four mountain laurel shrubs growing in the yard. One is the species, and the other three are cultivars, which are naturally-occurring varieties that have some unique quality – a different color flower, or a more compact growth habit. Both the buds and the flowers are remarkable in their geometry, and the flowers are unique in having stamens tucked into slots in the umbrella-like flower so that when a pollinator steps on one of them, it pops out and spreads pollen on her back. Here are photos of the species (the white one) and a colorful cultivar.
4. Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). The only native honeysuckle in our area. The non-native invasive honeysuckles may smell nicer, but they are devastating to native plant communities.
5. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens).
6. False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum).
7. Yellow Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta).
8. Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). This is the basic model from which all the various garden varieties have been bred.
9. Wild Sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Three fireworks-like globes of white flowers perch on a separate stem from the leaves, which hover overhead.
10. Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus). As each tiny flower of this composite is pollinated, it turns from yellow to brown.