Designing the Garden
We’re now several weeks past that gnarly freeze, well into cranefly/mosquito hawk season, and square in the middle of Carnival. The redbuds and Japanese magnolias are in bloom, and spring is on its way.
You will have noticed by now some small return of greenery to the garden — seeds of grasses and clover now sprouting, the bare and brittle remains of perennial shrubs, scrub and trees beginning to leaf out, opening one eye from their winter slumber to survey the scene and season. This is perhaps the best time of year for us as gardeners firmly to exert pressure on the shape and course of our gardens for the coming season and — when exerted especially carefully — for many seasons to come.
We can see now the inklings of progress made in seasons past as seedlings volunteer around the garden where a crop has previously set seed. Those volunteers, incidentally, will often go on to be our best established and most vigorous growers of the season, outperforming even the most carefully timed, tended and protected transplants or otherwise intentionally placed specimens. This is sometimes conceived of as a magical or mysterious unaccountable fact of the garden but — at the risk here of dashing some already-precious enchantment from our garden practice — there are in fact several good and definable reasons why this may be so.
First and perhaps most obvious is that the volunteer plants result from those seeds who have (1) found their way to spots in the garden amenable to their germination and growth and (2) are free to germinate according to the dictates of their own needs and preferences whenever the conditions and climate are most favorable to their flourishing, rather than our own, often flawed timing. Second, and this is something we’ve touched on already in several prior editions of this newsletter, they are the progeny of only those plants who were well enough suited to our garden’s environment to successfully complete at least one season and set viable seed.
Maybe this is obvious — or perhaps not — but those plants who are poorly or not-at-all suited to their environment will generally produce fewer viable seeds, if any. We’re not talking here only about entire crops but about individual specimens — each of whom, through their genetic inheritance as well as individual mutations, will contain a unique set of traits and behaviors which may or may not be good fits for their particular environment. Over time, if this process is allowed to play out, these characteristics will refine, and each generation will contain a greater number of well-suited seeds until, as a population, they are perfectly adapted to their region or niche.
This isn’t to say that we should go fully hands-off and let the garden go willy-nilly as it will. The existing seed bank constitutes one force in the garden, and we are another — it’s in the healthy interplay between these forces among others that the magic occurs and the actualized garden can flourish.
We push — by introducing new species and varieties, adding fertility via compost etc — and we pull — by weeding, by carving pathways and culling sick or invasive plants — but always we allow ourselves to be pushed and pulled in turn.
It may be that we need a path from one garden to another (a reasonable ask, I’d think). So we carve out a path, clear weeds and brush, lay pavers or mulch. But then maybe some part of that path gets the best sunlight or shade, the best drainage, or the best of any of a million variables for a a particular plant — a plant we like and want to stick around — and a lovely little patch begins to emerge in or encroach on our tidy path. So what do we do? We could dig up and relocate the unruly plants, bust our backs clearing and reclearing, hacking back and uprooting, smothering or even spraying, but in the end its like trying to direct and contain a river, and we know how that goes.
So then what if we roll with it? Let the patches emerge where they will, set seed, volunteer, the whole nine yards? In a healthy, complete ecosystem (old growth forest, grassland etc), this would present no problem. Equilibrium would be achieved and maintained, niches filled, and all would be kosher. But in disturbed landscapes and manufactured gardens, opportunist plants would quickly outcompete all others, desirable and not, and we’d be left with desolate and homogenized spaces dominated by a small number of rapacious weed species, smothering all else.
Safe to say though that most of us aren’t working with ancient, intact ecosystems, so what do we do? We push and we pull. Maybe we cede a little ground to a patch of yarrow, divert our path around an emerging stand of nettles, give over a plot in our garden to self-seeding arugula or cilantro. By generally increasing the incidence of desirable plants in a given area — with intention, fitting them into natural garden niches, e.g. ground cover, low shrubs, shade trees, climbing vines etc — the better they will grow to support one another and the garden ecosystem more broadly.
We are one among the many species putting in work and reaping reward from the garden, and it will behoove us to work in tandem with those other species for the greater benefit of all. Gardening by brute force only ensures that the lionshare of labor falls squarely on us, whereas a light touch will allow for that labor to settle more evenly across all players involved. By letting things come and go, live out their cycles and reseed, go dormant and reemerge, the garden is allowed to provide its own shade and mulch, fix nitrogen, reduce erosion and return organic material to the soil as fallen annuals and dropped leaves decay.
There are additional measures we can take to eradicate or reduce the numbers of unwanted species in the garden. We can introduce other species that will outcompete, crowd or even consume them. We can smother them with mulch. We can tweak the conditions of a given area by increasing or reducing shade, diverting water or altering the nutritional or pH composition of the soil. Whatever we do, we will achieve best results by gentle shaping rather than brute force, so long as we remain open to however that shaping may play out. A river may be diverted, but it cannot be contained.
There are also steps that we can take, sometimes even whole seasons in advance, to prepare a bed or area for some future planting. If, for example, we hope to install a vegetable bed in an area that is currently hardpacked, infertile or simply rife with weeds and vines, we might do a preliminary clearing of the area and then plant it out with covercrop to generate biomass which will then decay, preparing the soil over time.
This isn’t selfless. We want something from our garden — food, flowers, fiber, beauty, shade — and this is how we get it without breaking our backs or the bank.