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Gardening, for me, is about creating a little wildlife refuge in the city and meditating while I do it. This page is about my garden and my philosophy toward gardening.
How I became a gardener
When I was a child I had no interest in gardening. Gardening consisted of being sent outside to pull weeds in the hot noon sun in my motherís garden. My motherís garden was mostly annuals that I found distinctly unattractive. She would take me with her to the nursery, but she never bought anything I suggested; she always seemed to go with the garishly colored striped petunias, some pink and white, some purple and white. I thought they were hideous -- they looked like a circus tent. They did not bring out my nurturing instincts.
When my husband and I bought a townhouse in Ann Arbor in 1990, we were both pleased that neither of us would have to do any yard work, that being the responsibility of a maintenance crew. We had a black cherry tree next to our deck in the back yard and an elm tree in the front outside the dining room window. Squirrels would chase each other up the cherry tree, across the roof, down the elm, back up the elm, back across the roof, down the cherry tree, and back and forth countless times. They kept us well amused. There was a bed in front with some hollies, and a lilac, and some other shrubs I couldnít name. And there was a bunch of mulch. It wasnít that attractive, but I didnít have to do any work, and I got to watch the squirrels. I bought a bird feeder. I was happy.
Our townhouse in 1990
In July of 1993 my husband and I went to a family reunion at his Aunt Eileenís house in Ludington. Or more accurately, in her back yard. Her garden was just...this...magical place. I was enchanted. I canít remember specific plants other than lots of lilies, but the overall effect was just magical. It was beautiful. The colors, the textures, the varying heights...it changed me.
When winter came, I found myself checking out gardening books from the library. I learned the difference between annuals and perennials. I learned that I lived at the far south edge of zone 5. I learned about microclimates. I looked at pictures of various plants and learned which ones were likely to do well if I planted them in my garden. What beautiful pictures I found! I started making a list of things I wanted to buy when the nurseries opened in the spring. Sedum ĎAutumn Joy.í Joe Pye Weed. Violets. Salvia ĎEast Friesland.í Red valerian. Spiderwort. I know there were others, but these are the plants that are still in my garden after all these years.
The Evolution of My Garden
As time went on I added more. Daylilies. Balloon flower. Black-eyed Susan. Asiatic lilies. Yarrow. Lambís ears. Lavender. Shasta daisies. Clematis jackmanii. Veronica. A couple different kinds of heuchera. I planted annuals in the spring to fill in the gaps between the perennials that I knew would eventually grow larger. In the fall I planted bulbs to come up the following spring. Daffodils. Dwarf irises. Grape hyacinths. Species tulips. Chionodoxa. I added a bird bath and another bird feeder. I was happy.
Eventually I ran into the problem every gardener runs into. I was running out of room. Hmm. You know, there were an awful lot of shrubs in this bed that werenít very interesting. They didnít have flowers or berries or attractive fall foliage...they were just sitting there, taking up an awful lot of space...being rather ugly actually...so, I put in a request for someone to come remove the ones I specified, and by gum, the request was approved. Someone came and removed the ugly things! Cool! I now had several additional square feet for flowers!
Eventually I began to look at the space in the back where there was just grass and bare dirt and a few weeds, and I thought I could put that to much better use. I dug up the grass, learning in the process that my soil was heavy clay (ugh!), making a bed that gracefully curved from the porch at the end of the building around to the back and past the cherry tree and the deck, and the space between my deck and the edge of my property (what would be my property if I owned the land. I only own the inside. If I owned the outside, I sure wouldnít have a lawn!). It was about 3 feet out from the building on the side of the deck near the front door, and 12 feet out on the far side at the farthest point, the farthest I was allowed to go out. I planted lilies, astilbe, monkshood, ostrich fern, hosta, a beautiful rosebush called ĎAustrian Copperí (usually I donít really care for roses, but this one really struck my fancy. The flowers are singles, and they resemble wild roses, not the over-bred froufrou hybrid monsters that usually come to mind when I think of roses. This one is a very old rose, introduced before 1590. The flowers are a bright, yet soft orange. Theyíre beautiful), bleeding heart, primroses, purple coneflowers, gaillardia, goldenrod, more clematis, two callicarpas and lots more daffodils.
After a few more years I felt that I was running out of room again. Even though I had several pots on the deck, and I had plants squeezed in about as tightly as possible (hey, no room for weeds, right? Well, almost...), I still kept seeing plants at the nursery I just fell in love with, or I read about certain plants that butterflies just couldnít resist, or that birds loved. I made the back larger, bringing it farther out from the building. The end points remained in the same locations, and the edge still curved gracefully, but it curved further from the building, giving me more room to work with. I added some daylilies, black-eyed Susans, asters, irises, coreopsis, sidalcea, salvia ĎBlue Hill,í columbine and astilbe. And another bird bath.
The elm tree died, which wasnít too surprising, I guess, but it was heart-wrenching. We had a very long heat wave, during which I mostly stayed inside. When we finally got a cool morning, I went for a walk, and as I returned on the opposite side of the street, I stopped in my tracks when I saw our half-dead elm. My jaw dropped, and I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. It was a horrible feeling. I walked over and put my arms around my dear friend, tears streaming down my face.
The dead tree was cut down the following September, leaving a large area of my garden trampled, looking like it was in mourning. The stump was a good 3 feet across. The following spring I put a barrel planter on it with bamboo poles in it and planted morning glories. It was no elm tree, but I needed something tall there. It would have to do for now.
I had the ugly, overgrown yews by the front door removed, and I planted a pyracantha on one side to hide the garbage can and to provide cover for the birds. On the other side, along the front walk, I planted various perennials, with ligularia ĎThe Rocketí providing height. Much more interesting.
After a few years the stump was mostly rotted away, so I gave away the barrel planter, hacked up the rotting stump (which was really fun! It was in various stages of decay, so there were all these different textures...it was so cool!) and planted a red-twig dogwood there. I transplanted violets from elsewhere in the garden to use as a groundcover around the dogwood. The dogwood is still small, but there are two other dogwoods near the front sidewalk that are quite large. I think this one will catch up in a few years. I love their red bark in winter.
Gardening for Wildlife
When I first started gardening, I just picked plants I liked. When I was reading about a potential plant for my garden, it was certainly a bonus if a plant attracted butterflies or birds, but I wasnít specifically looking for that. Over time though, as I did more reading, I found so many plants that did attract butterflies and birds, it seemed kind of silly to bother with ones that didnít.
I learned that native plants offer wildlife what they need. There are certainly some introduced species that are also beneficial to wildlife, but the plants often take over, displacing native species that certain animals need to survive. There is a difference between a garden and nature preserve, and Iím not getting rid of every introduced species in my garden, but I try to go with more native plants when possible now. I was pleased to learn that a lot of the plants that I got when I first started gardening were natives. I probably wouldnít use some of the non-native plants I have now if I was starting a new garden, but theyíre established, theyíre beautiful, and theyíre not actually invasive. Some of the plants in my garden were actually invasive, and I removed them.
When I choose plants now, they have to be beneficial to wildlife, either providing food for butterflies or birds, or providing cover for birds. They also have to require virtually no care after the first season. Thatís the other advantage of native species. Theyíre adapted to the region. Iím not going to pamper some wussy plant that just isnít meant to live in my alkaline clay soil.
I feel that weíve displaced so much wildlife habitat by paving over half the country with shopping malls and parking lots and putting up one subdivision after another with their sterile lawns that are no better than parking lots, that we owe it to animals to recreate as much habitat for them as we can. We owe it to birds to plant trees and shrubs to provide cover and fruit, flowers that provide seeds for them to eat and nectar for butterflies and bees, densely planted areas or even brush piles for small mammals to hide, and a source of water.
Needless to say, I donít use chemicals. I have no use for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or any other -cides. Why would I entice wild creatures to my garden and then poison them? I think lawn services that go around spraying toxic chemicals all over people's lawns should be outlawed. Last summer I kept seeing a truck for one of these services while riding my bike to work. The truck had a large photograph of a dog on it, which was supposed to represent the wholesome outdoor activity of playing outside with your dog, I suppose. I had recently read a newspaper article that said dogs living in households that used these lawn services were twice as likely to get cancer. Every time I saw this truck, I was infuriated. I ended up yelling at the truck, You should be illegal!
My garden is quite lush due to rabbit manure, fish tank waste, compost, and mulch. If insects destroy something, so be it.
Gardening for Mental Health
Gardening has been very therapeutic for me as a person with depression. It wasnít until I started gardening that I really believed in the possibility of a future that might be better than the present. With gardening, youíre always looking toward the future. You plant something with the expectation that it will grow. It might not look like much this year, but next year or the year after it will. Or you plant a tiny little seed, and miracle of miracles, the sweet little thing germinates!
Gardening is a form of meditation for me. I need to be alone when I garden. Occasionally neighbors come over when Iím gardening and start talking to me, and I try not to be rude, but Iím always hoping theyíll go away. I just canít garden and talk to people at the same time. Gardening is meditation.
Amazingly, the most meditative task has been weeding, that chore I hated when I was a kid. Now I find it relaxing, nurturing, calming. I think the difference is I care about the plants in my garden. There arenít any pink and white striped petunias (if there were, Iíd consider them weeds and pull them out). Also I try to work in the shade. I can spend hours weeding now. Sometimes Iíll start weeding, intending to do it for just a few minutes, and eventually I have to stop because itís getting too dark to see.
I think people need to spend time outside connecting with the Earth to be mentally healthy. This can be walking in the woods, sitting next to a river, or working in a garden, but we need to really focus on the plants and the animals and feel the air and hear the water. If we donít do this with enough frequency, we wonít be mentally healthy.
Wild Ones -- an organization advocating landscaping with native plants. Lots of information about native plants in the Midwest.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden Gardening for Wildlife page -- articles on attracting wildlife.
National Wildlife Federationís Backyard Wildlife Habitat program -- information on creating habitat. Includes database of native plants, searchable by region and type, as well as by individual plant name.
Plants In Motion -- really cool site full of time-lapse photography showing plants doing the things plants do with informative, easy to understand descriptions of whatís going on written by a plant biologist.
TLC Cat Garden
-- my friend Monica designed this enclosed Cat Garden for the Zimmer Foundation. Itís filled with plants that cats especially enjoy.
Sprout a Couch: Lawn Furniture for Literalists
-- instructions for making a sod couch. Thatís a use for grass I wouldnít mind.
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