Answers to your gardening questions
effective Deer Fence!
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't ask the question, "What can I plant in my garden that looks natural but doesn't take a lot of care?" It almost seems like trends are shifting from bright and colorful mixed borders in strong sunlight to more subtle, more natural (and shady) plantings of types more frequently found in "Nature."
But whether the plan is for a sheltered nook, a secret garden graced with delicate ferns, orchids, jack-in-the-pulpits and mosses, or a sprawling meadow of wildflowers to attract birds and butterflies, there are some difficulties which must be overcome, and elements to be considered, before the actual work of planting begins.
Probably the most carefree natural planting is the wildflower meadow. In most cases, it is also the easiest to prepare and plant. Little needs to be done to the soil because, generally, it has usually been mowed forever and already has the basics: adequate nutrition, ample light, enough existing cover to have prevented moisture loss and soil erosion, and may well already contain a number of very attractive wildflowers. And, probably, enormous quantities of weeds and weed seeds...not to mention invasive berry vines.
Here's the story about Weeds! They Can Be Conquered!
Ok...we've beaten back the weeds. Imagine a sweeping vista from the porch or deck, extending across a gentle slope...a virtual sea of warm-season color, and cold-season textures and shapes. One of the most stunning appears every spring in Dark Harbor (on Islesboro in Penobscot Bay). Ten acres (at least) of the densest planting of lupines I've ever seen! Later the scene evolves into marguerite daisies, then to a flood of cheerful brown-eyed-susans. And easy care to boot: an annual fall mowing to prevent takeovers by brambles and brush, and an occasional mowing of a meandering path through this ever-changing ocean of natural color makes it all happen year after year.
...is the first consideration. Mowed close and maintained smooth and safe (engineered to avoid large stones and stumps), the path provides ready access for those occasional, therapeutic strolls through your own little patch of peaceful nature. A path should be no more than twice mower width, so the weekly job of mowing amounts to a once-out, once-back pass.
If a large tree rests at the side of your wildflower meadow, providing a little shade, all the better! Bend the path to pass beneath it, make a wide-spot and provide a bench, stump or large stone to just sit a spell and take in the beauty.
Meadow wildflowers neither require, nor care for, fertilizer. They like it lean and hungry. In most cases, adding plant food will do more harm than good - growth of non-flowering weeds and invasive grasses will literally explode if fed. In my opinion, even a light sprinkling of Miracle-Gro would be a tragic misadventure in a wildflower meadow!
An exception to the no-fertilizer restriction would be in cases where soil has received unusual abuse by repeated fires, floods or depletion. In those all-to-often occurrences of previous soil mismanagement, the addition of some form of organic matter like farm manure or compost (not peat moss) would be beneficial and restore "life." At any rate, avoid using miracle-working plant foods.
Before choosing which plants or types to include in your wildflower meadow, it would be a good idea to wander through other "wild" areas to see which varieties do well in your soil type and hardiness zone. Consider your personal likes and tastes. Notice light conditions, drainage, moisture requirements (rainfall), soil and the presence of wildlife. There are basically two types of meadow plants: grasses and forbs (non-grass plants such as daisies, hawkweed, poppies, cornflowers and the like).
A tip: those incredibly expensive canned assortments of wildflower seeds are just not worth it! Most are more grass than anything else, plus seeds of species which are not hardy in our northern New England minus-20-degree winters. Some are highly invasive and pernicious.
After the second tilling, rake out the area to make it relatively smooth, and broadcast your seed as evenly as possible, working in two directions to reduce the likelihood of missed areas. Gently rake again to lightly cover seeds with soil and, if you can, pull a roller over the sown area to make certain the seeds are in close contact with the soil. Next, I'd recommend you apply a loose organic mulch, like straw, to protect germinating seeds and prevent them from washing away in a heavy rain. Don't use baled farm-hay as a mulch, or you'll end up with the hayfield you probably started with.
Finally, unless there's a decent rain cloud in sight, water it all in by sprinkling thoroughly, and maintain soil moisture for another two to three weeks by daily waterings. Once seedlings appear, water twice a week for about a month; then once a week for another two months. That should do the trick.
Dealing With Difficult Seeds
Recall that most wildflowers mature and drop their seeds in the fall. Generally, before many seeds can germinate, they must either over-winter through the chill of January and February to "break dormancy," or be "processed" in the digestive system of some bird or animal to degrade an otherwise water-impermeable coating.
Since neither is practical, under the circumstances, we humans must "trick" them into thinking one or more of those pre-germination requirements have been fulfilled. Lupine seeds, for example need to be "scarified" (have their outer coating nicked or scratched) so moisture can enter. In addition to that, a good overnight soaking in water will set them up for signs of growth in about five to seven days. Actually, I'd rather germinate lupines indoors about a month or more before they're to be set outdoors. That way they aren't a convenient snack for the hoards of mice and birds which frequent most wild areas.
Other types of seeds must be chilled for x-number of days or weeks before they'll sprout. That's called stratification, and most suppliers of wildflower seed will either do that for you or advise you on just how long they're to be chilled. It's usually best to moisten seeds before chilling. Just remember that once a seed is moistened, the process of germination has begun; allowing it to dry out - even for as little as a day - will very likely cause it to discontinue that process...and die.
Very fine seeds are nearly impossible to scatter evenly. If they're first mixed with very fine sand or something like cornmeal (sand will work best) you'll get much better distribution.
Wildflower meadows are usually self-maintaining, requiring only annual mowing late in the fall after seeds have matured on the plants or have dropped to the ground. You'll want to rake up the coarsest "hay," leaving only a thin layer as a mulch. On the other hand, some meadow-gardeners find the grasses and seed-heads which poke up through the snow during winter to be appealing, plus provide winter food for birds and small wildlife. In that case, mow very early in the spring. Chances are fall mowing will be better for the dormant plants and fallen seeds - they'll get natural protection from the mulch remaining after all the brushy-stuff is cleaned off. Do your cleaning before any bulb foliage appears.
Some authorities advocate burning to remove annual growth. I don't. It's just too painful to see valuable - if not precious - organic matter go up in smoke and fly-ash that'll likely-as-not end up in the lake, bay or on someone's damp laundry. If you feel that a layer of ash on your natural wildflower meadow would be beneficial, scatter some wood ashes from yours or a neighbor's fireplace or furnace. Protecting what remains of precious organic matter is part of being a responsible steward of the Earth.
This one is pretty much a personal matter. I'd recommend you look closely at fields and meadows near your home to see which suit your likes or thrive in your local climate and conditions. Here are a few to seriously consider: solidago (goldenrod); gaillardia (blanket flower); lupine (of course!); liatris (blazing star); echinacea (purple, white or pink coneflower); eupatorium maculatum (joe-pye weed); marguerite daisies; annual cosmos in a striking blend of colors; asclepias (butterfly weed - a variation of the common milkweed); centaurea (blue bachelor's buttons); New England aster; hemerocallis (tawny or lemon daylily); rudbeckia (black-eyed-susans in a number of different varieties); eschscholzia (California poppy); loosestrife; papaver (various perennial poppies); naturalized foxgloves; and, of course, what meadow would be complete without dandelions and Indian paintbrushes!
In addition to all these (and many more) don't forget various types of annual and perennial grasses. There are lots to choose from.
Large garden centers and "farm 'n garden" stores generally stock selections of appropriate seeds, either individually or in mixes. But don't forget your friends, neighbors or the farm down the road. As long as you ask first, most gardeners and farmers would be delighted to share a few of their wildflower seeds with you.
A Low-Maintenance Shady RetreatNow that we've designed, and at least planned our wildflower meadow, let's move beyond the typical flower bed or border, into a more private—more secluded and possibly deeply-shaded—"secret" garden. A place where a tired mind can find escape; a quiet place to simply unwind; a place where more pressing concerns seem to vanish...if but for a few precious moments.
A neighbor of ours plants a little "secret garden" for her children every year. Made from a densely-planted circle of tall sunflowers and under-planted with soft grasses and bordering annuals, it's a perfect - and favored - hideout or place for private youthful games and youthful tea parties. A small gap is allowed in the circle for entry; sun filters through a veritable cloud of giant, golden petals atop tall, strong stems and huge deep green leaves; and all is crowned with the sound of hummingbirds, bees and, later in the season, seed-eating birds, all going about the daily business of survival. What wonderful lessons to be learned! Infinitely preferable to hour after hour, day after summer day parked in front of the TV or video game like little mindless automatons!
For us adults, principles of location, design, planting and maintenance of our secret garden are slightly more complex but none-the-less achievable and satisfying. Rather than list details and specifics, from here on, your own imagination will dictate exactly where your secret place will be and how it'll be planted and furnished.
Early morning sun is so-o-o-o welcome and refreshing, and most shady-garden plants relish the return of revitalizing warmth and light. Later in the day, when "Old Sol" is high in the western sky, more shade is appreciated by both plants and gardeners.
Tucked beneath a canopy of forest green, under-planted with mosses, ferns, tiny wildflowers, toads and toadstools, such a shady retreat is almost totally self-sustaining - once properly prepared and planted.
Depending on the type of plants you prefer in your secret garden, soil is either allowed to remain unamended, or modified to support a wider variety of non-forest types. Ferns, mosses, ladyslippers, wood violets and the like prefer humusy, fairly acidy soil and seem well adapted to dealing with tree root competition.
Cultivated annuals and perennials, on the other hand, normally require some "help" in dealing with woodland problems. Roots must be cut and removed; additional soil - high in organic matter - may need to be hauled in; extra nutritional elements may be required; soil pH (acidity/alkalinity) will doubtless need adjusting to more favorable levels; weeds - some of them highly invasive - may be a serious, time-consuming and recurring problem. Add the usual chores of dead-heading, pruning, staking, watering and relocating hoards of slugs and snails, and your quiet retreat may become a serious trial to be avoided.
Yes, keeping it "natural" does seem to be the sensible approach.
Create a pleasant entry and path; open an appropriate "clearing" large enough to accommodate a comfortable bench and a surrounding carpet of native plant life (one of the most appealing ground covers for such a shady retreat was seen in the gardens of Lyle Littlefield in Monroe: Bronze Beauty Ajuga interplanted with Japanese Primroses and Kennilworth Ivy. Very nice); add the soothing tinkle of falling or splashing water if you like; perhaps a suitable piece of statuary - maybe a stone toad, mushroom or flop-eared bunny.
Naturally, the culture of plants in shady locations comes with it's own set of sometimes difficult problems. Since the environment is usually acidic and moist, slugs and various rots and mildews can quickly take their toll. Soil in moist areas frequently compacts and becomes clogged with dense mats of tree roots. And, there's always the temptation to push or pull Nature in a direction she'd prefer not to travel. Fertilizer is rarely needed and, since moisture is usually inherent, watering is kept to a minimum.
Since it's to be a "native" garden, if appropriate plants aren't already there, search out the kinds you like. Keep in mind that plants are where they are in nature because they like it there. You'll need to very nearly duplicate the conditions it was growing in when you found it. Caution should be exercised in digging plants from the wild. While few are actually protected or endangered, many professional gardeners might be alarmed at seeing delicate, dug-from-the-wild rare and unusual plants in your garden.
I suggest you visit any of the credible and reliable plant nurseries in your area which deal in cultivated wildflowers for shade or partial shade. And, while you're there, pick their brains about preferred conditions, culture and nutritional requirements. Make your secret, shady wildflower retreat the very best it can be. You'll find it satisfying...and rewarding!
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