3 March 2010
In The Garden With the Fluvanna Master Gardeners
By Irene C. Burke - Fluvanna Master Gardener
Fluvanna County Extension Office: 434.591.1950
Invite the wild and dynamic garden to your landscape party this spring. Use ecological succession to loosely manage which plants will dominate and how long they will stay.
Ecological succession defines the change process found in any plant community, wild or contrived, like your garden, where plants naturally emerge, gain dominance, and sometimes vanish with minimal editing by you.
You decide what gets planted and when. Welcome the gatecrashers or those that change their location, adding graceful, even jagged shapes, textures and layers.
In the several stages of succession, land in the Eastern U.S. transforms itself from cultivated garden to field to forest. Often weather events interrupt the process when wind and ice uproot trees, heavy torrents wash away soil, and lightning scorches them all.
Mowing and weeding delay the process, but setting-in meadow grasses, trees, and shrubs accelerate the drive toward the forest climax.
Selecting self-sowing annuals and perennials, and encouraging shrubs' floppy branches to root, takes the process further, faster. Choose subsequent volunteers that show robust promise as you edit the scraggly. Not all seedlings need continue. Some will take themselves out; some need your deft hand.
If you have trouble identifying seedlings, let them reveal themselves, then thin. There are no picture books for this. Your best bet is to slog through Google™ images online and create your own encyclopedia with printouts.
Warning: In the case of exotic invasives (the kudzu vine and Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)) the trend exceeds the speed limit because there are no effective natural controls. These must never be allowed to gain a presence in your landscape.
To plan for your wild and dynamic garden, survey the land for a suitable site. Succession will take the garden from sun to shade if you allow tree seedlings to stay; or from shade to sun with your editorial intervention - pruning, weeding and mowing.
You decide the speed and stage of development. Time and budget determine the rate of transformation. The smaller the budget, the more time you have, the slower the pace, the more interesting the process, because you watch the land renew itself. For one year, neither mow nor weed nor prune. This is observation time.
Leave no soil bare: Wind and water will take it away, not a good thing. A 3-inch mulch of shredded leaves from nearby trees and shrubs will serve to warm and cool until seeds above send down roots while impatient nuts and acorns propel shoots up. The earthen bed should be spared compaction from man and machine. You could define its limits with a roughened border of logs and rocks, which nurse soil fungi with captive moisture and inches of shade.
Though well-behaved, nonnative, noninvasive species have been on this continent since colonial times (dessert apples, English boxwood, hollyhocks, German rhododendrons), for your wild side, consider indigenous species. Check the list of native plants suitable for Virginia's piedmont at the Website for Virginia's Department of Conservation, Restoration and Landscaping http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/nativeplants.shtml.
Tip of the Week
Soil can be "worked" when it is lightly moist almost dry, not soggy or wet. Treading on and tilling or working wet earth compacts the soil destroying microbes, worms, fungi and other beneficial creatures. The crushed air pockets damage plant roots and encourage the spread of harmful organisms root rot, for example.