Gardening for the benefit of backyard wildlife has its upside, especially for someone who doesn’t have unlimited time to spend in a garden.
Leaving leaves unraked and bushes untrimmed is definitely less demanding than keeping a manicured lawn neat and tidy.
But as I checked out my suburban lawn in mid-April, I was disturbed by what was happening: Monster dandelions were taking over!
I don’t mean a few cute yellow blooms amid a sea of green. Instead, there was very little grass but dozens – no, hundreds, perhaps thousands – of dandelions rising up a foot or more in stature. Like an East Coast version of California’s 2017 Super Bloom, the mild, wet weather had produced an extremely prolific and hardy weed.
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Add to that the fact that I no longer was re-seeding my lawn annually or using chemicals to feed the grass, those broadleaf weeds were having a literal field day. And I also took note of chickweed, oxalis and other invasives growing alongside the statuesque dandelions.
I’ve since learned that my conundrum is fairly common among natural-leaning gardeners: How can you have an attractive garden or lawn without using pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other substances that alter the biological balance of nature?
On Monday, after my frenzy of weed-pulling that made only a fractional impact on the dandelion explosion, I spoke with Dale Batchelor, a longtime Triangle gardener who now runs a gardening business called Gardener by Nature.
Of course, she was familiar with the problem and also had information about a movement pushing the natural gardening community toward a more layered gardening concept. It creates beautiful landscapes using communities of plants that are chosen because they can live together in a well-functioning ecosystem, rather than individual specimens with sometimes varying soil, moisture or sun requirements.
With slight variances, the concept can be referred to as matrix gardening, enhanced nature gardening, American-style gardening or by other monikers. The common emphasis is a diverse, well-chosen array of plant species that form a biological community for sustainability and one that is nurturing of bees, birds and other wildlife at a given site.
This concept moves garden planning and design away from formal hedgerow-based landscapes and beds filled with annuals for a more, as I like to think of it, glamorized version of nature. While planning must be detailed and complex, including many environmental factors, once established, these gardens thrive more easily than a traditional plan, Batchelor said.
“It’s the direction that most sustainable gardeners are moving,” she added.
How it works
In the eco-garden, the ground-cover layer is followed by seasonal flowers, structural plants like shrubs, larger perennials and trees. One may even choose to include a patch of lawn or non-native plants, if they can live in harmony with their botanical neighbors.
Landscape architect and garden blogger Thomas Rainer and nursery industry professional Claudia West lay it all out in their 2016 book titled “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.” By using layers of plants to create a mini-ecosystem, the pair writes, the garden can provide year-round interest, while requiring less maintenance than traditional gardens.
According to Batchelor, the basics of the concept can be thought of as “nature abhors a vacuum” or “Earth is meant to be covered in plants.” Planting the ones you want will make it easier to keep out the ones you don’t want.
With ground covering providing the first layer of any garden system, it’s only a matter of time before less desirable plants – i.e. weeds – will naturally fill in when the opportunity arises. That’s what happened in my lawn this year.
Now that I have a better grasp of the factors at work, I will have to decide the best course for the future, and either find a non-ecologically harmful way to resurrect my grass or start outlining ways that my yard’s micro environments – from the sunny south to the shady north – may be transformed.