Gardening with nature

For years my wife and I have discussed clearing a section of the forest that borders the garden. When I say that we’ve discussed this project, my wife envisions a splendid shady spot to lounge on a sweltering summer afternoon, and I imagine the additional labor required to clear and maintain this space. So, along with so many other plans, this one has been postponed indefinitely.Spicebush

In fact, while my wife thinks clearing, I think more about managing the understory growth to add and subtract so that some area of the forest that borders the garden is partially tamed. Now, beneath the towering swamp maples, black gums, and tulip poplars are areas of briars and brambles, a few Burning bush (Euonymous alatus) that have seeded from neighborhood gardens, masses of native spicebush (Lindera benzoin, above), and scattered sassafras, Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum, below) American holly (Ilex opaca), and dogwoods (Cornus florida). There’s very little of the ground cover layer that hasn’t been eaten by deer. At one time before the forest was thinned through logging by the developer, much of the area was covered in Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), but sadly there are only a few scattered remnants.Viburnum

At the low end of the garden where the soil remains damp there are skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus, below) and Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but if I work up the motivation to expand the garden into the forest the drier area closest to the house is most likely where I’ll begin. The hold up at this point is how much energy I must devote to this area, while still keeping the rest of the garden in some semblance of order. But, recently I’ve been encouraged by noting the beauty of native flora while my wife and I hike nearby trails in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.Skunk cabbage in early April

The obvious question is, why should I mess with this natural area at all when it is managing well enough as is? (Except for the few invasives that have encroached.) Besides the work, this is why I’ve been satisfied not to undertake this project. But, as I see areas along trails that have not been denuded by deer, I realize that through twenty five years in the garden I’ve hardly taken notice of the spicebushes and viburnums that are only a few feet from our home. And, while I had long considered purchasing a few paw paws, I’ve too seldom waded through the thorns to know that there were a few scattered beside the creek that would be the outer boundary of this expanded garden.Paw paw

The worst of the project (and as I see it, a good reason to hesitate in starting at all) is hacking out the brambles and multiflora roses, which is likely to be slow and perhaps bloody. My legs and arms display too many scars already from not dressing appropriately when undertaking similar prickly tasks, but once the thorns are grubbed out there’s a good base of spicebush to get started with. To this I imagine adding to the few small paw paws (Asimina triloba, above), with the hope that these will colonize as they do in the local forest. Though American witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) are less common locally, a few will flower splendidly along the less shaded border. Perhaps I can encourage the scattered sassafras (Sassafras albidum, below) seedlings with marvelous lobed foliage to make more of a show, but if not I could plant several more along the edges.Sassafras

If this project is undertaken it must be with idea that once it’s planted, I’ll do little or nothing to take care of it besides weed out the worst of the brambles that will inevitably return. The spicebushes and paw paws will take care of themselves, as they’ve always done, but introducing a ground cover will make maintenance of the area more manageable. It seems unlikely that mayapples can be reintroduced without greatly expanding the budget, but native Sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis, below) can possibly be encouraged to spread further once the clutter of briars and brambles are removed.

In the middle of this, one open area will be left for my wife to luxuriate in this shady paradise. She’ll be very pleased.Sensitive fern

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